"An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." -- Mahatma Gandhi
I've learned all I know about faraway cultures and long-standing conflicts from art -- more specifically films. My knowledge lies deep within my heart, it lives constantly in the recesses on my mind, and occupies my soul, so that my responses and my beliefs are seldom knee-jerk reactions or opinionated points of view. It's not because I'm particularly special, sensible or intelligent, quite the contrary, I'm just an ordinary human being. But my education hasn't come from books or the media. It has come thanks to some of the most special people on earth, the artists of our times, and is the kind available to all of us, if only we care to listen (or in this case, watch). It's what I like to call a little learning with my entertainment, activism of the cultural kind.
Yet these days, there is more and more bad news for those of us who believe in art as a means to change the world. Filmmakers have been forced to take sides, boycott festivals and stand together (yet separated) against war. More lines are drawn and the great cinematic community that used to include Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians, is coming apart at the seams.
But I'm not giving up so easily. I still hope for a day when Israeli filmmakers will be allowed to show their films in festivals throughout the Arab world and Palestinian filmmakers will once again show their oeuvres in Jerusalem, Haifa and other festivals around the country, and people will easily come from Gaza and the West Bank to watch them. If there is any hope for the world in general, the Middle East in particular, and that elusive word "peace" it will come from cinema. And here are six films that prove it.
The Time That Remains by Elia Suleiman
I put this film first on my list because it's the ultimate explanation, from a humanistic point of view, of the Palestinian Nakba (the Disaster), or the birth of Israel in 1948 -- depending on where you are sitting. The film has no equal, it's touching, beautiful and even humorous in parts, all in typical Suleiman style. It also helps understand the definitions of Palestinian and "Israeli-Arabs" which could forever prove a point of contention and incomprehension. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Suleiman's work is that he doesn't shy away from criticizing anyone and everyone, and does it with such insight, one is left speechless. He gets it, the fact that this is a conflict that requires putting down the guns, sitting down with the "Other" and getting to the heart of the matter and if you can get some of his other works, like Divine Intervention and Chronicle of a Disappearance, by all means, make it a Suleiman marathon.
Cup Final by Eran Riklis
I only recently watched Cup Final, strangely enough right in the midst of the last World Cup finals in Brazil. For someone who cares very little about sports, I found myself understanding, through Eran Riklis' film, the importance of allegiances and teams, and how a favorite jersey can help men forget which side they are on. It's "a masterpiece of peace, hope and endless possibilities," as I have been known to say about each and every one of Riklis' films. Perhaps no other filmmaker as much as he questions the identity of an Israeli and what he wishes that to represent. In the director's notes for his latest film Dancing Arabs, which incidentally saw its world premiere event cancelled due to the conflict in Israel, he wrote, "The soul of a dancing Arab, forever juggling who he is and what he really wants to be, connects with my personal fears, with my soul as an Israeli who is part of this land, part of his people and yet is not sure where and how he wants to be." Cup Final stars two brilliant actors, both royalty in their own cultures, Moshe Ivgi and Mohammad Bakri, and their onscreen chemistry, as enemies who become soul brothers, makes one believe there is hope for this world after all. And to catch up on all of Riklis' wonderful films is a must, including Zaytoun, Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride.
Salt of This Sea by Annemarie Jacir
Annemarie Jacir's is one of the voices of reason that I constantly keep in mind, as an imaginary advisor, when I decide to write a piece like this one. Unending respect goes out to this cultural warrior, whose strong principles and beliefs always help to support the cause and do right by the Palestinians. She's politically involved and not afraid to say so, and do so. Yet her filmmaking is poetic, as with her masterpiece When I Saw You, perfectly structured and wonderfully fulfilling. With Salt of This Sea, which was her first feature length film and was co-produced by Danny Glover, she introduced me to dynamics I didn't yet comprehend, strong women (Suheir Hammad is divine) and introverted men (one stellar performance from Saleh Bakri, who is also featured in The Time That Remains), explored the struggles of the Palestinian diaspora and the idea of retribution and simply made me love her filmmaking at first sight! It's the film I return to again and again when I need to be reminded of just how raw nerves are and why.
Miral by Julian Schnabel
When I wrote about the momentous premiere of Schnabel's film, based on the autobiographical book by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, at the United Nations back in 2011, I was struck by a reader's comment. "I've learned as I've gotten older that people are either for or against Israel. There's really no middle-ground," wrote the reader, thus starting an endless loop of thoughts and ideas for me. I believe today, as I did then, that as human beings our convictions are valid grounds to start with, but our ability to be flexible and learn as we go along is by far a better quality. Miral touched my heart, and the sheer dynamics of this couple that came together, at that moment in time, to make the film, to bring this story to light, was a ray of hope for me. Everything about the film was simply groundbreaking, even if critics didn't always agree about the performances and Schnabel's direction -- the heart of this film is in the right place.
Paradise Now by Hany Abu-Assad
Hany Abu-Assad has a way of looking at the conflict from both sides. He's clearly an Arab, his soul is deeply Palestinian, yet he can call upon the issues and discrepancies of his fellow people with a rigorous eye. When I was getting ready to watch -- for the second time -- his latest work Omar during the Dubai International Film Festival, two Palestinian women sat down in the seats next to me. We started talking and they confessed how much they had "hated Paradise Now." Their main issue was with the portrayal of the Palestinians, "too simplistic, typical terrorists," which of course isn't the case for the wonderfully complex character of Said and Khaled. As they watched Omar, while I laughed and cried along with Abu-Assad's rich characters and spellbinding twists, they shook their heads, and complained aloud, again about "negative portrayals." But isn't it true that the way to wisdom lies within our ability to recognize our imperfections? And while of course I could never say a bad thing about either side (it's like that "you can't talk about my Mama" thing, you know...), Abu-Assad can. And does. And in the process, finds a wonderful field where we can all meet, as Rumi wrote, "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing."
Ajami by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani
Ajami as a cinematic oeuvre -- with its five everyday stories of a district of Tel Aviv, mixing Muslim, Christians and Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis -- is already groundbreaking enough. But what makes this film extra special and a must-watch is its mixture of cultures, in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Made by a filmmaking duo, Scandar Copti a Palestinian and Yaron Shani an Israeli Jew, the film marks a specific moment in time when such a work could be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival without boycotts and polemics, the crew could be from opposite backgrounds and come together on set, and Israel even submitted it as its official entry to the Academy Awards, in 2009, despite the fact most of the film is in Arabic, not Hebrew.
Yet will a moment like that, a magical point in time when art truly manages to change the outcome of the conflict, without compromising justice for peace, come around ever again? These days, the obvious answer seems a great, big "NO." But perhaps out of the ashes of this violence, the unthinkable human toll and the tragedy played out in front of our eyes every day, there will rise a cinematic Phoenix. A film to end all films, with every culture coming together to celebrate their differences, instead of persecuting each other because of them.
The Time That Remains and Paradise Now images courtesy of DIFF; all other images courtesy of the filmmakers, used with permission