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'New York is the place I used to run to when there was too much terrorism here," says Israeli filmmaker Yulie Cohen Gerstel, "but now there is nowhere you can go." A former El Al flight attendant, Cohen lived in New York for a period in the 1980s, but ultimately returned to Israel to start a family.
It's a decision the she explores in 2004's My Land Zion, one of two films she took with her to New York last week to kick off a ten-day US tour. Opening October 20 at the 92nd Street Y's Makor film house, the tour will take Cohen to college campuses in Maine, Massachusetts and Indiana, as well as to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Hamptons International Film Festival in New York.
As Cohen notes in a telephone interview before leaving Israel, the two documentaries she's made since the start of the second Intifada - the first was 2002's My Terrorist - have been obvious candidates for campus screenings, with their overlapping discussions of history, Middle East politics and motherhood. The October 26 screenings of My Terrorist and My Land Zion at Harvard University are a case in point, being held at the Kennedy School of Government and co-sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights, the Women and Public Policy Program and the Center for Middle East Studies.
Cohen says her films are an attempt to "make the issue about contemplation, not about violence," and that she hopes her work succeeds in "raising the many questions that people don't ask themselves" about Israeli-Palestinian fighting and other points of conflict in the country.
At roughly an hour apiece, My Terrorist and My Land Zion comprise the first two parts of Cohen's "Mine" trilogy. My Terrorist is a compelling look at the director's relationship with Fahad Mihyi, an Iraqi terrorist whose 1978 attack on Cohen's El Al flight crew left the future filmmaker injured and a fellow flight attendant dead. More than two decades later, with the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian violence, Cohen began a correspondence with Mihyi - who was serving a life sentence in England, where the attack occurred - and later went to visit him at his prison.
Because Cohen wasn't allowed to film the visit, the director was forced to be unusually creative in her reporting techniques, and the result is a thought-provoking film that leaves viewers both optimistic and frustrated about the chances for reconciliation and peace.
My Land Zion is a somewhat more meandering film, dealing with Zionism, Israeli perceptions of the Holocaust and the War of Independence, and the approaching decision of Cohen's teenage daughter about whether to join the Israeli army.
The director is currently at work on the final part of the "Mine" series, which she hopes to release in about a year. My Brother will focus on Cohen's estrangement from her brother, which began after his embrace of observant Judaism. The secular Cohen says her brother has resisted cooperating in the film's production, but that she will complete it with or without him.
"I had the experience with My Terrorist [in which] he couldn't be exposed," she says, "so I turned the camera toward myself to tell the story about reconcile and forgiveness. Now I want to tell a similar story, but within a family. Maybe we have to forgive ourselves. I abandoned him, I turned my back on him. I never maybe made any real effort to keep in touch." Like the previous films in the "Mine" series, My Brother will air on Reshet 2 before being taken abroad. My Terrorist has been translated into 16 languages and appeared on television in 20 countries, a process Cohen would love to replicate with the new film.
Cohen already has plans for her first project after My Brother: a film about zugiut, or Israeli "couplehood." Meanwhile she's keeping an eye the issues she dealt with in her first films, and says she feels "strangely optimistic" about Israel's chances for reconciliation with the Palestinians.