New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news


“The Other Israeli Film Festival" 2009
Manhattan, New York City

As it does each year, the “Other Israeli Film Festival” comes to Manhattan, offering up a clear view of Israeli’s Palestinians. Sponsored once more by the The Israeli Film Center at the Manhattan JCC, the festival runs through most of November. The value of these fine films (both documentaries and fiction pieces) is that it gives this minority population a human face.

As to the films themselves, outstanding among its peers is “Jaffa,” a modern Romeo-and-Juliet tale, directed by Keren Yedaya. Mali, an Israeli girl, falls in love with the Arab Tauffik, a mechanic in her father’s garage. The doomed love story, so familiar to us all, is totally absorbing in this setting. Our only criticism is that “Jaffa” portrays all the Arabs as noble, with a Jew as the villain of the piece. Yet one cannot but empathize with this young couple, victims of the time and place, and root for their survival.

The documentary “Telling Strings” offers a very different (and basically apolitical) experience. It is an unusual look at the Jubran family, a three generation Palestinian family of musicians from northern Galilee. The father is both musician and instructor, but also a maker of traditional string instruments such as the ouds and bouzouqs. “Telling Strings” is a fine example of the playing out of the creative process, which exists here in very trying conditions.

Among the 17 films offered are comedies, satires, Cannes Film Festival favorites, travelogues, documentaries. Underlying all the films is the reality of official, governmental oppression—sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, in its political message. And yet there is undeniable truth. Not only are Palestinians restricted in movement and opportunity, as the films indicate, but they are seen by Israelis as a despised minority and treated as such. Of course one could argue that such an impasse between peoples is the result of necessity, history, and ongoing perils—that the real villain is not the Israeli government, but the ever-threatening terrorists. But the films focus on effect rather than cause, on life as it exists for the Palestinians.

Clearly political in its essence is “Laila’s Birthday.” The story of a judge-turned-taxi driver, the film follows its Palestinian anti-hero through one day of work, as he struggles to get home in time for his seven-year-old daughter’s birthday. His family life, idealized in the film, offers the only bulwark against the humiliations and frustrations of his daily life. Initially, “Laila’s Birthday” promises to be a comedy, but proves to be just the opposite.

Other films focus on a Bedouin village in the Negev which has the largest percentage of deaf people in the world, an Arab journalist who reaches across cultures, the fantasies of a detainee in an Israeli prison, Arab-Israeli interactions, and the unifying effects of hummus.

That a Palestinian population, with its own culture and values and sense of pride, continues to exist is exemplified in these films. Certainly this information is—or should be—part of our own education. As Festival founder Carole Zabar points out, the Festival’s goal is to promote tolerance. “Film is a great vehicle for cultural understanding and social awareness, and we are excited to….shine a light on a segment of Israel’s population that no one gets to see…” A worthy project indeed.

-- Irene Backalenick
November 6, 2009

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