The Underrepresented Lives of Israeli Others, Now on Film

New York's Other Israel Film Festival, now in its sixth year, shines a spotlight on the lives of Israel's minorities and finds struggle, inspiration and a bit of humor, too.

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NEW YORK – Israel’s crises and conflicts get plenty of media attention. But the nuances of daily life for Israel’s minority communities, in all their complexity, are the focus of The Other Israel Film Festival, running November 8-15 in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“The goal of the festival is to go beyond the headlines and slogans and show what Israel is all about, the diversity within Israeli society,” said Isaac Zablocki, executive director of the film festival, now in its sixth year, which is based at the JCC of Manhattan. Over the course of the festival, 20 films will be screened.

The documentary “From the Black You Make Color,” by Judy Maltz, a Haaretz reporter, and Richie Sherman, fixes its lens on Tel Aviv’s oldest beauty academy, where students of all religions and nationalities – Jewish, Muslim and Christian, from Ethiopia to Kazakhstan — come to learn a trade and escape life's worries, whether they be immigration, breast cancer or widowhood. There's a young mother whose husband was murdered in a suicide bombing, a recent Vietnamese immigrant struggling to convert to Judaism, and a woman who sees the academy as her chance to move up the economic ladder.

“Sharqiya,” by Ami Livne, is a quietly powerful film about a young Bedouin man, Kamel, who lives at the edge of the Negev. The film hones in on Kamel’s sense of powerlessness and mounting frustration as he tries to call attention to the injustice of the demolition of his family's longtime home.

“Ameer Got His Gun” follows an Arab citizen about to enlist in the Israeli army; “The Invisible Men” tracks gay Palestinians who escape persecution to live in hiding in Tel Aviv; and “Wherever You Go” profiles a woman from an Orthodox Jewish family who encounters a woman on the run from a traditional Bedouin family. In the documentary “Freeflow,” a Jewish mother of six, whose husband is in jail, struggles to keep her family together while her eldest son finds freedom in parkour, jumping from one rooftop to another.

With panel discussions and conversations with filmmakers slated after each screening, The Other Israel Film Festival is “an educational festival,” Zablocki said in an interview with Haaretz. The discussions “are almost their own event, and a way to get in deeper to the conversations” about the lives of minorities in Israeli society.

The Other Israel Film Festival was launched in 2007 by Carol Zabar, whose husband and brother-in-law own the iconic Upper West Side grocery store, to expose American Jews to the complex reality of Arabs living in Israel.

“People here did not know that Palestinian-Israelis lived lives like everybody else, went to university, became opera singers, ballet dancers," she told Haaretz. "Because here everybody is not exposed to the lives of the other Israel, I thought a film festival would work.

“It’s not a government’s or organization’s presentation, but [rather] an artist expressing what he or she thinks," she continued. "That is the truest way to understand what is happening.”

While there are more than 200 Israeli and Jewish film festivals around North America each year, according to Zablocki, the Other Israel is the only one to focus exclusively on the rarely-seen aspects of Israeli life.

A presenter in Sao Paolo, Brazil is launching another Other Israel Film Festival and there is a similar festival in Amsterdam. “We are happy to see it grow," said Zablocki. "Others [in the United States] have tried but no one has really gotten it off the ground.”

The early years of the festival, which is funded by Zabar and ticket sales, brought about 5,000 attendees, the organizers said. This year they expect about 10,000.

Though the initial focus was solely on Arab Israelis, today it takes a broader look at Israeli society.

“I saw that because Israel wants to remain a Jewish state, many other minorities, like Ethiopians and gays, also get treated in a way that prevents them from being full citizens," Zabar said. "So I started including them in the festival."

With the social protests that took place in Israel last year, “there is a voice calling for another Israel," said Zablocki. "This festival is part of this movement of people who want to see change. Though we are not specifically a political festival, we want to push Israel to recognize its otherness and impact change.”

Actor Mandy Patinkin, who currently stars in the hit U.S. television series “Homeland,” which is partly filmed in Israel, will speak at a reception on the festival’s opening night at the JCC.

Perhaps best embodying the spirit of the festival, and infusing a good dose of humor, is the Israeli television series “Arab Labor.” Episodes from the series’ third season will be screened during the festival.

“Arab Labor,” which was created by Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, also a columnist for Haaretz, focuses on a hapless man named Amjad who has moved with his family from their Arab village to Jerusalem’s upscale Rehavia neighborhood.

Amjad manages to get himself into one conundrum after another, to his wife Bushra's amusement and aggravation, each episode managing to capture not just his foibles, but those of his neighbors as well, Jews from all parts of society.

Ami Livne's 'Sharqiya,' screening at the Other Israel Film Festival, won three prizes at the Jerusalem Film Festival, including best full-length feature.
Clara Khoury and Norman Issa, in Sayed Kashua's TV series 'Arab Labor.'