Steven Spielberg's Latest Project: Encounters of the Arab-Jewish Coexistence Kind

Undaunted by tensions in the city, Jerusalem Cinematheque is determined to draw East Jerusalem audiences to screenings of films which now have Arabic subtitles, thanks to a project funded by a Steven Spielberg nonprofit.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Steven Spielberg. Profits from his movies are used to fund the new project.
Steven Spielberg. Profits from his movies are used to fund the new project.Credit: Reuters
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

It turns out, rather surprisingly, that only recently have Arab residents of Jerusalem and other local Arabic speakers been able to enjoy movies with Arabic subtitles at the city's Cinematheque. This is thanks to American Jewish film director and producer Steven Spielberg and the foundation he established with the profits from "Schindler’s List," and subsequently his other Oscar-winning films including "Munich" and "Lincoln."

One of the main goals of the Righteous Persons Foundation, established in 1994, is to promote contact and understanding between Jews and non-Jews, mostly through the use of media, in order to humanize the “other.”

The RPF recently donated $50,000 to the Jerusalem Cinematheque as part of a new project called “Cinema for Everyone,” whose aim is, according to the foundation's website, "to subtitle films in Arabic as a way to ensure that Israeli Arabs have access to cinema, and to bring Jews and Arabs together around film" at the veteran institution.

The Cinematheque is using the funding to screen four or five films a month – both Israeli- and foreign-made – to which Arabic subtitles have been added. The Cinematheque hired an advertising and public relations firm in East Jerusalem to publicize the new project in that predominantly Arab part of the city.

Noa Regev, CEO of the Jerusalem Cinematheque.Credit: Emil Salman

To that end, signs were put up in November and December in East Jerusalem, posters were plastered on buses, a special Facebook page was set up, and ads appeared in media where the Arab-speaking community would see them to inform residents of the screenings of the Arabic-subtitled films.

The Jerusalem Cinematheque.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky

The response, however, was not great. A series of shootings and hit-and-run terror attacks during those months changed the atmosphere in the city, and tensions between Arabs and Jews rose to especially high levels.

“Culture and economics usually succeed in building bridges between the western and eastern sides of the city, and between the country in general and East Jerusalem,” said Hatem Hawis of the Al-Arabiya advertising agency in East Jerusalem, which managed the ad campaign for "Cinema for Everyone."

"We knew in advance the response would be low, but we still set our goal to provide the residents of East Jerusalem with the possibility of having a choice," says Haneen Mgadlh, East Jerusalem project coordinator of the Jerusalem Foundation, which also participates in this effort. To convince people from the eastern part of the city to come to the western part for cultural purposes is a real challenge, she added.

“The situation is complicated. Many told me, for example, that they didn’t know Arabs could attend events at the venue, and there are, of course, those who are not willing to consume culture in an Israeli location. So it is impossible to expect that the change will occur overnight,” Mgadlh said.

In addition to the atmosphere of tension and conflict in the city, she noted that there are a number of factors that make it hard for residents of East Jerusalem to take advantage of such a project: the lack of efficient public transportation between the eastern and western parts of the city; the difficult economic situation of residents of East Jerusalem (where, Mgadlh said, some 75 percent of all families live under the poverty line); as well as the population's cultural habits (many local Arabic speakers do not go to cultural events at all, and to cultural institutions in West Jerusalem in particular, she added).

Free screenings, too

But both the Cinematheque and the Jerusalem Foundation refuse to give up. The screenings of the subtitled films has continued and have drawn some organized groups of Arabic speakers from all over the country, along with a few East Jerusalemites.

The Cinematheque has begun to approach local Arab organizations as well as Jewish-Arab groups (such as the community center in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Islamic Museum, Arab schools, the bilingual school in Jerusalem, and the Pashut Sharim project for joint choral events at the Hebrew University), inviting them to the screenings – for free.

As a result, in recent weeks the movies have attracted mixed Arab and Jewish audiences. While in December, it seemed as if the Arabic-speaking movie-goers actually preferred to see Israeli movies; Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon’s “The Farewell Party” was shown with Arabic subtitles that month. In January, more groups came to see foreign films.

Noa Regev, CEO of the Cinematheque, stressed that the goal of the project is to show movies with Arabic subtitles in Jerusalem, which is more important than success at the box office. More groups are coming, she reported, but the Cinematheque is still in the process of attracting an audience. Starting next month, for example, there will be feature films with Arabic subtitles for children and young people.

It is possible that occasionally a few East Jerusalemites come to screenings independently, but the Cinematheque has no information about them. But even if that happens, it is reasonable to assume the number is very small.

“The fear on both sides is paralyzing. In order to overcome it, we must break down a lot of stereotypes and need a lot of courage,” said Magdlh.

“We must make it clear to them that this [i.e., the venue and its offerings] is theirs," she added. "That the Cinematheque is a place they can come to. We need to insist that this is their right and not to give up."

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