Little is heard about Israel’s one million Arab citizens— those Palestinians (and their descendants) who stayed after the 1948 war and Israel’s independence when others were killed or fled into exile. In the continuing tug-of-war over the West Bank and Gaza, they’re a source of political speculation and uncertainty.
The Milky Way, a first feature by Israeli Arab director Ali Nassar, explores this largely uncharted territory. Set in the Galilee in 1964, this vivid portrait of an Arab village uncovers the lingering scars of war in private life and society. At its center is Mabruq (Suheil Haddad), a childlike man, still crazed and wounded by the 1948 massacre of his family. Most of the villagers take pity on Mabruq; he lives off odd jobs and charity. His closest friend is Mahmmud, a local ironworker played by Muhammad Bakri (who’s been dubbed “the Palestinian Clint Eastwood”) as a rangy, taciturn figure with a dash of tenderness and a strong code of honor.
The social costs of military occupation include corruption within the community, curfews, seizures, arrests, and border closings. Yet against this backdrop of fear, Nassar lovingly recreates a texture of Israeli life that barely exists today: donkeys and herds of sheep crowd the narrow clay lanes of villages; tribal justice decides disputes over goats and gardens. In the midst of all this ancient beauty, flashbacks to the violence of 1948 appear decontextualized and largely unexplained. Funded by an Israeli government ministry in the brief interlude after Oslo and before Netanyahu, and made with an Arab cast and Jewish crew, this film, simple and moving as a child’s drawing, seems like a first step in the telling of the Israeli Arab story; let’s hope there will be more.