Pro-Israeli producer goes for hearts of non-Jewish viewers
How does one get Al Jazeera to air a pro-Israeli documentary?
Answering this question is part of what compelled Avi Naiman, a retired professor from New Jersey, to spend his life savings on launching an Israel-advocacy film production firm. A few months ago the Qatari news giant asked to review one of his works about Arab Israelis under Hezbollah fire.
The answer, he says, is to aim for the heart. His organization, Israel Documentaries for Education and Scholarship (IDEAS) has set out to "fight for people's hearts instead of their minds," as Naiman, 47, told Anglo File last month at a Tel Aviv cafe. And that's also what the film that Al Jazeera is now reviewing, entitled "Under Fire," is doing, by telling the rendering story of two Arab-Israeli families whose loved ones were killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. A spokesperson for the news department said this month the decision whether to buy the film would come "in a few weeks."
Three television stations belonging to the Public Broadcasting Service in the U.S. purchased the film and plan to air it next month. It depicts surviving family members sharing their eye-witness accounts and making pleas for peace.
Naiman says had a special edge in overcoming the challenge to getting Arab Israelis to go on camera and discuss private family matters for his film. He spent over 15 years developing a vast network of Israeli contacts through volunteering "in projects that help Israel," as he puts it. This network - which includes Galilee hospital officials, fire chiefs, police officers, Jewish Agency top-brass and artists - helped convince him to produce the film in the first place.
"I was here during the war showing reporters around and meeting with people in Nahariya, the twin city for the Northern New Jersey Jewish Federation in the Jewish Agency's Partnership 2000 program," he recalls. While touring the Katyusha-stricken Galilee, Naiman, camera in hand, says he was exposed to some unique sights. For example, he says he filmed rockets flying past the helicopter he was on board with local firefighters as well as the rocket-induced fires below.
He coupled such footage with material from over 100 interviews conducted after the war with Israelis living under fire, who told him about their experiences. This produced a 52-minute film entitled "Scorched Summer." In making this film, Naiman gained the contact necessary to create the later, 28-minute movie which grabbed the attention of Al Jazeera and PBS.
"My first film was very good for the world that already cares about Israel or is willing to," he explains, "but it wasn't going reach ordinary Americans. It wasn't balanced or nuanced enough. For that I decided to make a second film."
Naiman - a retired computer graphics professor turned stay-at-home dad - was able to establish contact with about a dozen Arab families that lost loved ones or suffered injury during the war. Most were willing to meet but would not hear of going on camera. Several "told their stories on condition it couldn't be traced back to them. But I wasn't willing to make do with second-hand material. It had to be first person or nothing," he says. He focused on convincing seven families. "Two families said no flat out and three said yes but apparently changed their mind," he says. Eventually, after much effort, he got two families to go on camera. The film also includes the stories of two Jewish families.
One of the Arab families, the Saloum household, had a critically-wounded Katyusha victim fighting for his life in a losing battle at Rambam Hospital. The sister of Hamudi Saloum, who was a 40-year-old lifeguard from Haifa, told Naimain how her brother tried to enter their house to rescue his mother, but was burned alive when a rocket blew up domestic gas cylinders attached to the house. He was severely burned and his leg was crushed. Weeks later he was still on a life support machine.
When his stomach ruptured, doctors told the family that the end was near. Saloum's sister, who felt she needed to tell his story, agreed to let Naiman film her and her brother in his final hours. During filming, Hamudi Saloum's heart stopped and he had to be resuscitated. He died two days later.
The second story is of Fadia Jamaa, 60, and her two daughters, Samira and Sultana. They were sitting in the yard of their house in the Bedouin village of Arab al-Aramshe when a direct Katyusha hit instantly killed them, leaving the family with a loss which for many is too terrible to grasp.
"People in America don't know that 1.5 million people lived through under fire or as refugees during the Lebanon War, and they don't know it about the Negev either," Naiman says. "News reports were 90 percent about Lebanon and Gaza. I'm preparing public opinion for Lebanon III or Gaza II, so that when people see the news reports they immediately think back on the stories they saw from Israel."
Asked about the decision to focus on Arabs, he says: "It takes a high level of understanding about the Middle East to realize how Arabs are under fire from other Arabs when those other Arabs are trying to kill Jews. Most Americans don't have that level of understanding. This film affords them that understanding."