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The Fading Valley
The 7th Annual Other Israel Film Festival well showcased its strongest offerings yet for dramatic insight into the ethnic and religious diversity of Israel’s population, where over 20% are Arab. The statistics – and the interactions—get considerably more complex, and rife for cinematic exploration in documentaries and fiction features, when also included are the areas Israel has controlled since 1967, with an increasing sense of uneasy permanence as negotiations drag on. The films, with accompanying discussions, screened in New York City from November 14 – 21, mostly at the JCC in Manhattan, with selections continuing to stream for a national audience, including highlights from previous years’ festivals. The best films, thanks to committed directors and participants, reveal an involving range of perspectives: from cautious optimism, to the realistic difficulties of living with diversity, to a depressing frankness, and, finally, sinking into pessimisms for the future.
The Difficulties of Diversity - Non-Fiction Friction
The Garden of Eden is a strikingly beautiful and unusually illuminating look at how even a shared, relaxing oasis, the crowded Gan HaShlosha National Park (a.k.a the Sahne) in the Lower Galilee, is no vacation from conflicting differences in Israel. In wandering with a cinema verité camera past faces and bodies (whether covered or bared has cultural significance), the same physical space is shown to have different resonances for different people, with different codes of behavior, different memories, and different interactions.
Seen in its New York premiere, director Ran Tal’s film creatively accomplishes the subtle juxtaposition of two cinematic tracks-- what we see contrasts with the poignant voices who add layers of different interpretations, like the witnesses heard over his earlier retrospective documentary Children of the Sun. Daniel Kedem’s exquisite cinematography immerses us in a year in the life of the park like a stage setting, around the seasons, day through night, open to the public or when employees have to themselves the spring-fed natural grotto that is over 80 degrees (F) year-round. Formal activities espied include day-time gender-restricted swimming periods and at night Christian youth welcoming Jesus, and, informally, teen boys ogling bikini-clad girls, while a determined Lubavitcher recruiter urges BBQ’ers to pray. Fully encloaked Arab mothers wistfully watch over their not-yet-restricted young daughters. But the free-flowing, sometimes confessional, monologues, followed by brief identifying shots of the haunted interviewees, add another dimension. As touching and deep as each of their personal currents flow, most relevant to the Festival’s themes are two men’s memories of their experiences– a man from Nazareth sadly recalls meeting there his long-time love, a Russian woman who his family made him give up – “An Arab and a Jew can’t make it in this place”-- and the proud pioneer kibbutznik who chortles over how they diverted the spring for the popular waterfall that flows over basalt rocks they took in 1956 from the ruined houses of Palestinian villages.
It’s Better to Jump reveals indigenous Palestinians’ bitter view of an historic urban area tourists to Israel don’t usually get to see, and can be seen in its theatrical run after the New York premiere at the festival. As a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site, the Old City of Akka, or Acre, an ancient port on the northern Mediterranean coast, has been absorbing waves of political and cultural conquerors, covered in the opening, from the Israelites to the Assyrians in the 9th century BCE, Phoenicians and Persian rule between the 6th - 4th centuries BCE, under the Egyptian, Romans, Byzantium and Arab empires until the Crusaders declared it their capital for four hundred years, on and off, through the 12th century, building an imposing fortress (that I’ve visited). The mid-18th century Ottoman urban renewal with fortifications and palaces that dominate the skyline set the stage for this documentary’s repeating visual theme of boys, again and again, bounding off the 40-foot-tall, foot-thick seawall now rapidly encroached by post-1948 Israeli gentrification that may be even more racially, politically, ideologically, and economically charged than in old cities elsewhere. (Hal Asby’s acerbic The Landlord comes to mind of a comparably changing Brooklyn in the 1970’s.) By the end, the beauty of the stunning cinematography (long time American documentarians Gina Angelone and Patrick Alexander Stewart were joined by Palestinian-born co-director Mouna Stewart) is an ironic counter-point to a detailed litany of resentments against the lack of other education, economic, and, particularly, affordable housing opportunities as vented by earnest interviewees whose families have lived there for over a hundred years -- artists, musicians, teachers, historians, guide, fisherman, businesspeople, boxer, and actors, including Makram Khoury, of Inheritance, who once nearly drowned as one of those jumping boys. There’s confusing archival footage interjected from other cities, including Haifa and Gaza, to predict a dark dystopian future for native Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, but the didactic negativity is leavened a bit by a light-hearted debate on humus as their national symbol.
Two school-based documentaries, each filmed over a year, frankly demonstrate how difficult it is to find a common space, and even language, for Israeli Arabs and Jews to learn together. Dancing in Jaffa opens like a corny version of Mad Hot Ballroom in Israel, with the gimmick to pair up Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab children in the mixed, but pretty much segregated neighborhood of Jaffa, adjacent to Tel Aviv, a place seen recently in tense features like the Oscar-nominated Ajami. Yes, it’s the same “Dancing Classrooms” program, and the work of its founder, Pierre Dulaine, to bring the confidence, self-esteem, discipline, etiquette, and, most of all, respect, of ballroom dancing to urban schools that has already gotten the Antonio Banderas inspiring bio-pic treatment in Take the Lead. But Jaffa is where Dulaine’s family home was that he hasn’t seen since he fled as a child in 1948.
Director Hilla Medalia captures in verité style the unique difficulties he faces here -- how he is warned away from his old house, how the Muslim community has gotten more overtly religious than when his Palestinian mother married his Irish father so that any male/female touching is a sensitive issue; the clashing rituals around Israeli Independence Day/Palestinian Nakba Day of the Catastrophe; and school after school refusing to participate as they spew prejudices. Just when all looks as hopeless as peace in the Middle East, he calls in his championship partner of more than three decades, the elegant Yvonne Marceau, and the magic they demonstrate in dancing together seems to spread Fred Astaire-and-Ginger-Rogers fairy dust over everyone. From there, the usual trope of cute-kids-in-competition is emotionally heightened as students, parents, and teachers dance through political violence-caused family traumas and the cultural differences to begin to see each other as individuals with commonalities, even friends, and blossom through the rehearsals and shared applause. An impossible dream comes true!
Wouldn’t it be a no-brainer for Israeli children to learn Arabic? Turns out it’s not so easy, as seen in the U.S. premiere of Dove’s Cry, a sensitive consciousness-raiser on the obstacles. In a suburban Tel Aviv middle school, Israeli Arab Hadeel (her name is the sound a dove makes) enthusiastically embarks on a teaching experiment, and finds she literally embodies a foreign culture, religion, and political perspective that the parents and students are surprisingly ignorant of, including the well-meaning principal awkwardly blundering through miscommunications, even as she admirably opens up her school to the camera. On a roller coaster of gratifying ups and tearful downs, the refreshingly honest Hadeel is discomfited by the school year kick-off with a shofar-blowing, at the celebration of Israeli Independence and Memorial Days accompanied by the national anthem, the constant curiosity about her very colorful and stylish head scarves, the surprise at her Israeli citizenship, let alone when an unruly student curses her as “You stinking Arab!” Dedicating the film to her late mother who taught Arabic, persistent director Ganit Ilouz also follows Hadeel back to her family near Haifa, who are mostly supportive of her independence – as long as the 28-year-old gets married by spring and they agree to find her a husband who is willing to let her keep working this draining, challenging job, she reports, “as long as I don’t neglect our home”. She happily introduces her affectionate students to her holidays, symbols, cuisine, customs (such as henna hand painting), and songs, only to feel crushed when an arts and crafts project to make a mosque diorama raises parents’ ire and she is patronizingly admonished to just stick to the language – but can she do that and still be true to herself and her students?
Diverse young Israelis also meet up on the soccer field (a.k.a. football pitch). Green Dreams, in a U.S. premiere, is director Levi Zini’s transplanted homage to Steve James’s classic 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. Here the teens (and their painfully obsessed parents and mentors) have excruciatingly unrealistic hopes for making it, against very long odds, onto a major league soccer team in Israel or Europe as their self-sacrificing ticket out of poverty. Yisrael, son of Ethiopian immigrants, has lived at an ORT-supported boarding school almost since his mother died when he was little, and Mahdi’s hard-working Israeli Arab family is from the Lower Galilee valley, like World Cup hero Abas Suan featured in After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin. Both of them seem to be so much at the high-pressure mercy of ambitious, ruthless coaches and recruiters who see dollar signs not real boys that this up-close-and-personal profile is heartbreaking to watch.
Sitting (or Farming or Scrounging) in Limbo
Several perceptive documentaries are close-up looks at individuals impacted by living in perpetual limbo since their property was annexed or divided by Israel since 1967, areas that have been neglected in most media attention, and are almost unbearably hopeless. Around divided Jerusalem, The Lesson is a series of many surprisingly engaging driving lessons the middle-aged Egyptian-born Layla takes all with a patient Palestinian instructor, in this U.S. premiere. Director Anat Zuria, who rode around that city to capture how it felt for ultra-Orthodox women to sit in the back of a Black Bus, gradually draws this Muslim woman out to confess her very convoluted life story of abuse and the fears that have kept her away from her house on the other side of Israel’s security wall which can now only be reached by car – a divide that will soon keep away her daughter who is marrying an Israeli Jew. As very particular and idiosyncratic as her extended family relationships are, the frustrations at how Middle East politics have complicated her life are palpable.
On the Golan Heights,Apples of Golan takes us into the hard-scrabble daily life in Majdal Shams, one of the five primarily Druze villages still managing to survive as circumscribed between Israel, Syria, and the fences, mines and U.N. peacekeepers along the border. Holding on to a nostalgic Syrian identity, the proud farmers insist the seeds are distinctively Syrian. Their limited options to cross into Damascus have been seen before –through marriage like in the fiction feature Syrian Bride and college education in the 2011 Festival selection Shout. But in this U.S. premiere, Irish documentarians Jill Beardsworth and Keith Walsh follow, over five years, how those stuck home live in an ongoing twilight zone where ID cards label their nationality as “undefined”. Kids learn Hebrew in school, but the community rejects a man who intermarried. A grandfather recites a sadly frozen in 1967 allegiance to the Syrian president in denial of the raging revolution, and it isn’t clear at first if a mother is waiting for a son’s release from prison in Israel or Syria. What is unambiguous is that only golden apples can regularly cross the border people can’t (under internationally controlled trade procedures), but their orchards are under insidious attack by competition with Israeli civilians and military for water and acreage.
The Fading Valley, in its U.S. premiere, further investigates the drip, drip, drip of this agricultural and livestock crisis in more detail, into the Jordan Valley. Director Irit Gal relentlessly follows shepherds along the drying up trail (despite soldiers’ efforts to block her camera) to devastatingly uncover how the increasing desertification of previously sustainable Palestinian land is caused by deliberate redirection of water to blooming kibbutzim and settlements.
The evaporation of their way of life is depressing enough – until you see how things can get even worse in the New York premiere Good Garbage directed by Shosh Shlam and Ada Ushpiz. Two Oscar-nominated documentaries saluted the dignity of hard-working recyclers picking through city dumps, in Waste Land about Rio de Janeiro and Recycled Life about Guatemala City. But the emphasis here is on the depressingly politically-caused irony of Palestinian families aggressively gleaning the Hebron Hills garbage dump in the occupied West Bank that is full of the modern detritus of the Israeli settlements that displaced them. Taken together, these hard-to-watch but valuable documentaries are a harvest of shame for Israel.
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