Most of us need to be reminded — frequently — that only 80 percent of the population of Israel consists of Jews. The other 20 percent is defined collectively as Arab Citizens of Israel. Most of them are Muslim or Christian, and they come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds such as Druze and Bedouin. Their voices are not heard very often here in the United States, but, as The Other Israel Film Festival powerfully affirms, they bring a lot to the cultural table.
The razor-thin division between self-realization and assimilation that every multicultural nation faces is all the more tenuous for a nation like Israel that often seems to be at war with itself, not to mention in a seemingly perpetual war with its neighbors.
The films on display at the festival, which opens its inaugural run this week, are a diverse group. They range from the intense claustrophobia of Tawfik Abu Wael’s family melodrama “Atash (Thirst)” and Uri Barabash’s seminal prison thriller “Behind the Walls,” to the frenzy of “Close to Home” by Dalia Hagar and Vidi Bilu, from the dry wit and gentle poignancy of Eran Riklis’ “The Syrian Bride” to the full-hearted romanticism of “A Trumpet in the Wadi,” directed by Lina & Slava Chaplin.
Several of the feature films in this series are fairly well-known. “Behind the Walls,” an important breakthrough film when it was first released in 1984, is a somber tale of corruption in a maximum-security prison. “Close to Home,” “The Syrian Bride” and “Trumpet” have already made the rounds of festivals and enjoyed some theatrical success here. “Atash” received exuberantly favorable reviews that compared it to the films of Luis Bunuel and Arturo Ripstein, although, to my knowledge, it has never been released theatrically in the States.
The short films and documentaries, on the other hand, are less well known, and while I cannot recommend the features highly enough (if you are a reader of Jewish Week and haven’t seen “Bride” by now, I’m shocked), it is to the less publicized offerings that I turn my attention.
The documentary “No Longer Achmad” is the latest film from David Deri, whose superb fiction film “Until Tomorrow Comes” has been the highlight of the Sephardic Film Festival here for two years running. Deri returns to his roots with the new film, a 54-minte meditation on the nature of personal identity. The title figure is Achmad Hamdun, a young Arab Israeli who grew up with his clan/family in a Western Galilee village they have occupied for over a century. They live adjacent to Kibbutz Lotem, and Achmad has found a second home and family there. He has changed his name to Meidan Sadeh and he works and lives on the kibbutz with a Jewish family who has all but adopted him.
Deri explores the dilemma of this appealing young man in surprising depth, given the brevity of the film. We meet both his families and experience his growing unease as he shuttles between his two worlds. At one point he tells the filmmakers, “I don’t have half a life, this [the kibbutz] is my life,” but by the end of the film, he has moved back in with his mother, to her great delight. “No Longer Achmad” is a moving portrait of a soul caught between two worlds, unable to give up either or to fully commit to one.
“On Hold” by Rokaya Sabbah explores similar ambivalence and ambiguity almost to death. For most of the film’s 57 minutes, Sabbah and her boyfriend Jameel discuss the ramifications of their decision to expatriate themselves to Spain after seeking the opinion of family, friends and colleagues. Sabbah is the youngest daughter and Jameel is the only son in their respective families, and the pressure to stay that is exerted on them by relatives is powerful. By contrast, their contemporaries, other 20-somethings, are more diverse in their opinions. They range from the fellow Israeli Arab who declares, “I want to fight for the right to exist in this country. … I won’t be considered a second-class citizen,” to the arts curator who says that she is tired of being pressured to support more Palestinian art at the expense of Israeli Arab art. The talk is almost all good, intelligent and witty, but it does go on too long. Gradually, the artificiality of the premise becomes a dead weight on the film.
“Pickles” by Dalit Kimor, is an hour-long documentary that has already played the Israel Film Festival in the past week. The film recounts the two-year odyssey of a group of Muslim widows who decide to start their own business, manufacturing and marketing a range of pickled vegetables. “When a woman’s husband dies, must she die too?” asks Manira, one of the nine women involved in the venture. The women learned their pickling methods at their mothers’ knees and now they are using their traditional knowledge in a way that subtly subverts a tradition that oppresses them. The resulting failure of the business owes more to the difficulties of an under-capitalized start-up than to the sexual politics of Islam, but the film is compelling and frequently funny too.
Finally, “Shadya” by Roy Westler is a 52-minute portrait of Shadya Zoabi, a spunky, willful Israeli Arab woman who was the world’s Shotokan karate champion in 2003. Shadya is plagued by her obnoxious older brother, ostensibly an outraged Muslim, whose mask slips when he bluntly says, “I expect my wife to be home and have anything I want when I get back from work.” The film is too short and too impressionistic to give an adequate sense of how much of Shadya’s trouble is the product of her abrasive self-regard, but the final image of her, several months pregnant and painfully wistful, standing on a hill overlooking the home she has now made with her husband, is a moving one.
The Other Israel Film Festival opens Thursday, Nov. 8 and runs through Nov. 15 at several venues including the JCC in Manhattan (76th St. and Amsterdam Ave.), the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.) and Symphony Space (95th St. and Broadway). In addition to the film programs, there will be several other events including a live performance by the Arab Israeli hip-hop group DAM, photo exhibits, lectures and readings. For information, call (646) 505-5708 or go to www.otherisrael.org.