The Other Israel: Film Festival Inspires Conversation About Diversity and Identity
On Thursday, November 10, 200 people filed into the JCC in Manhattan to watch the documentary Dolphin Boy at the opening night Gala for The 5th Other Israel Film Festival. In celebration of the JCC’s 10-year anniversary and the 5th year of the festival, Israelis, Americans, Jews and non-Jews entered the building to support a festival not dedicated to typical Israeli films, but rather to movies showcasing the two million minorities in Israel—hence “the Other Israel.” Though many of the films dealt with controversial subject matter, they were not intended to point fingers, but rather to foster social awareness and inspire conversation.
In addition to seven documentaries, four dramas, six shorts, and two TV series, a Speakeasy Café, developed in the last year, was set up to encourage discussions with the directors and audience members. Isaac Zablocki, Executive Director of the festival emphasized, “The conversations allowed us to go beyond the amazing power of film, and engage, applaud and debate with the realities.”
Documentaries and dramas covered a wide array of topics from intermarriage between Muslims and Jews (Lost Paradise), friendship between Israeli Arabs and American Jews (David and Kamal), co-existence for renewable energy in Palestine (The Human Turbine), and recent Israeli deportation (Homecoming).
Rabbi Joy Levitt, the Executive Producer for the JCC, felt sponsoring The 5th Other Israel Film Festival was essential for enabling viewers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to “challenge assumptions” and “engage in big questions.” On opening night, Carol Zabar, the Film Festival founder, dedicated the festival to an Arab woman who passed away one month ago. Before Zabar walked off stage, she bowed her head and concluded, “[You] can’t judge anyone from where they are, what their religion is or what place they are from.”
With that, Dolphin Boy began: a four-year documentary depicting Morad, a 17-year-old-boy from the Golan Heights who was brutally attacked by a group of Arab teenagers. The damage caused an unusual trauma known as “vertical schism of the soul” which erased his memory. When told by doctors that dolphin-assisted therapy was the last treatment option, Morad’s father leaves his job and family to move to Dolphin Reef in Eilat, vowing to return only when his son recovers. Surrounded by a dedicated doctor, new friends, and an Israeli Jewish girlfriend, Morad and his father embark on a journey of recovery and internal peace. Through close-up and underwater footage, directors Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir capture unique interactions between dolphin and man and heartbreaking affection between father and son.
When the documentary ended, Dr. Kuntz, the film psychologist, summed up the movie as “a story about love and how resilient we are when we receive it.” From a distance, there was no emphasis on Morad’s nationality—whether he was an Israeli-Jew or Arab-Israeli. “Exactly the point.” said Zablocki, the Executive Director of the festival. “To outsiders it’s just a foreign language. International and universal.” When asked why Dolphin Boy was chosen specifically as the opener, Zablocki noted, “It’s most relatable and it is positive for Israel. Israel has a reputation of interaction with Arabs. This shows Israeli’s health benefits. Plus, it’s a great film.”
However, other movies portrayed a love story less universal, such as 77 Steps, directed and produced by Ibtisam Mara’ana, who is also the protagonist in the documentary. The film captures her personal journey as an Arab-Muslim who leaves Palestine to find self-discovery in Tel-Aviv. While searching for an apartment in the city, she encounters discrimination and racial profiling, but eventually finds an apartment and begins a relationship with her neighbor Jonathan, a Jewish Canadian-Israeli. Though the topic matter could have been too sensitive to capture, Mara’ana wove humor with her fiery personality, creating a surprisingly relatable character.
This being Mara’ana’s third visit to The Other Israel Film Festival and seventh documentary, she seemed well aware of the Speakeasy format and welcomed the crowd warmly with, “Shabbat Shalom.” In an over-the-phone interview, Mara’ana recalled the difficulties of making a personal film about her own relationship: “A lot of emotional involvement . . . you can look at yourself in the mirror and know who you’ve become.” When asked if the problem of discrimination in Israel can be solved she replied, “The problem can be solved, if maybe next election people want peace and give rights to minorities.”
Surprisingly, in the past, the most controversial response Mara’ana received was not from a Jewish audience, but from an Arab one: “a Muslim Arab woman screaming in the middle of the film.” Only fifteen minutes from the beginning of screening the movie, it was apparent that Marana’s film was “taboo,” as she recalled, “the audience was shocked that an Arab woman, a Muslim, could show this film. They were very angry.” After the abrupt reaction, Mara’ana and the audience spoke about the issues in the film. Similar to Jewish norms, a Muslim man or woman is encouraged to marry within his or her own religion, and a single Palestinian woman is forbidden to move to Tel-Aviv. Through this movie, Mara’ana felt, “I can look at the eyes of an Arab man in my society and say this is my choice and right to be in love with a Jewish man.” After interviewing Mara’ana it became apparent this was not a story about a Palestinian oppressed by her country, but rather a woman fighting self-oppression, and finding the strength to love who she wants.
Noa Maiman, a Jewish Israeli director, daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and holding a Masters in Comparative Conflicts, found Mara’ana’s film especially interesting, saying, “It was only when I moved to London that I started realizing the sentiment of racism in Israel.” Maiman’s documentary, Homecoming, followed the lives of three illegal immigrants in Israel, highlighting the recent enactment of the illegal immigration deportation policy. Through an intimate film crew of three people and no soundman, Maiman was able to capture the uninhibited emotions of a sixteen-year-old Congolese girl, an eighteen-year-old Pilipino man and a twenty-year-old Peruvian man who were each sent back to their countries to visit their families for the first time. Shaky footage captured broken roads, decaying shacks, and sweltering heat. Confused young adults embraced their families in poverty stricken, third-world countries. Moments of self-identification were caught on camera as the twenty-year-old Pilipino boy claimed, “I don’t really know what it means to be Israeli.” Including Mara’ana (77 Steps) and the youth in Homecoming, Maiman notes, “At least one in every five Israelis [is] not Jewish.”
The deportation of illegal immigrants from Israel was enacted half a year ago with the deportation of parents with children between one and three-years-old. Maiman recalls, “Three years ago the government started talking about deportation. The moment foreign workers would get pregnant they would get deported, causing kids to grow up in Israel without maturation.” Illegal workers have two choices: send their child back to their home country alone, or lose their legal work visa after three to four months post child birth.
Three and a half year ago Maiman participated in a social campaign in hopes of removing some of the stress, but it appears the problem has arisen again. Currently there are 1200 illegal children in Israel with 400 to 800 immigrants awaiting possible legalization. In total, three children between two and five years old have been deported over the last few months. Maiman hopes to defer all deportation by encouraging immigrants to join the Israeli army or convert to Judaism. Not everyone agrees with this method, which is why upon the Israeli screening of Homecoming or Shiva Bayita (Seven Houses), Maiman recalls, “Right wing [Israelis] said we were really doing cheap manipulation,” while “Left wing [Israelis} said it’s not right for us to take away their freedom and say if they want to join the army they would be Israeli.”
Since this is a current hot topic in Israel, Maiman felt it was necessary to film the movie in only one month so that screening could take place before deportation. In total, the movie took six months, and though Maiman doesn’t feel her documentary will change the fate of illegal immigrants, she hopes the butterfly effect will ensue, pointing out the responsibility of viewers, “To write and tell others about it.”
Amidst all the politics, Maiman’s main point, much like Mara’ana (77 Steps), is to stress acceptance and to recognize the beauty of diversity. At the end of the day, this is a movie about finding Israeli identity for three young adults caught between two countries and cultures, neither of which is entirely conducive to their own beliefs and values.
Jews, non-Jews, directors, producers, audience members and journalists alike gathered together between November 10 and November 17 to open their hearts and minds to a new perspective. Some, like Zablocki, festival director, felt improvements in Israel could be made “through seeing these movies.” Aimee Rubenstein, Features editor of The Observer, agreed saying, “When I watch movies, hear stories, or connect with people on the left side, I find myself not just sympathizing, but understanding their side of the story.” Others, like Maiman (Homecoming) understood the limits of a small capacity film festival, hoping the small crowd was full of “influential opinion makers.” Some audience members left unsure of their opinion, like Leslie Stonebraker, writer for Jspace, who admitted, “I left with more questions than answers.” However, most would agree, like Mara’ana (77 Steps), that it is “The responsibility of the audience to decide how [they] feel.”
Regardless of controversy, the JCC considers The 5th Other Israel Film Festival a success. Most shows sold out and approximately 5,000 viewers attended in total. Zablocki hopes the films will “change the way people perceive Israel and expand the pallet from black and white to multicolored.” The JCC currently has 416 Israeli films in their library repertoire and will now proudly add another 18.
To view videos from the festival and recorded conversations visit: Otherisraelondemand.org or the Facebook page: Other Israel Film Festival.