An apartment building. The walls in the entrance are peeling and covered with some very non-charming graffiti; there’s an electrical cabinet with no doors that has seen better days and trash that no one has bothered to pick up scattered in the yard. The camera follows a young woman coming out of the building. As soon as she steps out onto the path that leads to the street, some garbage lands on her head. She looks up in time to catch the shutters on one of the balconies above her slamming shut.
“This is just why no one wants to live with Arabs!” she shouts at the neighbor behind the shutters. “Look at the filth, look at the garbage – how many times can you keep telling them about this?”
Because of this incident, the heroine of “U-Turn” (“Pniyat Parsa”), played by Ann Avital, decides to leave the neighborhood where she's living and starts looking for a new apartment. When she finds a pleasant, renovated alternative in a well-kept neighborhood, with a kind and friendly landlord (Guy Loel), she thinks she’s found her dream place. But then – (spoiler alert: skip to the next paragraph if you want to see the film first!), as they’re about to close the deal he tells her he got burned in the past by troublesome Israeli Arab tenants, which is why he's decided not to rent to them anymore – and she's taken aback. The phone call she makes to her mother afterward is conducted in fluent Arabic, and the picture becomes clearer. By the end of this short film, viewers are left to grapple with various prejudices and stereotypes.
Last November, “U-Turn,” Yasmine Bakria’s debut effort, won first place in the Impro Action competition for Israeli short films, held at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. It’s a still-unripe work but also one that's unexpected and intriguing. In an interview with Bakria, the backstory of her movie becomes clearer: A Muslim Arab, she grew up in Ramle. She attended a Jewish school, dressed up on Purim and lit Hanukkah candles like all her classmates, and spoke mainly Hebrew at home. Today, however, Bakria is a social activist who seeks to use cinema to bridge the abyss between Arabs and Jews in this country.
“I was educated in Jewish schools because my parents thought the quality would be better there. They apparently thought that the Jewish schools were superior and it was important to them that I would integrate so I would succeed,” she tells Haaretz.
“At school I never understood what the difference is between Jews and Arabs; I felt like I was just one of the students there. Usually, in mixed [Jewish-Arab] cities, there seems to be more of a need to preserve one's identity, but in my case, my mother’s motto was ‘Go and expose yourself to the world’ – because we ended up living in a Jewish area and went to school within the Jewish community. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. It was only later that I realized what a big issue it is.”
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Did your classmates know that you were Arab?
“Whether they did or not, I didn’t feel any different from the other kids.”
And at home – why didn’t you speak Arabic?
“At home we spoke Hebrew because back then there was this misguided educational concept that you must only speak one language with a child, so they won’t get confused. When I was younger I spoke Arabic, but at school I had a need to be like everyone else, the social orientation was very strong, and even went I went home I wanted to be like everyone else. Even when people spoke to me in Arabic, I answered in Hebrew, because that was my dominant language.
"The whole matter of identity was very blurred in our house. My mother, my younger brother and I felt that speaking Hebrew was something natural. We didn’t see it as infringing on our identity. It’s possible that the identity issue was a little confused from the outset, because what mattered to my mother was providing us with a good education, and she was confident that this [language] thing was temporary, that it wouldn’t really affect our identity in the future. But in fact, the language issue is very significant – both in shaping who I am and in the making of this film.”
How did it influence who you are today?
“I feel less connected to traditional Arab circles, though not completely disconnected. And it prompted me to enter the worlds of both communities and to see exactly what each one thinks about the other. When I speak Hebrew, I feel more precise, more fluent – that I can express myself better. When I speak Arabic, I feel like a less improved version of myself.”
But there’s a political element in language too. There must be some people in Arab society who don’t look upon this kindly.
“At first, it did raise some eyebrows. But it’s not that I don’t speak Arabic. I just speak Hebrew to really articulate what I want. So maybe at first it sounds conceited, maybe it takes my involvement in Jewish society one step forward, but I still feel committed to inserting the Arabic language, so it’s combined and mixed. At some point, I can also add Yiddish, and then no one is able to follow!”
You know Yiddish too?
“No, but my grandparents did. They came here 80 years ago, their neighbors in Lod were immigrants from Europe and in order to fit in in the neighborhood, they learned to speak Yiddish. Years later, when they didn’t want us to understand what they were talking about, they would speak to each other in Yiddish. Of course, they also spoke fluent Arabic and Hebrew. It was a very natural combination. People often think about language as identity and politics and forget that behind it all there’s a basic need to have a dialogue with people. Only in Israel is all this stuff about identity and affiliation projected onto it.
“I speak the language that’s comfortable for me. I know Jewish society and Arab society. I chose to be Yasmine – just Yasmine, not Yasmine the Jew or Yasmine the Arab – who brings with her a host of values and a desire to show the world the dialogue within which she grew up.”
A letter to the UN
When she finished high school and saw all her friends going into the Israeli army, Bakria wrote a letter to the United Nations.
“I started asking myself where I was in this discussion of Jews and Arabs,” she says. “I knew I wanted to study something that promoted the model that I grew up in, so I wrote a letter to the UN: I described how I grew up in a Jewish environment, that I know both sides’ point of view and that I want to be an activist, and I provided an outline of a model for dialogue.”
She read about a UN-sponsored project that brought Jewish and Muslim communities in the United States together, and decided to launch something similar in Israel. She soon obtained UN sponsorship, put together a group of Arabic and Hebrew speakers who thought together about how they could make Israeli society better – and she eventually also went to UN headquarters in New York and spoke there about Arab-Jewish relations.
“That’s when it dawned on me that this conflict is not my own individual problem but a badge of shame for our society as a whole," Bakria says. "The fact that I’m always searching for answers may be a result of my unconventional choice, but it also says something about our society: Why do things constantly have to be explained in order to build a life that should really come naturally?
From the time she was a child, Bakria loved telling stories, writing and painting. When she grew up, she studied acting at the Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts, but left after a year to study philosophy and theater and general studies at Tel Aviv University and at the University of Haifa. She worked in bridging between different groups in society, became a social activist (participating in projects involving multicultural dialogue and community aid) and also worked in journalism (as an Arab affairs reporter for Haaretz, among other things).
Bakria's entry into the world of cinema happened almost by chance. Three years ago, she came across an announcement from the New Fund for Cinema and TV, an NGO that promotes local cinematic projects (especially documentaries), about an incubator for women filmmakers and scriptwriters – and decided to become involved.
Who are the people to whom you’re giving a voice?
“I don’t represent anyone, but I’m bringing a voice that isn’t heard enough. It could be Arabs who are trying to integrate but there’s this force that pulls them back – decisions that are made above their heads that label them as less worthy. There's an entire population that is weakened this way – for example, there are Arabs who want to be pilots or to work in certain institutions, but they’re not able to. Or people who come from mixed cities and don’t want to complain about anything because they’d rather preserve the status quo, to maintain harmony. But underneath this there is a lot of pain. And I’m sure that on the Jewish side too there are a lot of fears that aren’t spoken about.”
How does all this relate to your film “U-Turn”?
“I was involved in the developmental stages of a feature film and decided to take a piece from it. It also stemmed from my own experience – that you have someone living right next to you, part of the circle surrounding you, and you don’t really know them or anything about them. And building a life in a new place isn’t always easy, because people ask who you are, where you came from. So in this movie I decided to shout this out: to say, ‘Look, you don’t really know who’s standing there in front of you, so watch what you say, be a good person, don’t make assumptions!”
The scene in which the Arab neighbors throw garbage our of the window – you weren’t worried about playing dangerously with stereotypes?
“A person is allowed to criticize their own home. The film isn’t just about relations between Jews and Arabs but also about relations between Arabs and Arabs, and in Arab society there is a lot of criticism, there are intrigues. Maybe some Arabs will say it’s hard for them to watch this scene, but they’ll also get it, too. And it was important to me to also show the internal criticism and to highlight extreme stereotypes in order to show them in a new way.”