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Interview

‘Other’ Israel film fest organizer knows he’s loathed by both sides

New York event unites righteous Israel activists and BDS boosters in mutual derision, but has found its crowd, says its director Isaac Zablocki

The festival will host the New York premiere of Hiam Abbass' directorial debut 'Inheritance.' (photo credit: courtesy of Film Distribution France)
The festival will host the New York premiere of Hiam Abbass' directorial debut 'Inheritance.' (photo credit: courtesy of Film Distribution France)

NEW YORK — Intransigent, unilateral supporters of Israel and fringe BDS radicals can agree on one thing these days: They don’t like the Other Israel Film Fest hosted at the JCC of Manhattan.

Proving that there’s no Jewish-affiliated subculture too obscure that New York City can’t sustain, the OIFF, which starts Thursday, is in its 7th year. It highlights movies about minorities in Israel and, as you can imagine, these works don’t always paint the rosiest of pictures.

There has been controversy in the past (a quick Internet search can link you to some quality screaming and yelling, if message board rants are your thing) but the fact remains that, ideologically comforting or not, the festival tends to highlight films that are frequently intellectually stimulating and artistically compelling.

Each of the films is followed by a conversation and this year some of the guests include “Gatekeepers” director Dror Moreh, actress/TV journalist Lucy Aharish, actor Makram Khoury, controversy sarlacc pit Michael Moore, “60 Minutes” journalist Bob Simon and a host of other artists, writers and intellectuals.

The Fest will host the New York premiere of Hiam Abbass’s directorial debut “Inheritance,” as well as twelve other features and a number of shorts.

Isaac Zablocki (photo credit: Facebook)
Isaac Zablocki (photo credit: Facebook)

I had a quick chat with Isaac Zablocki, very much a macher of the New York Jewish cinema beat. His lengthy sig file dangles like the loosest fitting tzitzit at the end of his emails.

In addition to being the director of the Other Israel Film Festival, Zablocki runs the film program at the JCC in Manhattan and is the director of the Israel Film Center and its streaming site of Israeli films. He also runs the Jewish Film Presenters Network, a group where others in the biz trade notes on what’s happening in the Jewish movie space. (“I’m not a premiere snob,” he says when it comes to the horsetrading of festival information.) Additionally, he’s the director of the ReelAbilities Festival, a film series in 14 cities that highlights projects about people with disabilities.

He’s also got a good sense of humor concerning the very specific spot the Other Israel Film Festival occupies – namely, being hated by extremists on both sides of the political divide.

Below are excerpts from my conversation.

Other Israel is controversial with both camps. You are not Zionist propaganda. You shine a harsh light on Israel’s policies where appropriate, when that’s where the film takes you. But, on the other side, you are still part of the great Zionist monster because these are movies made in Israel. So neither extreme likes you and you have calls to be shut down on from two directions.

[After a heavy sigh.] You know it.

But this is year number seven. You’ve survived this long. Is this a badge of honor by now?

It’s a complicated balance. It’s exactly as you say. But we’ve found our crowd. We get new audiences, our screenings sell out, people are interested regardless of both extremes. I think anyone who… how do I put this nicely? I think anyone who is “moderate in view” will see there are good things going on here. We’re engaging in conversation. Yes, sometimes we push the envelope and sometimes we’ll show some films that will take people a little bit out of their comfort zone, but we do it responsibly. We have a conversation afterwards. You shouldn’t be afraid of talking.

There are those who say the old classic line — “showing a movie like this is not good for the Jews.” But you have the a good return argument, a good cover, which is to take the high ground and say, “Well, at least we have the guts to open up and have the conversation. Where do you see that happening on the ‘other side’? Where is their free speech?”

I don’t really adopt that philosophy. But at every Q&A someone brings this up, usually at the end. “Has this movie shown in Iran? Has it been shown in the Palestinian Territories? Are they discussing it like we’re discussing it?”

‘I’m doing this because I care about Israel’

For us and for this festival, it’s not about that. I’m not looking to see or to compare and contrast. I’m not doing this for any great Palestinian cause. I’m doing this because I care about Israel. For all of us, that’s where we’re looking to have an impact — on our community. Not on any other community. It would be nice! But it’s not in our mission. We never even think about it. It’s not our responsibility. It would be patronizing to say to the others “you’re not being at good as us.” That’s not what we’re about.

Let’s back it up a bit. How do you describe the programming in this festival to people?

It has developed over the years. It began as being just about Arab citizens but now is about all minorities in Israeli society. Anything we can perceive as “other,” though it is a tricky term. Maybe not all minority populations would consider themselves an “other” in Israeli society. It depends specifically on the film. Is it showing day to day life of an “other” or something different than that?

What kind of films are you not looking for? What is not an “other?” How do you exclude something from being “other?”

It’s an interesting question and it comes up a lot. What people sometimes assume is that this is a political film festival. We’re not political. Films that are just dealing with the same old politics, or engaging with the same old arguments that anyone dealing with Israel has already had a hundred times, that is not what we’re looking for at all.

We’re looking for stories about minority populations that are separate from the headlines. Something you don’t get to see – the “other” Israel. When we get a heavily political film dealing just with the conflict, it generally does’t fit in for us.

To answer your question — take, for example, the ultra-Orthodox. That is technically a minority in Israel but isn’t an “other” — that doesn’t fit in.

To get to some of this year’s highlights: I was just blown away by a very artistic and innovative non-narrative film called “Garden of Eden,” directed by Ran Tal, about a year in the life of Gan HaShlosha. It is basically just about this park and the diverse group of people who go there and it is put together in a very haunting, expressive manner.

Now, if you aren’t hip to Israeli society and many of its ins and outs, it is just a beautiful, sometimes melancholy movie about individuals. The movie struck me as very niche at first, but then also very universal. I screened it at home and my wife came in and sat down for a bit and didn’t realize for about 15 minutes that it was a documentary, which I think is very telling.

Absolutely. The politics doesn’t hit you over the head. It shows how complex Israeli society can be. This is its New York premiere. It won the best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and usually the winner of that prize ends up playing at a lot of the other major festivals. Somehow, this one has been overlooked. But all the programmers know it. It’s everybody’s favorite film that didn’t get into a festival.

Another big draw is this new chapter in “The Gatekeepers.” The movie already came out in the United States, but now it is being put together as a six part television mini-series. It’s a longer version of what we saw?

Yes, a longer version with a lot of new material. I remember when I first saw the film I thought it would be perfect for television. It was originally made as a series, which was then edited down for a film release. From what I understand, it was a little bit buried in its TV broadcast in Israel. They put it up against something where it couldn’t withstand the competition. So it has been more under the radar there than you might expect. We’ll have Dror Moreh, the director, at the festival and we’re showing one episode – Episode Five.

Dror Moreh of 'The Gatekeepers' will appear at New York's the Other Israel Festival. (photo credit: Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Dror Moreh of ‘The Gatekeepers’ will appear at New York’s the Other Israel Festival. (photo credit: Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

I must say, I find “The Gatekeepers” to be not as controversial as you might think. I feel that it somewhat glorifies Israel, as well as it is critical. It is proud of Israel’s questioning nature, to go back to your earlier question.

Plus, you get to see the Shin Bet – you get to see the secret service. So that glorifies Israel a bit, but it is also a sad movie – to see these calculating, cold approaches to assassination. It’s a side of Israel that maybe we shouldn’t be proud of.

There are also action elements, using a cell phone to blow up a building. It has a bit of 007 to it.

I told Dror Moreh once that I compared it to James Bond, but he said “I prefer Jason Bourne.” I agree, though, that the best way to express social criticism, sometimes, is to disguise it as action.

So Dror Moreh is stopping by. Who else ya got?

Michael Moore will be there.

Oh, he’s never controversial!

Well, funny you should bring that up. We met last year when he was promoting “Five Broken Cameras,” [the Oscar nominated first person documentary from the POV of a Palestinian in the West Bank]. He was heavily involved in aiding that film. I find that a very difficult movie. It is deliberately told from one perspective – so it is one side, one experience – but when you see soldiers shoot an individual in the leg who is being held down, it’s very difficult to watch. It isn’t a movie that I would send an average teen who is trying to learn and understand about Israel to go see, because it only has its own context. There are baby steps to all this. But it is a fascinating movie that took raw footage that was then sculpted into a cinematic piece.

So, Michael Moore came to the JCC of Manhattan and spoke to the audience. Most of the audience was very engaged with the film, responded very well to it. But at one point he stopped the conversation cold. He told everyone to put their hands down and said, “Okay, I want to know who had problems with this movie? Tell me about the other side. Who is uncomfortable with this?” It was a really remarkable moment. So, for people who think he’s a lightning bolt for only one side, here is a man who really wants to promote discussion.

Have there been people you have invited who have said “No, I’ll pass. I don’t want to get involved.”

This year, no. Over the years, only twice. I know the BDS groups try and push Palestinians not to come – but the ones who engage with us are the ones who are engaged with Israel and are proud to come.

This year you have a film called “Arabani” by a director named Adi Adwan. This is the first feature ever made by an Israeli Druze. Not first movie about the Druze people, but by a Druze himself. Talk about a minority within a minority. How psyched were you to get this film?

'Arabani,' the first film about the Druze community by a Druze filmmaker. (photo credit: courtesy Laila Films)
‘Arabani,’ the first film about the Druze community by a Druze filmmaker. (photo credit: courtesy Laila Films)

We’ve been involved since its inception. We have a fund for certain topics and we’ve been supportive and helping develop this movie over the years. We’ve hosted a documentary about Druze people, and another, which is actually an action film, about a Druze cop who uses his “Druze sixth sense,” if you will, to fight crime. It’s a really fun action movie. I. . .I’m blanking on the title, but it was from our first year. It went nowhere. We were the only ones who ever showed it. The producer of the film passed away, and we’ve been trying to get the rights to it, actually, but the rights are in limbo.

Further reason why all should attend the festival because once these movies are gone they’re gone! So, about “Arabani”…

Yes, we’ll I’m excited about this movie, because it is made from within, so obviously it will have a much better insight. Someone involved in the festival this year is a chef named Gazala Halabi, she’s very well known here in New York, the Times can’t stop writing about her. She’s catering for opening night. She’s an Israeli Druze. I showed her the movie, and I was so nervous, but she loved it. She said it really picked up on the nuances of the society without getting into the politics too much.

Obviously, one wants to see all the films, but if you wanted to pick one other highlight?

'The Lesson' (photo credit: courtesy Go2 Films)
‘The Lesson’ (photo credit: courtesy Go2 Films)

Anat Zuria’s “The Lesson” is the other one to catch. A documentary about an Egyptian-Muslim-Israeli, if you can untangle that, who is trying to get her driver’s license. We’ve been following this movie since its early stages. Originally it was just going to be about this driving school that helps people pass their test. It’s almost psychological therapy to help people pass. But it focuses really on this one extraordinary woman. This is another film that has been overlooked by a lot of the other international festivals.

The Other Israel Film Festival runs in New York City at the JCC of Manhattan from November 14 through the 21.

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