What happens when the prodigal son is an Israeli Druze

Running from November 6-23, the 18th UK Jewish Film Festival features ‘Arabani,’ a look into the insular Druze community by one of its own

Still from 'Arabani' (courtesy)
Still from 'Arabani' (courtesy)

LONDON — It’s a universal story: The prodigal son returns, bringing his children to meet their relatives. How it is told when the son is an Israeli Druze and the children are half Jewish is what makes Adi Adwan’s award winning film “Arabani” so riveting.

Who is a Druze and what happens if, as a Druze, you make life choices that do not abide by the rules of this small, close-knit community are some of the questions posed by the director and screenwriter in this, the first feature film made by an Israeli-Druze filmmaker about his own people.

“I made this film because I wanted to understand the rules [of our religion] better,” explains Adwan, speaking on the phone to the Times of Israel ahead of its November UK premiere in London during the 18th UK Jewish Film Festival. “I also want people to know a little bit about the Druze: our lives, our traditions and the issues that we face.”

The film festival is a not-for-profit initiative led by Judy Ironside, which takes place in various locations throughout England and Scotland. While most screenings are in London and Manchester, Glasgow also plays host to a fair number of films over the almost three-week festival.

Adwan’s film will screen on November 19 in London’s JW3 community center. At last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, it won best screenplay for a full length feature.

“Arabani” tells the story of Yosef, who returns to his native Druze village in northern Israel after a 17-year estrangement. Newly divorced from his Jewish wife, he arrives with his teenage son and daughter and, as relationships and romances develop, suspicions abound and tensions ensue.

Friction stems from the fact that in Druze religious law, a child may only be considered Druze if both parents are. The religion does not allow conversion. Therefore, Yosef’s decision to bring his children home has layers of consequences.

As well as in Israel, there are Druze communities in Lebanon and Syria, yet little is known about this religious minority whose roots stem from Islam.

Adwan describes Yosef’s story as “very realistic.” While Adwan himself is married to a Druze woman, the film is based on a combination of stories that he had has heard. The title is a fusion of Arabic and Hebrew; a slang word invented by Adwan intended to reflect the community’s use of both languages that is also shown on screen.

'Arabani' director, screenwriter Adi Adwan (courtesy)
‘Arabani’ director, screenwriter Adi Adwan (courtesy)

“Arabani” was shot in Ein al-Asad, the smallest Druze village in Israel, located near Safed. He chose it because of its size and outstanding beauty.

“Arabani” uses a mixed cast of professional actors and members of the village. The film’s budget came to around $200,000 — but this constraint did not affected its strong characterization and script — or striking cinematography.

Adwan lives in his hometown of Daliyat el-Carmel, the largest Druze village in northern Israel. Although he considers himself a Druze-Israeli and like many other Druze has served in the army and feels very much part of Israeli society, he says he is not perceived as an Israeli by Jewish Israelis.

Many simply view him as “an Arab” and Adwan expresses frustration at what he regards as Israeli ignorance about the Druze.

“Israeli Jews don’t know that they are even [our] neighbors,” Adwan says. He is also frustrated that Israeli filmmakers from minority groups find it difficult to acquire funding and outlets for their work.

The film is a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of Druze life but it does not shy away from depicting social, cultural and religious complexities. Obviously in a insular community, this openness has led to a mixed response.

According to Adwan, some Druze will not even watch the film. Others are unhappy that Adwan is exposing Druze life to outsiders. But Adwan is adamant and says, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” Amid the criticism, he has also been told that what he has shown is accurate.

One of the issues that the film highlights is the gulf between the religious and the non-religious factions of the community.

Adwan describes himself as “not religious, like Yosef.” He says that although “to be a Druze, you must go by the rules,” for some, there is a lack of knowledge about what these rules are.

Central to the plot is a statement made by one of the sheiks during a meeting to discuss Yosef’s situation, who reminds Yosef that, “This is a small community with very clear rules and regulations. If we don’t uphold them, everything will fall apart.”

Adwan’s overriding hope is that the film will bridge the religious divide and encourage dialogue between them.

Part of this aspiration may be found in Adwan’s stylistic, symbolic framing of windows and doors that appear in many scenes. He seems to suggest that windows can facilitate only a limited ability to look inwards, whereas doors, through which a guest is invited inside, afford a greater opportunity for exploration and insight.

As a Druze filmmaker, Adwan has opened a door and allowed us an intriguing glimpse into his community.

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