Contemplating the eighth edition of the Other Israel Film Festival, which opens Nov. 6, it occurs to me that the event, which underwent a subtle shift in focus a few years ago, has become a richer, more interesting program as a result. While the festival originally sought to showcase films by or about the segments of the Israeli population that were neither Jews nor Palestinians (and hence shunted to the margins of our perception of the country), it now presents the reality of “otherness” in Israeli society.
As a result, the festival has become an important venue for a wide range of Israeli-related films and an accurate reflection of the state of the nation’s cinema, without sacrificing its commitment to stories that we would otherwise not hear.
This year’s event is a splendid case in point, with a film from the Philippines (“Transit”), a film about Bedouin cousins trying to assimilate into Israeli society (“Invisibles”), a story of the last days of the Jewish community of Iraq drawn from an acclaimed novel (“The Dove Flyer”), and an impassioned history of the Israeli left (“On the Left”).
The fireworks, however, will probably be generated by a new documentary profiling the late, great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “Write Down, I Am an Arab,” directed by the Arab-Israeli Ibtisam Mara’ana Menuchin, a frequent contributor to the festival. One of her films, “77 Steps,” detailed her love affair and marriage to a Canadian Jewish oleh, so perhaps the central story of “Write Down” shouldn’t come as a surprise: Darwish’s relationship with Tamar Ben Ami, a Jewish woman, when the pair were in their 20s.
Neither that relationship nor Darwish’s two marriages to Rana Qabbani worked out, and the film suggests that the tensions between being a private person and a very public spokesperson were at the heart of Darwish’s failures in romantic love. That theme, a subtle undercurrent throughout the film, rises to the surface most powerfully when Ben Ami leaps to his defense in a newspaper interview after the controversy surrounding Darwish’s bitterly anti-Israeli poem sparked by what he believed to be excessive use of force during the first intifada. Deeply moved by her support after all the years, he got in contact with Ben Ami and urged her to meet him in Paris. After several botched rendezvous attempts, it became clear to her that Darwish was a prisoner of the Palestinian political agenda, unable to balance his personal desires against his professional obligations.
Perhaps that dichotomy is inevitable for a political poet. Watching Darwish negotiate the dilemma repeatedly, one is reminded of Pablo Neruda, among others, trying to apply the same poetics to songs of love and yearning and to anthems of resistance. As “Write Down, I Am an Arab” makes regretfully clear, there is a high cost to be paid for being a poet who is also a spokesperson for a cause.
At key points in “Write Down,” the soundtrack is filled with the resonant voice of the fine actor Makram Khoury. Khoury makes an even more impressive appearance as one of the principle antagonists in Joseph Pitchhadze’s deliriously dark comedy “Sweets.” Khoury plays Sallah, an Arab Christian entrepreneur who is stealthily grabbing the candy market away from his main Israeli competitor, Klausner (Shmuel Vilozny). Klausner is the kind of businessman who insists on seeing his industry through a rather over-broad global lens, telling his board there can be no surrender to the competition: “Nebuchadnezzar, Titus, Chelmniecki, Hitler? We won’t go like lambs to the slaughter!” It probably doesn’t help matters that Sallah’s primary financial backing comes from the unrepentant son of a Nazi war criminal (Michael Sarne), a man who screams as he has sex with his French mistress, “[This is] for Goethe, for Wagner, for my people, for my father! F*** the French!” She, on the other hand, continues with her reading.
Add into the mix a couple of aging assassins working for Klausner, and Sallah’s right-hand man (Menashe Noy), a deeply romantic Jew who sings Hebrew versions of the Russian songs of Sallah’s Communist youth, and the film sounds like a Mel Brooks over-the-top farce, albeit one with enough betrayal and homicide for a season of “The Sopranos.”
But Pitchhadze, for whom “Sweets” marks a return to directing after an eight-year hiatus, approaches the material in a visual style built around long-take sequence shots, slow, deliberate camera movements and an almost stately rhythm. It is as if Béla Tarr were directing a Three Stooges film; it is a seemingly incompatible meeting of formal rigor and anarchic content. (Intriguingly, the cinematographer on “Sweets” is Fred Kelemen, director of photography for Tarr’s last two films and a “slow cinema” doyen himself.)
Amazingly, it works brilliantly. The comedic content keeps the contemplative style from floating away on a big blue cloud and the distancing effect of the visual style brings both real feeling and an unexpected gravitas to the belly laughs. The result is an unexpected and frequently hypnotic treat.
The eighth annual Other Israel Film Festival will run Nov. 6-13 at the JCC in Manhattan (76th St. and Amsterdam Ave.), Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.) and other venues. For information go to the festival’s website, www.otherisrael.org. This year, several of the films and post-film discussions, as well as offerings from previous editions of the event, will be available for streaming as well, at www.otherisraelondemand.com.