Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Ronit Elkabetz in JAFFA (Photo: The Other Israel Film Festival)

November 12 – 19, 2009

ID Blues
The Invisible
Sayed Kashua–Forever Scared
SAZ–The Palestinian Rapper for Change 
Voices from El Sayed 

The third Other Israel Film Festival ( provides a rare chance to see and hear on screen the over 20% of the country’s population who are Arab. Though many of the films were made for Israeli television, few of the selections, unfortunately, are likely make it to U.S. audiences, even on PBS or cable.

Americans may not be familiar with the events in October 2000 that have scarred relations between Jewish and Arab citizens, but many of this year’s films refer to the repercussions. During that month, 13 Israelis—twelve Arabs and one Jew—were killed amidst protests and demonstrations (some say riots) that were violently suppressed by security forces. The Supreme Court established a commission of inquiry, led by Justice Theodor Or, to investigate the root causes and the police response. Anger against the authorities and the Or Commission is a consistent theme for a minority whose clan, ethnic, and religious identities are perceived ipso facto as political statements.

Chaim Yavin in ID BLUES (Photo: The Other Israel Film Festival)
Last year, the festival presented the first two episodes of Chaim Yavin’s five-part TV travelogue through Arab communities, ID Blues, covering discrimination in general and the Bedouins in the Negev Desert in particular. As “Mr. Television,” he is familiar to everyone in the country as a news anchor, but he also has first name, Oprah-like intimacy with all who talk to the camera on his shoulder. He may be the most effective interviewer in any documentary, as he listens, debates, and draws out emotional and thoughtful responses, even about the essence of Zionism. The two episodes screening this year examine
the harsh consequences on Arabs from the government’s “Operation Galilee” 40 years ago, which moved Jews into the north. Longtime Arab residents seethe that their segregated towns are treated like Palestinian West Bank towns under siege, while those who try to integrate within Israeli society express their deep frustrations.

Director Mohammad Bakri tracks the emotional issue of land ownership in Zahara. He sonorously narrates his 78-year-old aunt’s story of what happened to their family during the partition of Israel in 1948 and since. While paying tribute to how she forcefully held the generations together, he delves into decades of blame and confusion that both foster and counter myths.

In The Invisible, director Gil Karni follows the determined and almost quixotic 12-year efforts of Army veteran Fahim to gain government recognition, public services, and equal respect from Israeli authorities for his neglected home village of Arab al-Na’im. In the face of legal restrictions, skeptical bureaucrats, and politicians, it is heart breaking to see the limited successes this natural leader gains from doggedly working within the system. Whether he’s trying to get electricity or a soccer field, every two steps forward, one step back seems only to fuel more radical elements and reactions within and outside the town. In comparison, Sameh Zakout in Karni’s SAZ–The Palestinian Rapper for Change just seems like the usual aggressive young hip hop artist fighting the power through words. Maybe the subtitle “The Palestinian Rapper for Change” will make more sense at his live concert during the festival.

The series annually features episodes of the Norman Lear-like, socially-conscious satirical TV sitcom Arab Labor. This year its charming and philosophical creator is also spotlighted in Sayed Kashua–Forever Scared. After the success of Kashua’s debut novel Dancing Arabs, director Dorit Zimbalist follows the Israeli-Arab writer/columnist as he leaves urbane Jerusalem to write his second novel, Let It be Morning, back in his parents’ rural Galilee village. He ruminates over the impact on his life of being plucked from this village as the sole gifted Arab child to attend a prestigious Hebrew language boarding school, with the result that he can’t write literature in his native tongue. This fascinating introduction intrigued me to seek out his work, in English translation, and I was further rewarded by his talent. (Director Ibtisam Mara’na’s look at her own family traditions in Badal will help understanding of the restrictive custom referred to in Kashua’s work—a package deal marriage of two couples, usually of siblings, that more than doubles the strains and stresses of arranged marriages.)

Children playing in the village of El Sayed in VOICES FROM EL SAYED (Photo: The Other Israel Film Festival)
In Voices from El Sayed, also showing as part of the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival,
director Oded Adomi Leshem intimately profiles a Bedouin community that has the largest percentage of deaf people in the world. Though the genetics is not explained here, the tradition of marrying cousins has combined with a local rule of no marriage between two non-hearing relatives. With large families that have both deaf and hearing members, a unique sign language, known as ABSL, has developed that is comfortably used by all and is different from both Israeli and Arab sign language. However, the deaf are also subject to condescending Israelis pushing the controversial cochlear implant. Unrealistic promises for hearing and speech, common around the world by the operation’s proselytizers, are compounded by the little regard for the village’s limited facilities or the social impact on the extended families.

And finally, Jaffa is a rare success at a credible and touching Romeo and Juliet tragedy within the country’s Arab/Israeli conflict. Writer/director Keren Yedaya reunites two of Israel’s finest dramatic actresses from her Cannes-winning Or (My Treasure), Ronit Elkabetz and Dana Ivgy as, again, a mother and daughter. The head of their family owns a struggling auto repair shop in the titular mixed, working-class neighborhood near Tel Aviv, and the entire family works alongside mechanics Toufik (Mahmud Shalaby) and his father Hassan (Hussein Yassin Mahajne). But as the sweet young lovers Mali (Ivgy) and Toufik plot a secret elopement to Cyprus, where they can legally marry, her lazy and obnoxious brother Meir (Roy Assaf) stirs up and lays bare prejudices that tear the two families apart. Avoiding the usual clichés of the differences between Jews and Arabs, Jaffa is an honest and moving look at just how hard it is for love to conquer all. Nora Lee Mandel
November 12, 2009



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us