"Cinema. Dialogue. Understanding."
These words were on the screen at the Other Israel Film Festival, at the JCC in Manhattan, as the auditorium filled up on opening night. Sharqiya, by first time Israeli filmmaker Ami Livne, was receiving its New York premiere. It had garnered top honors at the Jerusalem Film Festival for best full-length feature film, and was also screened at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Currently in its sixth year, the Other Israel Film Festival has been combining documentary and narrative films with panel, programs, theater, and art. The objective is to create a thought provoking conversation about the challenges faced by minority groups in Israel, as well as Arab citizens.
The brainchild of Carole Zabar, the event was conceived to reach and inform people through the visceral medium of film. In her opening remarks, Zabar discussed the reality of Palestinian Israelis who feel like "the other," despite having lived on the land for centuries. Her stated hope was that attendees would come away with a deeper perspective of the multi-faceted situation in Israel. She verbalized about "taking more risks" in the process.
Later, I questioned Zabar about if most of those present were already predisposed to agree that Israel was facing major challenges in how they are handling relationships among Jews and non-Jews within the country. "Not 100 percent," she replied. "We reach across the Jewish spectrum, and we want to reach those who don't see this stuff."
Issac Zablocki, executive director of the eight-day event, told the audience, "We are a unique festival. We are creating a movement."
A special guest for the night was Mandy Patinkin. He spoke passionately, and at times with palpable anger, about the current inequities in Israel. Having traveled to the country for the shooting schedule of Homeland 's second season, Patinkin immersed himself in information gathering during the days before his work began. He visited the West Bank. He returned to Hebron -- where he had been 30 years earlier -- and spoke with sadness and frustration of the devastation that had taken place. In Ramallah, he conversed with a 23-year-old Stanford graduate who told him, "We want freedom, justice, and dignity for all humanity. Is there anything unreasonable about that?"
Patinkin's concern and outrage ratcheted up as he related a description of what had impacted him. "You need to see where only Jews are allowed to walk ... And Jews can only ride on certain streets and highways, and Palestinians are forbidden -- and they live right there." His message was about "bringing voices to those who are too often voiceless." He stated, "It is our job to keep listening."
And for those who opened themselves up to the message of Sharqiya, a devastating portrait about conditions for Bedouins in Israel, the insights were painful. The narrative follows a main character, Kamal, who subsists with his brother and sister-in-law on land that has been in their family for generations. It is an eye-opener. The parcel of land upon which they have constructed corrugated metal and wooden shacks is at the periphery of the Negev Desert's. The conditions are spartan. They get their electricity from a gas generator, and transport water from a well in a tractor (which later gets stolen).
The subtexts that underscore conflicts within Kamel's family reflect tensions in their larger society. Kamel's time of service in the Israeli army is a source of conflict with his brother, as is his support of his sister-in-law's desire to become educated. Kamel is shown as having innate abilities, particularly his gift for fixing broken electronics. You can't help wondering how far his talents might have taken him if he had been afforded greater opportunities. Rather, he works as a security guard on a side gate of a bustling bus station. The main gate assignment is reserved for Jewish personnel.
The core matter of the film relates to ongoing state-sanctioned demolitions of "unrecognized" Bedouin villages. The scenes illustrating the interaction between the Israeli bureaucracy and Bedouins trying to get reprieves for impending destruction have a Kafkaesque tinge. Yet nothing prepares the viewer for the utter harshness of watching an Israeli team of impersonal armed soldiers and bulldozers, demolishing the makeshift housing of Kamel's family. As they try to gather and salvage their meager belongings under the watchful gaze of those who are "carrying out orders," there are unspoken analogies that are clearly present.
As Patinkin had said earlier when reflecting on circumstance that he had witnessed, "It kills you. And you know it's not sustainable."
In the coda to the demolition scene, Bedouin neighbors come with supplies to help rebuild. Kamel leaves to go to work at the Israeli bus station; the family needs the money.
The last shot of Sharqiya positions Kamel looking directly into the camera, as if to ask, "What do you think?"
This article originally appeared on the website cultureID.
cultureID was a partner of the Other Israel Film Festival, which uses film to foster social awareness and cultural understanding.