It’s impossible not to be struck by the poignancy and relevance of “The Voice of Ahmad,” an anthology of seven short films about working Arabs in Israel, revolving around the first one of the collection, 1966’s “I Am Ahmad.”
The original film, by veteran director Ram Loevy, was the first to present the complicated existence of Arabs in Israel. Using gentle, black-and-white photography, it showcases the eponymous Ahmad, an Arab construction worker in Tel Aviv, as he looks for work and a place to live, and reflects upon the lack of opportunities that led him away from his village to the city.
At the time, the film generated tremendous controversy and was seen by some as “a stab in the back of the nation,” Loevy says in “I Am Ram Loevy,” a short piece by him and about him that is also part of the anthology.
The anthology is curated by Renen Schorr, the former longtime head and founder of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, and filmmaker Ayelet Menahemi. It took a full three years to complete the project.
The 85-minute anthology is the third in Schorr’s trilogy of Israeli films created by Sam Spiegel alumni — the first two were “Footsteps in Jerusalem” and “Voiceover” — and with the addition of the “The Voice of Ahmad,” the completed project marks the 30-year anniversary of the school.
The seven short films that make up the anthology range from the concrete to the abstract, Menahemi says. “We had to enter and do a process of curation, with creative planning to make it fall together and make it comprehensive.”
“There are the movies that are more like a proper documentary and very communicative, while others take a poetic twist. People react to them so differently,” she adds.
The anthology, in Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles in English and Hebrew, offers new angles from which to consider Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, compelling viewers to reassess aspects of life in the country.
The first three films in the anthology are tied to the life story of Ahmad, whose full name is Ahmad Yusuf Maswara.
“I Am Ahmad” is followed by “I Used to be Zvi” by David Ofek and Ayelet Bechar, which examines Ahmad’s backstory. It offers a brief, fascinating look at a 1950s experiment at Kibbutz Yakum, in which Ahmad took part during his teenage years. When he was 14, in 1953, Ahmad was taken to live and learn at the kibbutz, where he was taught Hebrew and included in the kibbutz work and community, a project that lasted for about a decade and involved around 1,000 Arab teenagers.
As an older teen, he tried to gain support for building kibbutzim for Arabs, and was surprised and dismayed when he found little backing for the initiative.
The third film, “Sky of Concrete” by Shadi Habib Allah, follows Ahmad in the present day as he remembers a friend who died in a construction accident and visits a construction site to speak and listen to Arab workers. As they balance on high beams of the apartment tower they’re constructing, drink Turkish coffee and eat their lunch, the workers speak to Ahmad about their own stifled dreams, their fears about their dangerous line of work and their hopes for their own children.
The fourth film, “I Am Ram Loevy,” follows the director as he films a movie made as a collaboration of Arab and Jewish filmmakers in Jaffa.
“That really offered something that would glue it all together,” says Menahemi. “Each film has to connect to the next, it has to make sense.”
The final three films lean more toward the abstract, but still clearly relate to the overall theme of how little has changed since the original “I Am Ahmad” was made.
In the fourth film of the anthology, Noam Kaplan’s “I Am Humus” follows his own challenge as he tries to make homemade hummus, the chickpea spread loved by both Arabs and Jews, and share it with Arab neighbors in his rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood.
The abstract but clever “I Am Ecclesiastes” by Dan Geva draws on the fantastic visions of the biblical-era prophet as this modern version walks through present-day Tel Aviv, drawing on what Ahmad saw in the 1960s and what is visible now.
Finally, “The Helsinki Accord” by Mamdooh Afedela and Iddo Soskolne offers seven minutes by these two Sam Spiegel graduates, one Arab, the other Jewish, who both live in Finland because of their partners, as they joke about how to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict while dipping in fjords and sweating it out in a sauna.
“If it had finished with a different film, it would have made it totally different,” says Menahemi.
“The Voice of Ahmad” is playing at Cinematheque theaters around the country and will appear as part of Schorr’s trilogy at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in April.