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A scene from DESERT BRIDES

The Boy from Lebanon
Desert Brides
Heart of Jenin
ID Blues
Lady Kul el Arab

New York City’s Other Israel Film Festival ( offers a unique opportunity to see the experiences of Israelis not usually seen on U.S. screens, those of the country’s Arab residents—Christians, Muslims, Lebanese, Bedouins, Palestinians, and Druze, all further divided by politics, class, generation, and gender.

While a few of the feature-length documentaries at this year’s showcase have been seen outside Israel at such festivals as Tribeca and Toronto, most were made for Israeli television and will probably only be seen by U.S. audiences if they are picked up by PBS or cable channels.

The festival is presenting the first two episodes of a projected five-part TV documentary series, ID Blues. Undertaken by Chaim Yavin, Israel’s “Mr. Television” and the most recognized face delivering the news there for decades, he intends it to be as provocative and controversial as his 2005 series Land of the Settlers on the occupied territories, which caused an uproar. Seeking opinions in the Arab communities in all corners of Israel, he not only narrates and conducts sympathetic and challenging interviews on screen, but he totes a camera as well.

His instant familiarity takes this fascinating survey way beyond what seems at first to be conventional TV-anchor-on-the road fodder, familiar to U.S. audiences when the likes of Anderson Cooper seek out Joe the Plumber. Yavin’s recognition breaks down every suspicion and opens all doors, as everyone rushes to offer him tea in their homes. The camera on his shoulder gives each interviewee the assurance that for the first time they are really being listened to by a Jew and that their feelings will actually get aired. And they give him an earful, in the frankest, most raw, most revealing, and, for foreign audiences especially, most educational revelations about what it is like to live as a minority in a Jewish state.

In the intimate portrait, Lady Kul El Arab, Duah Fares has such an unconventional dream for a dutiful and beautiful Druze daughter that she becomes a national cause célèbre. She not only wants to compete in the modest “Lady of the Arabs” beauty pageant, but also for Miss Israel, where a win could lead to the Miss Universe contest. She sounds just like Tyra Banks when she ambitiously describes herself as having the right look for a career as a super model, which explains why she is willing to have the director’s camera follow her around as she reinvents herself as “Angelina” (a name she picks out of a magazine). What starts out like an up-close and personal look behind a modeling competition turns into a surprising roller coaster year of rebellion and remorse for the young woman, whose dreams would just be taken for granted elsewhere around the world.

The Boys from Lebanon also follows around young Israeli-Arabs for a year, but these men are Christian refugees from Lebanon. They are part of a community of 700 fighters and their families from the staunchly Israel-allied South Lebanese Army, and who quickly fled from Hezbollah when Israel suddenly withdrew in 2000. Their father is consumed with bitterness over the government’s lack of recognition of his and his family’s years of service, including a son killed in battle. Now young men, his surviving sons Pierre and Massoud, try to get on with their displaced lives by organizing the first all-Lebanese basketball team, the Cedars of Naharia, to compete in the local league.

In a poignant comparison, director Ohad Ufaz intercuts footage from a BBC news interview with the brothers as young children when the family first crossed the border—the clip emphasizes Pierre’s unfulfilled dream to be a musician. The ups and downs of the new team’s season, and the members’ rocky adjustments to life in Israel, are suddenly interrupted by the outbreak of the second Lebanon war in 2006. Ufaz has some difficulty integrating into the film’s narrative the irony of the frustrated family huddling to avoid Hezbollah bombs while they yearn to return to Lebanon, and the film ends abruptly with brief and vague descriptions of what happened to the participants.

Desert Brides provides a rare, though unfortunately confusing, look at one of the most insular and isolated populations, Bedouin wives. Director Ada Ushpiz follows Bedouin wedding photographer Miriam El Kwader as she quietly goes about her job that supports her large family. We are so conditioned to see weddings as happy occasions that it takes awhile for our eyes to adjust to the circumstances in these villages as each bride and the other women in her family are interviewed before the event.

The considerable shock that comes almost halfway through could be the director’s intent or a result of the jumbled editing when it becomes clear that the women have entered into polygamy, like one-third of Bedouin women. The articulate social worker turns out to be a first wife who, in order to prevent her husband from abandoning her and their children through divorce, allows him to keep a young bride as a second wife in a separate household. The two younger profiled brides are becoming second wives.

Together, these films provide helpful background to get to the heart of Heart Of Jenin. The first half traces how a horrible 2005 tragedy in this Palestinian West Bank community led to the intersection of diverse lives in Israel, but reeks of media circus sentimentality and forced emotional uplift about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. However, the centerpiece of the absorbing second half is Ismael Khatib, the father of the boy whose death precipitated the events. The death transformed his life towards reconciliation; he decided to reach out across the border to meet some of the young recipients of his son’s transplanted organs, and the physical crossing is the least of his difficulties as he travels all over Israel with his uncle, who was stranded in Israel after partition. All the resentments of Israeli Arabs that were detailed in the other films come to bear here in a Druze town in the north, a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert, and an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem.

Good intentions are not enough, and several other films in the festival profile cross-cultural efforts through such activities as sports. Recent riots and sectarian violence in the integrated northern city of Acre (that was a national symbol of peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews) demonstrate how difficult that is to achieve, but these films may at least help change attitudes. Nora Lee Mandel
November 7, 2008



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