Under the Same Sun
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 (http://www.jccmanhattan.org/), with selections continuing to stream (http://www.otherisraelondemand.com/) 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.
Under the Same Sun is the first feature produced by Search for Common Ground (http://www.sfcg.org/), an international non-profit organization working on changing how people deal with conflict to bring about sustainable peace. Despite this idealistically utopian provenance, director Samen Zoabi, who delightfully portrayed the village near the Israeli border where he grew up in the comic Man Without A Cell Phone, deftly and sensitively brings to life Yossi Aviram’s humanistic screenplay that realistically imagines a near-future where Israel and Palestine negotiate a peace deal. Two entrepreneurs – Nizar in Palestine (well-known Nazareth-born actor Ali Suliman) and Shaul in Israel (Yossi Marshak) -- tentatively prepare to benefit from the anticipated normalization by setting up a solar energy company. Starting from the necessity of using an Israeli Arab middle-man, the usual problems of starting a new business are heightened by acutely portrayed personal, family, social, and community complications, suspicions and resentments that circle around them and cannot be resolved easily. Recently broadcast simultaneously on an Israel TV channel and an independent Palestinian satellite station, showings in the U.S., after this New York premiere, will help Americans feel more optimistic.
Two notable first fiction features set in the Israeli Arab villages that dot northern Israel, near the Sea of Gallilee, are more wary about how people living under political and social pressures pay a toll for being very human.
Inheritance is the impressive directorial debut of the Nazareth-born actress Hiam Abbass, internationally renowned for her roles in films such as The Visitor and Lemon Tree. In her co-written, perceptive script, she also co-stars as Samira, a conventional wife caught up in selfish squabbles as her extended, well-connected family – doctor, political candidate, real estate developer, university student, cab driver -- gathers for her daughter’s wedding at their village near the Lebanese border, all movingly portrayed by a large, mostly Israeli-Arab ensemble that includes Ali Suliman and Jordanian-born comic, co-writer Ghazi Albuliwi as a seriously love-lorn cousin. Domestic issues arising from tradition vs. modernity press in on the beleaguered Lear-like patriarch (Makram Khoury).
The outbreak of Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah aggravates romantic and business dealings with Israelis and Christians, complicating and rattling the most intimate interactions into desperation. Even in what could have been a cliché young Romeo-and-Juliet couple, the British boyfriend of the rebellious artist daughter cries out “Your family is a bunch of savages!” While the characters are strongly individuated, the cultural, generational, and religious differences, and how they grapple with them, are frankly and unsparingly put in sharp relief.
Arabani is not only the absorbing debut fiction feature by writer/director Adi Adwan, but also the first by a Druze and set in his native Druze community in northern Israel, in its U.S. premiere. An opening scroll describes the Druze as an Islamic sect that rejects intermarriage, then follows the fraught set-up of a prodigal son Yoseph (Eyad Sheety) as he hauls his two typically resentful teenagers, smoldering Smadar (Daniella Niddam) and willing-to-experiment Eli (Tom Kelrich), from life in modern Israel with their Jewish mother back to his mortified traditional mother after his divorce, pleading with her “I have no other solution.” Seventeen years after leaving to serve in the Israeli army, Yoseph is hopeful his mother will accept her mixed grandchildren (the title is slang for a blend of Hebrew and Arabic), but he’s also nostalgic for those he left behind, particularly an old girlfriend Yusra (Lucy Aharish, the first Arab news presenter on a major Israeli TV channel who was also featured in Under the Same Sun). While much of the kids’ interactions with the locals are of the universally familiar plugged-in city slicker vs. conservative country trickster variety, the depth of the community’s rejection (even amidst sweet glimpses of love) is almost as disturbing as a horror movie.