Isaac Zablocki, 38, plays a key role in determining which Israeli films, and others dealing with the Mideast conflict, are shown in New York. As a result his choices are the subject of praise and criticism, often based more on a viewer’s politics than sense of aesthetics. Born in New York and raised in Israel before settling here, he is director of film programs at the JCC in Manhattan; director and co-founder of the ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival, which had a successful run last month; founder and director of the Israel Film Center; and executive director of The Other Israel Film Festival, which seeks to bridge the Arab-Israeli cultural divide through film. Zablocki was interviewed at the JCC. This is an edited transcript.
Q: How do you decide what films to choose for the various festivals you help put together?
A: Quality is the No. 1 issue. The message plays a part, as does a timely topic, and we’re not afraid of showing tough films [in terms of their portrayal of Israel]. But the bottom line is quality.
How do you deal with controversy regarding films, including Israelis ones, which depict Israel in a negative light?
We think of the JCC as our living room, and an appropriate place for people to come to watch and then discuss. We often have conversations after a screening, which might include talking about the context of the film. A lot depends on how you introduce the film, how you prepare your audience and set the tone for questions and answers. That can begin with the right moderator, who asks questions in a productive way. I think it’s important to see films with which you may disagree, so you can understand the other side.
Some refer to the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel to describe how Jews deal with tough issues — part wrestling, part hugging.
I identify with that image, and in a sense Israel is wrestling with itself when its creative artists make these films and people come to see them. The problem will be when we stop wrestling, and stop hugging. American Jews are more afraid of that kind of wrestling than Israelis. Here in the U.S. there is a strong sense of political correctness, of staying within the boundaries. Israelis are more willing to cross those boundaries. They are more direct, more open.
Some say that Israeli films, while greatly improved in quality, are consistently left of center in their point of view. Is that accurate, and if so, why?
People often say to me, “Show me balance.” And it is true that there is a lack of well-made Israeli films with a right-wing point of view. More often the filmmakers are liberal, perhaps that’s the nature of artists. There are also too few films from an Orthodox perspective, with several notable exceptions. But at the JCC we also show mainstream, high-quality Israeli films for audiences not interested in controversy.
Are there any red lines for what films you will show?
The controversies are mostly about the depiction of minorities being mistreated, especially the Arab population. There are certain films we have chosen not to screen, like one about a Jewish Holocaust denier, or “Rachel: An American Conscience,” the 2009 documentary about Rachel Corrie, a young peace activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli tank while protesting the demolition of homes in Gaza. That film didn’t add to the conversation or debate, and it was not a quality film. It seemed intent on aggravating the audience. And the same goes for a number of Palestinian films.
The JCC doesn’t support BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel). As the lines get blurry, the JCC is constantly monitoring this situation.
Overall, I don’t try to solve problems [by showing controversial films]. I try to show good films and promote discussions.