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New York: Other Israel Film Festival 2019

There is no other country whose films and television programs are as well represented in the United States as productions from Israel. There are currently more than 60 film festivals in North America with Jewish and Israeli themes. In addition, there are film festivals here which incorporate sidebars with Jewish or Israeli content.   The Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center Manhattan is a leading institution presenting Israeli productions and programs from other countries. Its progressive action-oriented programming philosophy offers perspectives many other Jewish film festivals disregard such as productions with the voices of Palestinians and other Israeli minority groups, the complex political and socio-economic issues Israel society is facing, as well as the impact of demographic and religious changes in Israel, to name but a few themes covered on a regular basis.   The JCC Manhattan’s Carole Zabar   Film Center offers The Other Israel Film Festival established by Carole Zabar, the ReelAbilities Film Festival, The Israel Film Center Festival, and the New York Social Justice Film Festival. This new festival premieres in January 2020 and will address the universal issue of inequality and possible responses to it.  The Film Center also provides a streaming service with more than 250 feature and documentary productions, and 6 television series. Most are from Israel but countries like Germany, France, the Palestinian territories, and others are presented too.  The Center streaming service currently serves about 5000 Individuals.

The just concluded 13th edition of the annual Other Israel Film Festival (OIF) provided an in-depth look at Israel and Palestine and was held from November 14-21 at the Jewish Community Centers of Manhattan and Harlem, the Mideastern café/bar Silvana, downtown Brooklyn’s Alamo Draft House and NYU’s Kimmel Center for Student Life.  The use of an additional venue and the growth of the special Shabbat convocation the OIF helped attract more than 3000 people this year.  Some of the OIF screenings and events were free of charge such as five short films, the Shabbat Shabbang event, and the important Panel What Is Left, addressing the future of the left in Israel and the polarization of Israeli society between left and right as well as liberal and conservative. OIF programmed seven documentaries, three feature films, episodes from two tv-series, five short films, and two receptions. All productions were completed in 2018 and 2019 with seven shown in New York for the first time, including two international premieres. The Other Israel Festival was funded by Carole Zabar with the cooperation of more than fifty partners.  

The documentary ADVOCATE by Rachel Leah Jones and Phillipe Bellaiche from 2019 places the problems Palestinians face in the Israeli judicial system into plain view.  From the perspective of the advocate, the Jewish Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel, and her Palestinian colleagues, the filmmakers show the near impossibility for Palestinian alleged offenders to obtain justice and objective balanced treatment in the Israeli court system. There seem to be two legal systems, one for Israeli Jews and another for Palestinians. If found guilty, Palestinians face higher prison terms compared to Israeli Jews for the same offense as a result of the application of different sentencing policies which are not spelled out legally.  In her practice, Lea Tsemel has never won a case other than an Israeli Supreme Court decision in 1999. As she puts it “I can live with the illusion that I can have an impact”. The supreme court decision outlawed the torture of alleged Palestinian terrorists by the secret service, but this apparently firm ruling was subsequently circumvented by the secret service according to testimony in the documentary by a former official.  A segregated system of justice frequently stacks the odds against Palestinians and is rarely covered by the press. To date about 800,000 Palestinians, 20% of the Arab and Palestinian population, have at one point in their life experienced the prison system. In those groups, few families are left without at least one family member having been subject to legal proceedings that not only criminalize them but also leave them with psychological trauma and its consequences. In a case handled by Lea Tsemel and covered by the documentary, a 13-year-old boy has been implicated in a knife attack, yet is tried by public opinion, in the media, and in the court tried as an adult terrorist suspected of attempted murder.  His interrogation does not provide any evidence of harmful intent, just the desire to scare people with the knife. He was imprisoned despite Israeli laws precluding prison for offenders less than 14 years old or less. The boy is found guilty and convicted to a prison term of 12 years, although the term is reduced at a subsequent appeal. Palestinians are considered by many increasingly conservative Israelis as inferior human beings prone to violence and terrorism and as fanatics threatening Israel’s security.  The invocation of the threat to security is a mantra determining many Israeli foreign and domestic policies.

Advocate has been nominated for numerous awards in the international film festival circuit and has received 12 to date.  When it won the award as the best Israeli film at the Israel Docaviv film festival the Culture Minister Miri Regev and right wing organizations attacked the selection of the documentary and its portrait of Lea Tsemel’s work as undermining Israel’s existence and supporting terrorism. Public opposition to the intervention by Miri Regev by intellectuals, artists, and human rights activist rapidly arose.  Still many Israelis treat Lea Tsemel as a traitor.

Comrade Dov, Barak Heymann, 2019.  This documentary is an in-depth portrait of Dov Khenin who served for 12 years in the Knesset as a deputy for the Joint List, was a member of the central committee of the Israeli Communist party and was an outspoken supporter of the Jewish Arab alliance.  It provides a rarely seen insight into the everyday life of a progressive member of Israel’s parliament and depicts the challenges he faced representing the interests of minority groups, including the poorest of society, and the Arab-Israeli Palestinians. Khenin came from a privileged Ashkenazi background with the ancestry of a deeply religious grandfather who was a Chabad leader. He followed the path of his father who fought for the rights of the underprivileged.  In Comrade Dov  we see his struggle against gentrification and the dislocation of people whose homes are replaced by luxury high-rise buildings. He successfully led the Knesset battle to increase the minimum wage of low earning groups to 30 shekels, moving 200,000 people out of poverty. He overcame those voters opposing him because he was not revolutionary enough and because he  lacked a complete understanding of Arabs living in Israel. In the Knesset he argued for the taxpayers’ support for cost subsidies to factories since paying unemployment benefits vastly exceeded what public support of the production would be. The list of laws and regulations enacted which were sponsored by Khenin is impressive.  What motivates Dov Khenin, as it does Lea Tsemel, is a firmly implanted sense of morality and a clear conviction about what is right and wrong expressed in their empathy for others.  Dov’s opposition to the destruction of a Bedouin community to create space for housing and Lea’s complete rejection of unequal legal treatment of Arabs living in Israel and the occupied areas are based on convictions. For them the commonly accepted craving for material benefits disconnects the individual from the community and lacks an ethical basis. Both continue their struggle. 

 

Uri Sivan directed the MUNA television series of which two episodes were shown at the festival. The series was developed by Mira Awad over ten years and sold to the Israeli TV Channel 11 to be shown there this year. It was also acquired by Netflix.  The series is set in 2014, in the cultural context of the Tel Aviv’s liberal bubble and features Muna Abud, a well-known progressive Israel-Arab artist who has established herself as a successful photographer.  She is assembling a photo show to be held in Paris and is funded by the foreign affairs Israeli Ministry. The plot evolves in the context of the exploding Gaza crisis with Muna faced by a growing net of contradictory demands. Her professional independent standing and Tel Aviv life style strongly contrasts with her upbringing in a small Palestinian village and her father running for office there. Her well-advertised Israeli sponsorship runs counter to his political platform. On the other hand, she is very much involved with Yaniv, a Jewish television producer and is forced to balance Arab and Israeli critics objecting to her as a collaborator or representative of Israel.  Yaniv’s parents are fiercely nationalistic, as strongly committed as Muna’s father is to the Palestinian cause.   To complicate matters further, a young Palestinian girl is killed by a member of the IDF and an IDF soldier is shot. For Muna there seems to be no firm ground to establish her identity though she is featured as a very strong character.  She comes from a patriarchal background where women are not allowed to be themselves.  In Tel Aviv the radical Palestinians hate her because she represents Israel and lives a comfortable life as distinct from Palestinians living in the oppressive settings of an Israeli occupied village. Yet in a television interviews she is branded as a Palestinian supporting the Arabs. Thus, Paris appears to be an ideal place to secure respite.

 

 

Claus Mueller   filmexchange@gmail.com

 

 

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