As I sit here, writing about Palestinian films and The Other Israeli Film Festival, rockets lobbed from Gaza are falling once again in Israel, wreaking havoc and terror. The rockets do not fall on deaf ears — instead they are the percussive anthem that scores the Middle East while shaping the futility of peace. We are compelled to listen. We must listen. As Israelis and Arabs take cover, they are joined in the fallacy that existence is war. I grew up being told to hate my enemy. As a Jew who was far removed from Israel, I finally traveled there only to find Arabs and Israelis walking together, eating together, speaking and loving together.
Not all of them, just those visible to an American in search of an answer.
If The Other Israeli Film Festival, now underway in New York City, accomplishes anything, it is that art is inclusive and film is a vehicle for social change. Who knew that these perceived enemies of Israel had their own story to tell, and how their story is our story? Who knew that what brings us together is much more powerful than what drives us apart?
Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, Palestinian chef and the first Arab to win Israel’s version of “Top Chef,” makes a hopeful observation in the documentary “Breaking Bread”: “It’s up to the artists to bring us together, the politicians have failed.” These may be the most impactful words since Lincoln asked, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
This recipe for tolerance, nestled in a film by Beth Elise Hawk that celebrates cuisine diplomacy, lies beneath the bubbling pots of Syrian stews and plates of Israeli hummus, top heavy with the legacy of local traditions that date back centuries. They are the creation of a collaborative effort between Israelis and Arabic/Palestinian chefs. It is also the hallmark of a film festival that is more a stage for social commentary than it is for the art of film.
As Nof says, “Being stuck in the middle is the best thing, because you get to be this and that, and enjoy both worlds.”
As joyous the chefs were in providing sustenance in “Breaking Bread,” Bassam Jarbawi’s “Screwdriver” addresses the frustrations and trauma of Ziad, a young man fresh from prison after a mistaken identity killing. Ziad’s decompression only extends the hopelessness of his incarceration. What is most compelling about this film, which will close the Other Israeli Film Festival, is how it communicates that freedom to some is a prison to others.
The realization that those who Ziad took a fall for are maintaining lives that are, if not guilt-free, then comfortable. They dine in restaurants, they build houses, they commune in spite of the environment and political conditions, whereas Ziad falls victim to the same. “Screwdriver” is a remarkable film in that there is something that is identifiable to anyone who has operated under oppression — and who hasn’t?
If these two films are any indication of what can be seen at The Other Israeli Film Festival, then it becomes obvious that this festival’s impact is more about society than it is about the art of film.
What culture has not been spindled, folded, mutilated — tortured and confined? It seems that the Palestinians are getting it from all sides — and their only recourse is to reach out through the arts. You probably won’t find a film like this playing to right-wing Israelis. You probably won’t find a film like this playing to hard-line Palestinians either. The sympathies and empathies of change seldom happen in rigid minds — except when a film like this presents an alternate view.
Isaac Zablocki, the director of the festival, described this year’s movies are the best in the history of the event: “I’ve loved all the films this year, which isn’t always the case.” Saddled not only with the responsibility of presenting a platform for these voices to be heard — but also the challenge of filtering out the dissent and trolls who are more interested in towing a party line than in considering the voices of oppression, Zablocki added, “This year’s brave lineup makes it clear that even in polarizing times, there are progressive voices leading the way to hope. These voices need to be heard.”
The Other Israel Film Festival runs from November 14-21 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, as well as Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn, JCC Harlem, and NYU. The festival will feature Q&As with numerous filmmakers and talent after select screenings.