The overriding tone of this year’s edition of the Other Israel Film Festival is one of melancholy, tinged with a degree of exhaustion. It is as if the intractable problems of the Jewish state and its Palestinian neighbors have worn down all the participants, the ossified positions that all sides have taken for so long have become so deeply ingrained that they seemingly will not admit the possibilities of positive change.
Of course, that is not the message of every film on offer in the fifth annual version of the event, which opens its weeklong run on Nov. 10, but one comes away from even some of the more optimistic works with a certain amount of sadness.
Consider the opening night film, “Dolphin Boy,” co-directed by Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir. Like Menkin’s first feature documentary, “39 Pounds of Love,” this is an inspiring story of a young man overcoming the seeming limitations of mind and body. Morad used to be a popular and successful high school student until the older brother of a female classmate intercepted what he (mistakenly) took to be a provocative text message.
The result was a brutal, systematic beating that left Morad unable to communicate with anyone. But over the next several years, Morad underwent a unique program of “dolphin therapy” in Eilat where he gradually became at home with the aquatic mammals and, eventually, with the humans who worked in the program as well.
Menkin and Nir were fortunate that Morad’s doctor Ilan Kutz kept video and audio recordings of the early stages of their work, as well as formidably complete case notes. As a result, we can literally see how one severely damaged young man slowly regains his identity, his memory and his selfhood under the most unusual circumstances. At the same time, the film subtly stresses its other message, voiced by Morad’s father, “Through anger I won’t save anything.”
But if the film’s ending is affirmative, one is also left with the sense of loss that is inevitable when Morad leaves the dolphin reef in Eilat to resume his old life once more.
“Torn,” directed by Ronit Kertsner, and “77 Steps” by Ebtisam Mara’ana are even more somber in their overall effect. In a sense, the documentaries are two sides of the same coin, stories of people who have chosen to cast their fates with Israel in some deep way, even though their identities are contested.
The protagonist of “Torn” is Father Romuald Wexler-Waskinel, a Catholic priest from Lublin, Poland, who found out he was a Jewish hidden child a dozen years after he was ordained. In Lublin he has valiantly tried to serve as “an emissary between the Jews and the Catholic Church in Poland,” and his denunciations of Catholic anti-Semitism have been forthright and unequivocal. Now he wants to honor his birth parents, who were ardent Zionists, by settling in Israel.
But he is caught between his identities; in the eyes of the Israeli government, he is a Jew who is practicing another religion and thereby forfeits his right of return. Yet he had no knowledge of his Jewish identity until long after he began practicing Catholicism, and he sees himself as a Jew by birth, by blood and by identification. There doesn’t appear to be a happy resolution to his dilemma, a sad reminder that, as the old legal saw has it, “hard cases make bad law.” And broken hearts.
Ebtisam Mara’ana told the story of the fishing village in which she grew up in her earlier film “Promised Land,” but more recently she chose to relocate to Tel Aviv, a decision that alienated her mother and, as she herself admits, “intensified my constant feeling of pain, of alienation and rejection,” as an Arab living in the Jewish state. But not long after she finds an apartment, she also finds her neighbor Jonathan, a Canadian Jew, and the two begin a seemingly warm relationship.
To some extent, each of them accepts the reality that, as she tells him, “There are many days we won’t be able to celebrate together,” but the tensions between them, only partly about Middle East politics, are finally insurmountable. Mara’ana ends the film alone again, but more committed than ever to making a life in Tel Aviv.
Perhaps the oddest inclusion in this year’s festival is also the most impressive debut feature, “Naomi,” directed by Eitan Tzur from Edna Mayza’s adaptation of her novel “Hitpartzut X.”
Set in Haifa, the film follows the slow moral disintegration of a 58-year-old astrophysicist, Ilan (Yossi Pollak), something of a minor TV celebrity, as he begins to doubt the faithfulness of his lovely 28-year-old wife Naomi (Melanie Peres). Tzur treats this material with the deft and corrosive wit of Claude Chabrol, skewering his bourgeois protagonists as they struggle with paranoia, guilt and an impulsive, shattering act of spontaneous violence that undermines everything Ilan has ever wanted.
It’s a cunning piece of work from the first-time director and one eagerly awaits further efforts from him.
Perhaps some viewers will also await the second and third installments of “The Promise,” a BBC production whose opening segment will have its U.S. premiere during the festival. At least in Part One, this is a rather laborious melodrama that juxtaposes the diaries of a young British soldier in the waning days of the British Mandate with the introduction to contemporary Israeli politics of his granddaughter who is visiting a school friend and her family. The period material is not without a certain intelligence and drive; this is the sort of thing that the BBC can do in its sleep. But the modern-day stuff is clichéd and rhetorical, with even-handedness meaning that all sides take turns being dreadful to one another. It is patently unfair to judge a four-and-a-half hour miniseries on its first 90 minutes, although that is all that is on offer, but I’m not optimistic about the remaining three hours.
The fifth annual Other Israel Film Festival runs from Nov. 10-17 at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue), the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.) and other venues throughout the city. For information, go to www.otherisrael.org or call (646) 505-5708.