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Israel Without the Conflict

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A new trend is rising in Israeli cinema. While the world is, for the most part, more interested in Israeli films on the topic of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Israel's real cinematic success is coming from stories of life in Israel outside the conflict. I just returned from a trip to the Doc Aviv Film Festival, a leading documentary film festival presented every spring in Tel Aviv. I know Tel Aviv pretty well, but on this trip I was reminded of the thriving culture that puts most cities in the world to shame.

There's street after street of bars and restaurants, packed every night, all night. In dozens of neighborhoods, different scenes and styles, along boulevards and side streets and hidden in alleys, the city is turning into one big restaurant. And the food... Tel Aviv has long forgotten simple falafel and has created a unique gourmet cuisine based on a melding of the local flavors and external inspirations. There were not enough meals in my week to try it all. This same melding and cultural explosion is present in its film productions as well. An industry that once relied on stories of occupation and war is blossoming with films that present Israel simply as a home.

While the world overly obsesses about Israel's politics, in Tel Aviv they are way too busy with high tech and nightlife to be concerned with such things. The topic hardly comes up. For the first time, Israel has an internal culture to be concerned with, which permits the society to engage in topics beyond the world's opinion of it. As delusional as it might be, the vibe in Tel Aviv is one that is preoccupied with normality. Yes, people complain about the high price of housing and the rising cost of living, and others worry about corruption in politics, but the truth is that these worries are very normal in a thriving economy, and it might simply be that Israelis like to complain. Maybe if they went out a little less, they would have more money for housing.

The same vitality and shift of focus is also evident in a recent trend of Israeli films where the only "conflict" is in the plot twists of universal stories revolving around people and life. Not that there are no problems in Israeli society. There are plenty, from African refugees to corrupt youth to religious-secular tensions, and they are presented in films. Sadly, these films are of less interest to the international film world. For example, in Doc Aviv, one of the few films that dealt head-on with the conflict was The Green Prince, about a Palestinian informant working for Israel. This was the only Israeli feature to be accepted last year to the Sundance Film Festival, and it will premiere this week in New York at the Human Rights Watch Festival, followed by a theatrical run this summer. But this film stood out politically within the selections.

Doc Aviv also included a new film about Mahmoud Darwish, the national Palestinian poet, titled Write Down, I Am an Arab, by Ibtisam Maarana-Menuhin. Surprisingly, the film focused mostly on his romances and gave a fresh, less overtly political perspective to this highly politicized character. Almost Friends by Barak Heymann and Nitzan Ofir also touched on Arab-Jewish relations as it told the story of an Arab girl from the troubled city of Lod attempting to have a friendship with a religious Jewish girl. The focus here was not on the Palestinian element but on the internal conflict between the right-wing Orthodox community and the Arab citizens of Israel. Both of these films will be presented at the JCC in Manhattan's Other Israel Film Festival (Nov. 6 to 13) and reflect the festival's nonpolitical approach to Arabs and minorities in Israel.

The Israel FIlm Center at the JCC in Manhattan is focusing an entire festival on new Israeli films, most of which have no obvious political agenda. The best new Israeli films that present real Israeli society will be featured starting this Thursday. The festival opens with a comedy -- Hunting Elephants by Reshef Levi -- that stars, among others, Sir Patrick Stewart in a hysterical role as he joins a bunch of Israeli senior citizens who attempt to rob a bank -- clearly the product of socioeconomic politics in Israel. Igor and the Cranes' Journey by Evegny Roman tells a father-and-son story and touches on the experience of the Russian immigration to Israel through a family friendly tale. Wonders by Avi Nesher, one of Israel's leading directors, touches on the meeting of secular life in Jerusalem and a mystical religious mystery. These and many more are examples of the nonpolitical culture that is thriving in Tel Aviv.