Often more affluent and established than their Palestinian brethren in refugee camps, Israeli Arabs are nonetheless haplessly caught in the maelstrom of Middle East politics. Though far from a homogeneous group—they’re made up of Christians, Muslims, Bedouin, and Druze—Israeli Arabs are mistrusted by Arabs in neighboring countries for colluding with Israel, while remaining in many respects second-class citizens of the Jewish State, which, after 60 years, still treats them with a confusing mix of tolerance, mistrust, prejudice, and outright discrimination. Founded by Carole Zabar (yes, that Zabar) with Israeli Arab filmmaker Mohammad Bakri, the uneven grab bag of films (mostly documentaries made by Israeli Jews) that is the Other Israel Film Festival adds up to a study in the ambivalence of rural communities condemned to perpetually divided loyalties.
Indeed, it’s ambivalence, and the frustration of the powerless, that come across most painfully in the testimony of Arabs all over Israel interviewed by veteran Israeli television broadcaster Chaim Yavin in his documentary ID Blues. They complain of chronic unemployment (especially among women), because Jewish employers often prefer foreign workers from Thailand; official refusal of building permits; and government unwillingness to fund the repair of infrastructures. Ada Ushpiz’s absorbing Desert Brides takes a less-trodden path to examine polygamy among Bedouin tribes, a practice notable for tragically pitting women against one another when they’re forced to compete for the same man. The fate of a missing Druze soldier who fought in the Yom Kippur War is the subject of Rafik Halabi’s Fog, which highlights the culture clash between his clan’s mystical belief in reincarnation and the often-insensitive rationalism of Israeli military authorities. Barak and Tomer Heyman’s touching Bridge Over the Wadi outlines the struggles in the first year of an experimental school for Arab and Jewish children. But the most fascinating—and troubling—of the docs available for preview is the German film The Heart of Jenin, which loads the dice by pitting a handsome, peace-loving Palestinian (from a West Bank town not known for its conciliatory attitude to Israel) against a paranoid, hostile ultra-Orthodox Jew (representing a society that regularly fills city squares with peace demonstrations) whose sick little girl received an organ from the Palestinian’s son, who was accidentally killed by Israelis during a protest. If you want to hear more of the Jewish point of view, you can run over to the concurrent 23rd Israel Film Festival at the Ziegfeld, though from what I know of programmer Meir Fenigstein’s taste, there’ll be plenty of the Other Israel on offer there, too.