NEW YORK – As is often the case, the beginning was promising. When Isaac Zablocki, the director of film programs at the Other Israel Film Festival at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, went to the Toronto Film Festival in September, he was excited to discover two talked-about Palestinian films: Tarzan and Arab Nasser’s “Degrade” (which premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival), and Hany Abu-Assad’ “The Idol” (Ya Tayr El Tayer). Always on the lookout for new Palestinian voices, Zablocki approached the Nasser brothers’ distribution company and acquired the rights to screen their feature at the closing night of the 2015 Other Israel Film Festival, which was to be held Thursday night at the JCC.
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After the program was published, tickets sold and details finalized, the brothers suddenly decided to cancel their trip to New York and pull the film from any Jewish-related film festival. That left Zablocki with less than 24 hours to notify the ticket buyers that the closing night will now only include the 35-minute Israeli film “Women in Sink” by Iris Zaki.
While the short notice took Zablocki by surprise, his work in the past decade has prepared him for this kind of disappointment.
“Bringing Palestinian filmmakers to the JCC has always been a challenge,” he told Haaretz on Tuesday night. “We always have to deal with the BDS movement and the boycott. Whenever we invite Palestinians, there is pressure from all sides that pushes them to pull their films out. The fact that we have the word ‘Israel’ in our title, and that this festival takes place at the Jewish Community Center, further complicates matters.”
So what went wrong this time?
“I believed that the filmmakers had all the intentions of actually being here and screening their films, and we were just about to book their flight tickets and accommodations. Abbas confirmed her attendance in the post-screening panel. But the pressure got too strong for them. I think it was a combination of BDS activities and crazy death threats that anyone dealing with the conflict receives.”
Do you know for a fact that the Nasser brothers or Abbas received death threats in relation to the festival?
“The distributor claimed that at first, but I have yet to see them with my own eyes. I tend to believe this was the case since I’ve seen the kind of comments people leave on Facebook in relation to the conflict and what is being perceived or described as ‘left-wing’ activities. I think these filmmakers are dedicated to getting the word out there about the people in Gaza – where the film takes place – and to show the kind of characters you won’t see on the news.
“This is a film that actually takes on Hamas, and it is doing it a very daring way. That’s why I was disappointed to learn that they removed the film from other Jewish festivals as well. I tried to convince them to cancel their attendance but let us screen the film. Unfortunately, whatever forces were influencing them, they were much greater than anything I had to offer.”
Did you have any other cancellations this year?
“Yes, the Palestinian protagonist of the Israeli documentary “Partner with the Enemy” eventually decided to cancel her U.S. tour due to the growing violence in the area in the past few weeks.”
So you were left with no Palestinians guests or panelists for this year’s edition.
“Sadly, that what ended up happening, although it was never our intention. And the irony of course is that right-wing activists are also boycotting the festival because it is too ‘lefty’ for them.”
Ironically, the fact that the Other Israel Film Festival failed to convince any Palestinian “Other” to attend the packed week-long program is an accurate reflection of the current state of affairs in Israel, where the space for Israeli-Palestinian cultural or economic collaboration becomes narrower by the day. Zablocki, a New York-native who grew up in Israel, argues that this was exactly why he founded the festival nine years ago.
“Carole Zabar and I co-founded the Other Israel Film Festival in 2006,” he recounts. “Her initial idea was to establish a film festival focusing on propaganda – showing how propaganda works, from all different sides of the political spectrum. Things in Israel were not very good back then, believe it or not, and we both felt that there was a need for some other voices out there. Very quickly it turned into something very different: The first edition solely focused on Arab-Israelis, and after our second year we broadened our scope to include all minority populations in Israel.”
Initially, did you want to focus on documentary or fiction films?
“There are a lot more documentaries out there. We wanted to tell stories that represent reality. Our target audience was always New York Times readers, and we understand that our audience is mostly Jewish. We have another venue at Cinema Village because we know very well that some people want to watch the films but don’t feel comfortable coming to the JCC. We see a more diverse audiences when we have events in the Village.”
What about cinephiles?
“There was this period when you said ‘new Israeli film’ and cinephiles interested in international cinema would round up, but this is no longer the case. There’s a gradual decline in interest. When Eytan Fox’s “Walk on Water” came out in 2005 it was a sensation in the U.S., but today I feel that people don’t want to hear about Israel anymore. This doesn’t relate solely to Israeli cinema; many Americans feel overdosed when it comes to Israeli news and the conflict.”
Did you see a decline in ticket sales for the festival?
“Normally we are almost at full capacity. This year there was a drop in ticket sales, although many screenings are sold out. I think the people who are interested in Israel from a more liberal perspective are having a hard time dealing with Israel right now. I think they’re missing out, because many of these films can give people hope.”
You officially define yourself as a “non-political film festival,” but is it possible to be “non-political” when it come to one of the most debated conflict zones in the world?
“It’s definitely a challenge. We come from a cultural – rather than political – perspective. We’re looking for good films that can inspire varied audiences. We do avoid films that deal directly with politicians and the big questions of the occupation, and focus instead on the daily lives of underrepresented communities in Israel. ‘Partner with the Enemy’ deals with the separation wall, and we screened the new film about Rabin’s life, but the majority of our films avoid the politically hot topics.”
As someone who had been following both Israeli cinema and Israel in the past few decades, are you more optimistic than you used to be?
“No, I’m not, and in that sense our festival failed in its mission,” he says with a bitter smile.
“I think that life mimics art when it comes to film. I used to believe that films have the power to change people’s minds, but I’m no longer convinced that this is the case”.