ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Interview'Especially now, it's so important to talk with each other'

Film about deadly 2021 Arab-Jewish riots gives insight into post-Oct. 7 life in Israel

As festivals back out of screening Hilla Medalia’s ‘Mourning in Lod’ about two people who died in mob violence, director says her documentary’s lessons hit home now more than ever

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Marwa, left, and Milla, the widow and daughter of Musa Hassuna, an Arab Israeli man killed in a violent protest in Lod, in a still from 'Mourning in Lod,' directed by Hilla Medalia. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)
Marwa, left, and Milla, the widow and daughter of Musa Hassuna, an Arab Israeli man killed in a violent protest in Lod, in a still from 'Mourning in Lod,' directed by Hilla Medalia. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

Watch clips from Israeli director Hilla Medalia’s documentaries and you’ll see how she wins her subjects’ trust as they discuss sensitive issues on camera. Israeli parents might talk about what it’s like to be the abba or ema of a trans child, or Israeli Jews and Palestinians may share their experiences of a Jaffa dance class that aims to foster coexistence among the next generation.

Medalia’s latest project once again sought unique perspectives on a hot-button issue from those personally connected to it — a study of Muslim, Jewish and Christian families impacted by the deadly 2021 riots in the mixed city of Lod and elsewhere in Israel. Since the film’s release, though, it’s been deemed too sensitive for some audiences.

Made in partnership with MTV Documentary Films, “Mourning in Lod” revisits a painful chapter from May 2021, during the previous conflict between Israel and Hamas. As the terror group fired rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, domestic unrest between Jewish and Arab Israelis erupted in Lod.

The film focuses on two individuals who died in separate acts of violence roughly 24 hours apart — Musa Hassuna, a Muslim Arab Israeli; and Yigal Yehoshua, a Jewish Israeli. The film also spotlights a rare moment of reconciliation: Yehoshua’s family donated his organs after his death, and one of his kidneys was given to a Christian resident of East Jerusalem, Randa Oweis.

Oweis and her family only learned who the donor was through an Israeli news story — which received bigoted comments from some readers. Despite this public backlash, the Oweises were so grateful that they attended Yigal’s shloshim, or the end of the 30-day mourning period. His brother Efi greeted them warmly and, on a separate occasion, sat down with Musa’s father, Abed al-Malik, in a meeting of sympathy and solidarity.

During filming, accessibility to the subjects was never an issue. However, following the Saturday, October 7, 2023, Hamas massacre and Israel’s subsequent military campaign to remove Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip, Medalia has faced a different sort of challenge — getting her film out to international audiences.

Poignantly, it was shown at the Hamptons International Film Festival on the day after the attacks, which claimed a crew member among the 1,200 people murdered in Israel by Hamas-led terrorists who perpetrated unspeakable acts of brutality during the rampage. Two hundred and fifty-three people were also abducted and held hostage in the Gaza Strip, where 132 are still believed to be held, not all of them alive.

A rabbi inspects the damage inside a religious school in the central Israeli city of Lod, on May 11, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Medalia was in the United States at the time and was torn between going to the Hamptons screening or returning to Israel. She wasn’t able to get a flight home until Monday, and spent Sunday at the festival, where she said fellow Israelis were in the audience and commiserated with her.

Although a second October screening occurred in Annapolis, Maryland, two additional scheduled screenings fell through. The Other Israel Film Festival, which was slated to include “Mourning in Lod,” postponed its entire program. And although the Boston Jewish Film Festival (BJFF) took place as scheduled in November, it canceled a planned screening of Medalia’s film in the wake of the October 7 onslaught.

“Especially at this time, it’s so important to discuss, to think, to talk with each other,” Medalia told The Times of Israel. “[Even] in the midst of these difficult times, we have to cultivate and plant seeds for the future, for what we want this place to be. I’m so disappointed with the Boston Jewish Film Festival’s decision to cancel the screening.”

In a statement, BJFF board chairman Ken Shulman said, “Due to the sensitive nature of this beautiful film, and to the extremely volatile political climate in which we live, we thought it prudent to postpone this screening.”

“[Shulman] wrote me a really nice message that the film touches on issues that are probably very, very important to discuss right now,” Medalia said. “The board felt it was too sensitive… I told him I felt like it was a mistake. I know it’s hard. Every day, I watch the news, I read what’s happening — it is heartbreaking. But exactly because of that, more than ever, now is time to talk about the themes the film is talking about.”

A tale of three ‘incredible’ women

Hilla Medalia, director of ‘Mourning in Lod.’ (Courtesy)

Medalia originally envisioned “Mourning in Lod” as a short that would explore the story of a Jewish family donating a kidney to a Palestinian woman during a moment of international crisis. Initially set at 45 minutes in length, the film expanded to almost twice that time as Medalia got to know the Hassuna, Yehoshua and Oweis families. That included filming Randa and her daughter Sharihan reciting the Christian Our Father prayer in Arabic at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Efi reciting the Kaddish mourning prayer for his brother at the Beit Eliyahu synagogue in Lod. Throughout, the film gives viewers incredible access to its subjects at their most vulnerable moments — at home, in the hospital, even what it says is footage from the riots that claimed the lives of Musa in a shooting and Yigal in a rock-throwing.

Medalia was particularly impacted by three women in the narrative: Musa’s widow Marwa, Yigal’s widow Ira, and Sharihan.

“It becomes the story of these three incredible women,” Medalia said. “I think they are very strong and I see them as role models, as an inspiration… The men died and the women are left to pick up the shattered glass. They need to care for their kids and make sure they have a good life alongside this tragedy in this complex place.”

Filming meant respecting boundaries while reacting quickly to unexpected developments. No scene sums that up better than the Oweises coming to the Yehoshuas’ shloshim, a heartfelt moment that was filmed entirely by chance.

Randa Oweis, left, an Arab woman who received a kidney from a Jewish man killed in a violent protest in Lod, and Sharihan, her daughter, in a still from ‘Mourning in Lod,’ directed by Hilla Medalia. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

Out of sensitivity, the crew had agreed to mic Efi but not Ira that day. Then Medalia unexpectedly learned that the Oweises were coming. She was not planning to film Randa for another two weeks as she recovered from her surgery, but now the director pivoted.

The ensuing footage shows the complexity of both the interwoven personal narratives and the wider situation. The Oweises initially do not get out of their SUV when they arrive, but Efi urges them to sit down for a meal. No one joins their table until Sharihan invites Ira to sit down with them, which she does. Other members of the Yehoshua family do so as well.

A nuanced voice

Meanwhile, the film examines the impact of Musa’s death on his widow and father. According to Medalia, Marwa was not outwardly religious before her husband was killed. Afterward, she began wearing a hijab, which she is shown in throughout the film. She and Abed also participate in protests in Lod denouncing Musa’s death and accusing the government of discriminatory treatment of Arab citizens.

As the film explains, seven suspects were arrested after Yigal’s killing. After Musa’s death, five suspects were apprehended but released when self-defense was invoked as a motive and the investigation closed.

Marwa, right, and Milla, left, the widow and daughter of Musa Hassuna, a Palestinian man killed in a violent protest in Lod, in a still from ‘Mourning in Lod,’ directed by Hilla Medalia. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

Abed emerges as a particularly nuanced voice. He compares the plight of Arabs in Israel to that of American Blacks in Chicago. Yet he also criticizes Hamas for its rocket attacks against Israel that year, and at a protest on the one-year anniversary of his son’s death, takes a moment to shake hands with an Israeli policeman.

Medalia said that Musa’s father “demands something basic and just — equal rights for Arab-Israelis, the Palestinian-Israelis. They want equal rights.”

She cites a similar voice in Hadash party leader MK Ayman Odeh, who expressed his thoughts on the current situation in a New York Times op-ed that lamented the Hamas massacre on October 7 but also sympathized with the thousands of Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza since then.

“I think it’s very complicated,” Medalia said. “I feel we Israelis have to fight for the rights of underprivileged communities, like the Palestinian-Israeli/Arab-Israeli community in Israel. They deserve to have equal rights, safety and justice, like we expect for the Jewish citizens for the good of all of us. Violence doesn’t stay within one community. It spills out.”

A monthly protest for justice for Musa Hassuna, a Palestinian man killed in a violent protest in Lod, in a still from ‘Mourning in Lod,’ directed by Hilla Medalia. (Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

The film addresses some complexity related to Yigal’s death. A radio news broadcast is quoted stating that two suspects are relatives of Musa. In interweaving statements, Ira and Abed explain how their families knew each other beforehand: Yigal was an electrician who had been to the Hassuna family appliance store. Ira hopes that her husband’s killer is not someone who knew him from the store.

For Abed’s part, he offers sympathy to both Ira and Efi. In one scene, he shares a cup of coffee with Yigal’s brother. Efi says that he and Abed must be ambassadors for peaceful coexistence.

Even if the festival run has hit some unexpected bumps, there are wider possibilities for the film to access audiences. The film will have its theatrical debut in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on April 19, and will stream on Paramount Plus from May 21.

“Now is the time,” Medalia said. “There’s never a bad time to talk about forgiveness, reconciliation, coexistence and the future. I hope we can continue to spread this message and create discourse around it through this film.”

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