In a time of seemingly hopeless negotiations, boycotts, and tension, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is entering a new war zone: movies. In the last few years, with the rise of Israeli cinema onto the international scene, the small Palestinian film industry is working tirelessly as well to add feisty competition to the films coming out of this region. This year, the battle of the films reached a new height when the Palestinian and Israeli feature films went head to head for an Oscar nomination -- Yuval Adler's Bethlehem vs. Hani Abu-Assad's Omar. Both opening this month in select theaters by Adopt Films and both films on the topic of informants for the Israeli Shin Bet (Secret Service). Israeli films have been nominated for Academy Awards four out of the last five years. But ultimately, this year, the Palestinian film was nominated for an Oscar, while the Israeli film was left behind.
In many ways, this is one of the more important battles. This is not just a battle over viewership. This is a battle over narrative. Which story will be remembered in history. History is told by the victors, but more so, by the films that the victors make. Our society relies on fictional films to tell us who is good and who is bad and what the real story was. Even if criticized or considered controversial, if a movie is canonized, it becomes the accepted truth. The epic visions of the story of William Wallace will forever be influenced by Mel Gibson's image, despite being historically highly inaccurate. Oscar Schindler's story, will always be as told by the vision of Spielberg.
Making a film that is recognized by the mainstream can influence the world's vision, as it penetrates pop culture and sets a standard of reality. Having Paul Newman play Ari Ben Canaan in Otto Preminger's Exodus brought all of Newman's fans into the Zionist perspective. I mean, who does not love and trust Paul Newman? A generation grew up hearing only Leon Uris' (The author of Exodus) perspective of what happened in 1948 in Israel. Zionist filmmaking has been going on to some degree since the early days of the state, and to Americans, mostly that narrative has been accepted.
Palestinians and Israelis have very different narratives and therefore different perspectives on this conflict. What Palestinians see as brave, Israelis can see as cowardice, and vice versa. With the recent rise of Israeli Cinema, the Palestinian perspective has been brought to light, but mostly by Israeli directors. Now, with Palestinian filmmakers giving their cinematic version, they are bringing their perspective to the mainstream.
Most notable in the last few years are Elia Suleiman best known for Devine Intervention and Hani Abu-Assad who is the director of this year's Omar, and of the previously Oscar nominated Paradise Now. The problem with Paradise Now as a representative narrative is that despite being a story of resistance, it ultimately presents a story of suicide bombers. I find this direction both unrepresentative and ultimately damaging to the Palestinian cause as most viewers will not embrace these actions, even if the characters are relatable. Similarly in Omar, the buddies in the film, who make film references and joke around are very relatable, until they kill a soldier with no remorse, making them harder to identify with.
This year's Israeli candidate, Bethlehem, was written by Yuval Adler and Ali Waked, a Jew and an Arab, in an attempt to appropriately, or at least critically, represent both sides. Of course, neither side comes out happy in this film as ultimately each feels they have been badly depicted (one only thinks they were poorly depicted, and the other side was more accurate, never thinking that the other side is saying the same.) The Palestinians in the film are depicted as corrupt and violent with ruthless internal conflicts, while the Israelis are depicted as cold, manipulative and arrogant. Ultimately, it paints a grim picture on both sides.
At the same time, Omar, starring Adam Bakri, shows those same internal conflicts within the Palestinian community, and depicts the Israelis as manipulative and controlling. But Omar also captures the Palestinian struggle and ultimately makes a statement of futility under occupation. Both films are most similar as they leave you quite hopeless.
This is why it is crucial to see the perspective and narrative of the other side. It might go against every fiber of your being, but the same way you believe your perspective, so the other side believes their's. The JCC in Manhattan's Other Israel Film Festival presents films that show narratives within the Israeli-Palestinian world that are not your classic headlines and show other sides and other voices from within this conflict.
The battle over cinematic narrative continues as more Arab investors enter the film world and skew their financing for films that portray a certain perspective. When Israel is acknowledged positively or not negatively enough, some Arab funders will go as far as removing their name from the film (as in The Attack by Ziad Doueiri.) This is all a calculated attempt to present the Palestinian narrative, and no other, as broadly as possible. Both sides need to understand that they need to try to see the other's narrative if they are ever going to end this conflict.
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