Palestinian Politics Takes Toll on N.Y.'s Other Israel Film Festival

The last-minute decision by Tarzan and Arab Nasser not to allow their movie to be screened at the annual event again exposes the tensions and dilemmas Jewish and Israeli festivals face whenever the conflict in the Middle East heats up.

Avner Shahaf

Is it possible to organize a “nonpolitical” film festival that focuses on Israel’s minority populations? Judging by the latest turmoil surrounding the New York-based Other Israel Film Festival, it seems that the words “nonpolitical” and “Israel” do not go hand in hand. With only a few days left till the ninth annual event opens on Thursday, the Palestinian brothers Tarzan and Arab Nasser decided to pull out their film “Degrade” and not to screen it at any Jewish-related film festival.

The filmmakers’ decision was “a result of the impact of the Jewish-Arab conflict reaching new heights in Israel,” according to a press release published by the festival this week.

“In these polarizing times, it is more important than ever to hear each other’s voices and create a culture of dialogue,” said festival director Isaac Zablocki. “The silencing and boycotting of arts and education [in Israel] only hurts those aiming to create positive change and hear the other side.”

The Nassers' film "Degrade," which stars Hiam Abbas and is set in a beauty salon in the Gaza Strip, was scheduled for its New York premiere on the festival’s closing night (November 12) after a successful run at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals. Now the event will close with a screening of Iris Zaki’s documentary “Women in Sink.” Like "Degrade," this film also follows women in a hair salon but takes place in an Arab-Israeli neighborhood in Haifa.

Even in the absence of the Palestinian hit, the Other Israel Film Festival's program is packed with documentaries as well as several narrative features and shorts. Still, the decision to pull a closing-night screening on such a short notice exposes the tensions and dilemmas Jewish and Israeli festivals around the world face whenever the conflict in the Middle East heats up. According to Zablocki, this precarious situation is precisely the reason why this festival is an important annual tradition. The various economic, political and religious tensions in the Middle Eastern melting pot have often proved to be a breeding ground for ground-breaking cinematic storytelling.

Under the tagline “Now More Than Ever,” the 2015 festival will open with the local premiere of Mor Loushy’s documentary “Censored Voices,” and will feature more than 10 full-length documentaries as well as the New York premiere of the Israeli horror film “Jeruzalem.”  

Loushy’s much-debated documentary follows in the footsteps of the Oscar-nominated “The Gatekeepers” in its retelling of crucial moments in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the latter focuses on Israel’s Shin Bet security service, “Censored Voices” reveals some untold stories of the 1967 Six-Day War. Featuring Israeli author Amos Oz, writer Avraham Shapira, and other kibbutzniks who served in the Israel Defense Forces during that war, the film confronts its subjects with previously classified recordings of their original testimonies. As described by Loushy, “the recorded conversations, which were censored for decades by the IDF, relate the systemic evacuation of Palestinians, the dehumanizing nature of war, and the echoes of the Holocaust, taking an honest look at the moment Israel turned occupier.”

Another historical documentary slated to be screened is Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky’s “Colliding Dreams,” which traces the origins of the Zionist movement in 19th-century Europe, juxtaposing its historical emergence with the uprisings of the Arab community of Palestine. In cutting between these two stories, Dorman and Rudavsky contextualize the ongoing conflict in the country as a clash of national identities and historical narratives.

The clash of narratives is also the central theme of Tamara Erde’s “Teaching Ignorance,” a documentary following several Israeli and Palestinian teachers over the course of an academic year. Again, one cannot ignore the gaps, contradictions and tensions between the two different – and yet shared – histories as they are taught on both sides of the Green Line.

While these movies offer a critical, and mostly depressing look at Israel past and present, Eyal Sagui Bizawe’s “Arabic Movie” serves as a much-needed breather. This 60-minute documentary takes us back to the 1980s, when Israeli families of all backgrounds – Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, and Palestinian alike – would gather to watch the weekly broadcast of an Egyptian movie on television. This ritual, which always took place on Friday afternoons, is the vehicle for enabling Bizawe to tell a broader story about cultural appropriation and relations in various diaspora communities. The result is a bittersweet celebration of an underrated and mostly ignored form of national cinema, with its colorful musical melodramas and surprisingly subversive plot lines.

During its one-week run, the New York festival will also screen documentaries about Yitzhak Rabin (“Rabin in his Own Words”) and Israeli peace activist Abie Nathan (“The Voice of Peace”), as well as organizing several panel discussions and special events with a timely focus on women filmmakers.

Perhaps the festival film that best captures the impossible attempt to be “nonpolitical” and to separate ideology from art is “Oriented” – a beautifully shot documentary focusing on the complex lives of three 20-something gay Arabs who live and work in Tel Aviv. In one of the early scenes Fadi, an ardent Palestinian nationalist looking for love, proudly declares that he is not interested in dating an Israeli Jew (“They come to our parties and always stare at us as if we were animals in a zoo,” he declares bitterly). Yet, despite his aversion, he ends up falling for an Israeli guy. Confessing his guilt to a female friend, Fadi remembers that “reality is more important than ideology.”

If only life could be that simple.    

ORIENTED Official Trailer (2015) from Jake Witzenfeld on Vimeo.