Arabic speakers who don’t speak English, or Hebrew, don’t get to the movies much for one simple reason: there aren’t many films subtitled in Arabic.
That may be changing with a new project recently launched at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque. The arthouse cinema is attempting to bring Arabic speakers to see movies on the big screen, using a $50,000 grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation to subtitle films in Arabic.
The project, called “Cinema For Everyone,” aims to offer Arabic speakers better access to films and to bring Jews and Arabs together around film at least four or five times each month. However, it hasn’t been all that easy convincing locals to come to the theater.
“It’s been hard,” said Zevik Zevikovich, who handles special projects at the Cinematheque. “It’s taken time to get rolling.”
The idea for the project began last July, when tensions were at an all-time high as the result of the June kidnapping and deaths of three Jewish teenagers, followed by the kidnapping and death of a Palestinian teen. Those tragedies preceded the summer war in Gaza.
The difficult timing brought planning for the project to an abrupt halt. Zevikovich tried working on it again in September, but tensions between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem were still high. By November, he said, the atmosphere was slightly calmer and the theater was ready to try out the project.
“We knew we just had to get started with it, just to try,” Zevikovich said.
The Cinematheque, which at times acts as a melting pot for some of Jerusalem’s diverse populations but is also a bastion of the city’s staunch secular community, is perched above the Hinnom Valley, overlooking the Old City as well as several historic Arab neighborhoods. Despite that proximity, it hasn’t become a place that Arabs feel comfortable visiting.
“People who live here deal with tough issues and obstacles,” said Haneen Mgadlh, who handles special projects for the Jerusalem Foundation, one of the Cinematheque’s sponsors. “We want people to understand that it’s their right to go to the movies, to have the feeling that the theater is theirs as well. But many Arabs in Jerusalem don’t know where the Cinematheque is, or that they’re welcome to go there.”
Mgadlh is responsible for all Foundation projects in East Jerusalem, including those with an educational, academic and artistic focus. But what guides her are projects that the community adapts for itself and take responsibility for within its own neighborhoods. As for Israeli-run institutions, she says, even when they invite Arabs in, it doesn’t mean the Arabs will necessarily welcome the invitation.
“I work with them, I don’t decide for them,” said Mgadlh of the local Arab community. “What leads me is what the community builds for itself; I hear their voices and then give them what they need.”
The subtitling project at the Cinematheque did fit those criteria, said Mgadlh. It was also a time when the city’s residents, both Jews and Arabs, were spending more time thinking about one another. From Mgadlh’s perspective, it was natural that “people were raising their heads and thinking about this place called East Jerusalem.”
“At the moment you raise your head and look at the place as a place, with people at the center, you see things differently,” she said.
That’s what happened to Shady (pronounced Shad’i) Giorgio, a 18-year-old high school graduate who lives in a neighborhood near the theater. He’s the Middle Eastern version of the protagonist of “Cinema Paradiso,” the Italian film about a young boy who escapes from his war-torn life by heading to the local movie house.
Giorgio grew up at the theater, seeing movies there with his parents — his mother is Muslim — and attended the city’s bilingual Arab-Jewish Hand in Hand school. By the time Giorgio was in high school, he was majoring in film and had to purchase a membership at the theater as part of his coursework.
“I was always around the Cinematheque,” said Giorgio. “It’s a friendly environment. You don’t just go for the movies, you also go for the experience.”
Giorgio ended up becoming a student volunteer during the theater’s popular festivals — the Jewish Film Festival that takes place each December, and the Summer Film Festival in July.
But he didn’t quite know what to expect when Zevikovich asked him to work on the subtitle project, contacting local Arab organizations and convincing them to bring their participants to the movies.
“I was a bit surprised, because I never expected the Cinematheque to have subtitles in Arabic,” he said. “We’re the only ones doing it.”
That’s true for now. While there are seven Cinematheque theaters throughout Israel, including one in Haifa, the city with the largest Arab population, none of the other theaters offer films with Arabic subtitles. It can be difficult to get permission to subtitle films in Arabic, explained Zevikovich, due to film distributors’ concerns about piracy.
There is one movie theater in East Jerusalem, the Al Quds Cinema, which screens films from Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia, but none from the United States or England.
For now, the Jerusalem Cinematheque is working with any films for which they can get permission to translate. In February, the theater showed the British comedy-drama “Pride” with Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton; the Israeli-made film “Dancing Arabs”; a French farce, “Serial (Bad) Weddings”; and Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.”
The theater also hired Hatem Hawis of the Al-Arabiya advertising agency in East Jerusalem to manage the ad campaign for “Cinema for Everyone,” plastering ads on public buses in Arab neighborhoods and in local Arab papers and websites.
But when it became clear that it was going to be tough convincing local groups to come to the theater, the Cinematheque decided to offer the tickets for free.
“Yeah, that’s our message,” said Zevikovich. “Just come.”
Mgadlh wasn’t surprised that cost had become an issue.
“People in Jerusalem don’t need culture,” she said. “It’s a poor city, and when something costs more than NIS 20, it’s hard to get people to spend the money.”
There were still several obstacles, even when the tickets were offered for free, said Giorgio. Some groups were located farther away from the Cinematheque and didn’t have the budgets to offer transportation, despite the free tickets. Other groups needed convincing.
“A week passed and another week passed, and it wasn’t working,” he said. “It’s a new concept for them. To them, it was, ‘why all of a sudden?’ Sometimes it took a few phone calls to fully explain the concept.”
No one rejected the idea outright, he said. But people were skeptical, mostly because they didn’t know what the theater was trying to accomplish.
Even now, four months into the project, it can still be a struggle to fill the theater on a “Cinema for Everyone” night, said Zevikovich. And the theater still doesn’t know exactly how many Arab speakers enter the theater on any given night.
“It’s a bit of a hustle,” said Giorgio. “When you get 60 or 70 or 80 [into a film] that’s okay, but what we want are groups and individuals who are willing just to come and see the movie.”
In March, the theater is screening four Arabic-subtitled films, beginning with “Partner with the Enemy,” about an Israeli and Palestinian business partnership, followed by the Israeli “Next to Her,” (starting this week) and then the Academy Award-winning “Ida” and “Igor & the Cranes’ Journey,” about a migratory voyage from Russia to Africa (through the end of March).
For now, Zevikovich and his team are pondering how the next few months will proceed.
“All of East Jerusalem won’t come to the Cinematheque,” acknowledged Mgadlh. “But it is a public place and everyone now knows they have the right to go there, and that’s an accomplishment.”
Giorgio doesn’t think the Arab population will ever head to the Cinematheque without a special invitation.
“At the moment, it’s just too hard,” he said. “We’re building a reputation and a community. It’s a big step.”
At the same time, the decision to go to the movies can’t be about building a relationship with Jews or considering one’s political stance, said Giorgio.
“Going to the movies should be purely a human choice, not attached to anything political,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to see movies with translation in Arabic, which helps one enjoy the movies even more. Just like the Israeli kids.”