The New York Film Festival Shining a Spotlight on the Raw Reality of Israel

The 12th Other Israel Film Festival starts this week, offering a valuable insight into what it means to be a minority in Israel

From "Unsettling," Iris Zaki's documentary about the settler movement.
Or Azulay

NEW YORK – When Carole Zabar studied English and philosophy at the Hebrew University in the early 1960s, she was bothered by the invisibility of the few Arab students she encountered there and the community’s increasing isolation in subsequent years. She got involved with Peace Now, left-wing political party Meretz and the New Israel Fund. But eventually she felt the need to do something more hands on.

“I got the idea of a film festival because the things that really sink in people’s mind are stories,” Zabar tells Haaretz. That idea grew into the Other Israel Film Festival, now in its 12th year, taking place from November 1-8 at the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and various locations in Brooklyn.

For more than a decade, the festival has tried to give audiences a glimpse into slices of Israeli society that are often ignored or misunderstood in mainstream culture, which has tended to focus on the country’s Jewish populations.

Initially, the festival focused specifically on Israel’s Arab minority and aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In recent years, though, it has expanded to encompass underrepresented populations on screen such as Ethiopians, Yemenites and African refugees. It has also sought to draw attention to other forms of inequality in Israel such as gender – as represented this year by “Working Woman” by director Michal Aviad, starring Liron Ben-Shlush.

“It has turned into a festival that focuses on social justice issues in general,” says Isaac Zablocki, director of film programs at the JCC and co-founder of the festival. (Zablocki, along with Zabar and the Arab-Israeli actor-filmmaker Mohammad Bakri make up the selection committee.)

This year’s lineup includes documentaries like “The Ancestral Sin,” about the harsh reality of the Israeli outlying towns that sprang up to house new immigrants in the ’50s, and “Megiddo,” about a prison that incarcerates leaders of Fatah and Hamas.

Also being screened is noted Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar’s “Foreign Land,” which won the best documentary prize at this year’s Ophir Awards (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars).

Eldar, a former Palestinian affairs correspondent for Israeli television, started filming in 2012 to track the growing political divide within Israel. Not long after, he moved to the United States and the film captures his ambivalence about his move and the perspective it gave him.

“From the outside, you can see the dangerous process taking place in Israel,” he tells Haaretz, referring to the Israeli government’s increasing attacks on the Supreme Court, the media and liberal groups. “I think the culture war in Israel [within] Israeli society is more dangerous than any other war that Israel went through.”

“Foreign Land” juxtaposes Eldar’s story with that of his friend, the Palestinian actor Ghassan Abbas, who experiences increasing racism from Israelis – even in liberal enclaves like Tel Aviv.

The film chronicles Abbas’ increasing anger and desperation, and Eldar’s sense of helplessness. “People like me, I think we lost,” he says of Israel’s weakened left-wing population. “We can’t change the direction. I can make documentaries but I lost.”

No preaching

It’s fair to say that many of the devotees of the Other Israel Film Festival are people like Eldar – left-leaning, pluralistic, egalitarian, critical of Israel’s current government and political direction.

The festival’s founders know their audience and they see that as a plus. The festival is “a place where liberal Jews who love Israel come together and feel they have a community,” says Zabar. “And I think that’s incredibly important.”

But while they take pride in that result, the organizers say they aren’t interested in merely indulging the audience.

“Our goal is not to preach to the choir,” says Zablocki. “We like to hear from people who disagree, to have a conversation. That’s what it’s there for.”

For example, last year the festival screened “The Field” by Orthodox rabbi and settler Mordechai Vardi, which documented efforts by Palestinians and Israeli settlers to forge nonviolent communication. The festival also pairs its films with a robust schedule of talks and facilitated discussions to further engage audiences.

At first, the festival received some pushback from parts of the Jewish community who wondered why it was showing films from a Palestinian perspective, as well as from groups advocating a boycott of Israel who didn’t quite know what to make of a film festival about Israel with mainstream Jewish institutional support but from unexpected, critical angles.

“It’s gotten quieter,” Zablocki says of the criticism. Indeed, he says there’s been no pushback this year, noting, “It’s not a very controversial lineup.”

Though it has clear political sympathies, the festival says it tries to stay apolitical – in part by not partnering with political organizations.

“It’s not a political forum – we want to tell stories,” says Zabar. “It’s not a debate. I don’t slam [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. It’s a cultural education.” (The festival does partner with a number of nonprofits, many on the progressive end of the political spectrum, as well as several media publications, including Haaretz.)

That said, the organizers are well aware of the ways Netanyahu’s leadership has affected Israel’s cultural climate – notably in the passage of the Jewish nation-state law this summer and the efforts of Culture Minister Miri Regev to demand a loyalty oath from artists receiving state funding.

The increased rhetoric of the past several years has had an effect on the types of stories being told at the festival, admits Zabar.

“We’ve seen fewer and fewer films by Palestinians and about Palestinians in the past five years,” she says. “People are self-censoring, which always happens” when a government begins targeting artists for their views. Additionally, Zabar says, “Palestinian Israelis have been increasingly loath to participate in festivals or endeavors where they feel they’ll be contributing to normalization.”

For some, this includes participating at an event hosted by a major Jewish institution like JCC Manhattan.

Officially, the Other Israel Film Festival does not make statements on these issues. It prefers to let the films and filmmakers do the talking. Israeli director Iris Zaki, for example, exemplifies the festival’s aim of initiating nuanced dialogue. Her film, a captivating documentary called “Unsettling,” follows Zaki as she temporarily moves to the West Bank settlement of Tekoa and engages its residents in a series of intimate conversations about their lives and worldviews.

Her previous films have chronicled her conversations with ultra-Orthodox Jews in London and Arab and Jewish women in a Haifa hair salon. (The latter, called “Women in Sink,” was screened at the festival in 2015.)

“I still think it’s important to learn about people’s views in a more in-depth way,” says Zaki. Referring to her concept for “Unsettling,” she explains, “I didn’t go to judge and to argue. I went to listen and learn, and try to create a dialogue.”

She says she “initially encountered” skepticism and some hostility from the settlers, as well as pushback from her liberal friends in Tel Aviv who worried that her project would give a platform to the settlers’ views.

Dialogue is out of fashion in Israel these days, something Eldar chillingly illustrates in “Foreign Land.” Both he and Zaki see this reflected in American politics as well, which is why both felt their films had something to say to viewers in New York. The “American audience will see many similarities” between Israel and the United States, Eldar says, pointing to “the persecution of anyone who doesn’t think like you.”

On a more hopeful note, Zaki sees her film as a model for civil discourse between ideological opponents – something needed as much in the United States as in Israel. “It could be interesting for Americans to see how, in a different society that is very polarized, that this beginning of a dialogue or beginning to get to know each other is possible and fruitful,” she says.