The Other Israel Film Festival Returns, and It’s More Diverse Than Ever

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A scene from "Cinema Sabaya," directed by Orit Fouks Rotem.
A scene from "Cinema Sabaya," directed by Orit Fouks Rotem.Credit: Ella Barak / Green Productions

NEW YORK – Normal service has resumed at New York’s Other Israel Film Festival, which, after a year of being held virtually, reopened its doors to the public last Friday.

This means that audiences at the Marlene Meyerson JCC on the Upper West Side can once again see award-winning films and documentaries that examine Israeli and Palestinian communities, and also those on the margins of Israeli society. 

Among this year’s offerings at the festival, which began in 2007, are “Ahed’s Knee,” which won the jury prize for director Nadav Lapid at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and Israel’s pick for best foreign language film at next year’s Oscars, Eran Kolirin’s “Let It Be Morning.”

There are also documentaries about the lives of Palestinian children living under Israeli occupation, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The festival is also hosting post-screening Q&As with directors such as Avi Mograbi (“The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation”) and Ameen Nayfeh (“200 Meters”).

One of the most intriguing movies receiving its New York premiere is “Cinema Sabaya,” the debut feature of Israeli director Orit Fouks Rotem.

The film centers around a group of eight municipal workers, all women, who register for a filmmaking workshop to learn basic techniques from a young director. The women, both Arab and Jewish, document their lives and share the results with their classmates. As the weeks pass, they are not only confronted with each other’s realities and dreams, but also with attempts to change their circumstances.

To prepare for the film, Fouks Rotem led similar workshops in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Acre in northern Israel, and at Givat Haviva, a long-established Israeli institution that promotes reconciliation between Jews and Arabs.

“I actually got the idea from my mother – she’s an adviser to the mayor of Hadera on women’s rights; she did a course through the municipality on still photography,” Fouks Rotem says in an interview. “This seemed like a good way to explore relationships: between women, Jews and Arabs, feature and documentary.”

First and foremost, she says, “Cinema Sabaya” is “about these women and their stories. Of course, you cannot ignore the political situation: it creates the dynamic of this group; it’s endemic to everything they do and are. There’s a temptation to make this overt, to speak about these issues directly. But as we filmed, we saw that we didn’t need to because the reality is evident in their lives, the way they relate to one another, and the way they see reality,” Fouks Rotem explains.

All of the action takes place within the confines of a classroom, and one of the film’s strengths is its use of contrasts: what’s shown and what isn’t, what occurs in the plot and what is left unseen and unspoken. Blurring the line between fact and fiction, the film also offers a glimpse into the lives of these women while showing the larger Israeli reality, with all its complexities, through their lens.

“This movie was a process of trial and error,” Fouks Rotem admits. “We devised a whole plan on how to shoot the film, but already on the second day we realized we needed to ditch that and shoot like a documentary – and if we don’t capture something on frame, so be it. It still exists, especially in how the characters react, ignore, mishear.”

Echoing the film’s use of contrasts, some of the actors are professionals – including Dana Ivgy, who plays the young Jewish director presenting the workshop, and singer Amal Murkus, who plays a civil rights lawyer. Others, however, never acted before in their lives and the dynamic that forms within this group of women offers a fresh and humane take on Jewish-Arab relations within Israel.

The decision to set the film in Hadera and not one of the locales usually seen in Israeli movies (Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa) offers another fresh approach. Hadera is a working-class, mixed city between Haifa and Tel Aviv, and showcasing characters from different classes, religions and educational backgrounds represents not only the complex reality of Jewish-Arab relations but also of class and gender – issues often overlooked given the public attention to political and ideological conflicts.

Shifting sentiment

A film such as “Cinema Sabaya” is a natural expansion of the film festival’s mission, according to Isaac Zablocki, the director of film programs at JCC Manhattan.

“When we started the festival some 15 years ago, we were focused on raising awareness of films that explore Arab-Jewish relations and raising awareness of Palestinian Israelis. Over the years, the American Jewish community has changed so much. They have a much more nuanced understanding of the political and social reality in Israel,” he says. “This lets us bring films that don’t necessarily deal overtly with the occupation or Palestinian lives,” he adds, citing films that depict the challenges facing Israeli society or that feature underrepresented communities.

U.S. public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also clearly shifted since 2007, though Zablocki says the festival remains committed to presenting a wide array of voices.

Isaac Zablocki, director of Film Programs at JCC Manhattan.Credit: Courtesy of Isaac Zablocki

“I always say the best way to get a free ticket to the festival is to offer a thoughtful argument against the depiction and topics of the films. Unlike other film festivals, which may pick an Israeli or Palestinian movie because they represent a certain political leaning, the Other Israel Film Festival is a place where audiences can come together and have frank, deep conversations about all these difficult issues,” he says.

Another change on the political landscape? The rise of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, which includes calls for cultural boycotts of Israeli artists and which has presented the festival with some issues.

“I’m against boycotting arts and culture, which makes some in the film community who support the BDS movement uncomfortable,” Zablocki says. On the other hand, he says the festival continues to reject any sponsorship or collaboration with any Israeli governmental agency, whether it be the Culture Ministry or the Israeli Consulate in New York.

“Beyond being a politically engaged film festival, we seek movies that are of high artistic merit, that have good storytelling, that speak to the audience and not go over their heads or succumb to clichés. We also started a film fund supporting films that answer all these criteria, like ‘Cinema Sabaya,’” he says.

In this regard, “Cinema Sabaya” shows what engaged Israeli filmmaking can achieve, dealing with Jewish and Arabs lives in a deep and precise way, and showing the possible realities within Israel. For Fouks Rotem, that comes as part of the job.

“I think filmmakers have a certain naivete about them, they [think they] can change reality. If I didn’t think I could change reality, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker,” she says.

“There’s power in seeing your story on screen. These women documenting their lives have a chance to create and fantasize. It guarantees that their lives, that the reality around them, will change. But the ultimate benefit is to even let yourself dream.”

The Other Israel Film Festival runs until Thursday at the Marlene Meyerson JCC, New York. “Cinema Sabaya” premieres on Tuesday at 6 P.M.

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