NEW YORK — The 12th annual Other Israel Film Festival kicked off at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan just five days after the killings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Some might suggest that a weeklong festival about internecine conflicts within the Jewish State right now is ill-timed.
This concern was addressed immediately in a series of opening remarks by Rabbi Joy Levitt, the JCC’s director of film programming Isaac Zablocki, and the festival’s founder and benefactor Carole Zabar. (Yes, Zabar as in Zabar’s.) After initial comments expressing sorrow, the mood returned to the mission statement: a conversation with the Other. “Our brand is inclusive and responsive,” said Levitt.
I’ve been covering Other Israel for some time now. As a critic, I can state that the yearly collection movies either created by or focused on Israel’s minorities are usually strong. The occasional film which is, for lack of a better term, “bad,” is at least rich and interesting. I have never been bored by anything programmed at this festival.
But as one who identifies as both a liberal and a Zionist (to the bafflement of many of my friends), Other Israel can seem like the interior monologue puzzled Jew projected onto a screen, searching for some higher truth. Of course, it is always easier through stories. Moreover, it’s better to do so with your peers.
That last point can come with some comedy. The line at the metal detectors of the enormous Upper West Side JCC, so soon after Pittsburgh, took a little bit longer, and felt considerably more somber. But that didn’t mean everyone in the packed elevator didn’t chuckle when an cranky old woman shouted, “Who hit this floor!?!?” when the doors opened on L1 before our destination on L2.
The opening night film was “The Cousin,” a droll comedy-drama that feels a bit like Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” mixed with “To Kill A Mockingbird” set in a small Israeli town. Writer-director-star Tzahi Grad is something like a more deadpan Larry David, a man who just wants to accomplish a simple task (renovate a small house) but gets caught up in a whirlpool of social mishegos.
He hires a young Palestinian to help with the work (though it’s not the guy he expected from his phone call) and, off-screen, there is some sort of “incident” where a teen girl is molested. Naturally everyone accuses the worker, but Grad is sure he didn’t do it. Well, he’s pretty sure. Either out of pride or a desire to continue the work on the house, he vouches for his worker, but the rest of the community is assured of his guilt.
While the movie is serious, it is also very funny. Grad upped the verisimilitude by shooting in his own house and hiring his own kids to play themselves. (They are both quite good!) In the conversation after the screening Grad joked how initially he auditioned other young actors, but the children were outraged at the concept of someone else playing them in their own house.
The conversation with the audience continued; mostly respectful observations about how progress can never be made until two sides in a conflict talk to one another.
A moment of wonderful albeit awkward irony came when one of the few non-Jews in the crowd, a Jordanian, commented on the film. Now, it’s never fair to call someone else’s interpretation of a work of art “incorrect,” but this individual’s read on the story led me to think that perhaps he had taken a nap during the screening. He got the message all wrong, and accused the filmmaker of demonizing the Arab character. The entire audience was baffled, and a collective murmur of “What is this guy talking about?” floated through the JCC auditorium.
But here’s the best part: This was an audience of liberal Jews! The whole point of us being there was to listen to views that seemed alien to us. Everybody was too polite to say, “What the hell movie were you watching!?!” I know I was. Grad somehow got out of it with a shrug and a smile and someone else who had their hand up was called upon.
It was the type of moment you’d see in a social comedy like “The Cousin.”
Time constraints forced me to only catch two films in person this year, so in addition to opening night (which concluded with wine and refreshment) I attended what was billed as “Other Israel Underground,” which read as an attempt to involve a younger audience.
It was successful in that regard, but only by a smidge. (Audiences really do skew older in some corners of New York’s Jewish cultural life, and this is something that does need to be addressed if they are to continue into the next generation.) But after a meet-up at a lovely Middle Eastern-themed music space/bar/restaurant/boutique called Silvana the night continued to the nearby JCC Harlem, a small (and still fairly new) satellite facility.
“In Her Footsteps” is a 70-minute documentary which, like “The Cousin,: was also shot at the filmmaker’s home with her family ending up on screen. Director Rana Abu Fraiha’s background is absolutely fascinating. Her father is a Bedouin, her mother, ostensibly the star of the film, was born to a family of means in Jatt. When Rana was a child her parents left the Bedouin community and moved to the affluent, Jewish neighborhood of Omer. There, Rana and her siblings were raised Israeli; they speak mainly Hebrew and attended the local schools.
Now, 20 years later, Rana’s mother is dying of cancer, and has discovered she can’t be buried in the local cemetery. “It has never been done before,” is the bureaucratic response to why a plot can’t be dug for a non-Jew.
This struggle forms the spine of the film; the search for an unusual Israeli identity finding a place of rest perfectly sum-up what Other Israel is all about.
Abu Fraiha answered questions after the film (though when asked why women couldn’t attend a funeral ceremony in a Palestinian village her response was “Hey, I don’t understand it either!)” and gave a unique perspective on the issue that still hangs above the Jewish community this week.
After offering sympathy (and some anger) about the events in Pittsburgh, she expressed how she, a part-Bedouin, part-Palestinian living in “one of the most Ashkenazi/Zionist towns” in Israel, understands the push-and-pull of assimilation, and of being a minority in a larger culture “much like the Jews in the United States.”
If that isn’t “conversation with the Other” I don’t know what is.