(photo credit: Other Israel Film Festival )
You give away your politics merely by how you refer to them - whether as Arab-Israelis, as Palestinian citizens of Israel, or in terms capable of stoking even greater debate.
But whatever you settle on, Israel's Arab citizens occupy a unique and often uneasy place in the landscape of Middle Eastern affairs. Their status is simply but efficiently encapsulated in the name of the Other Israel Film Festival, an eight-day New York cultural event that has grown beyond the realm of just film.
Kicking off today at the Upper West Side JCC, the festival - now in its third year - focuses on a group too often reduced to "terrorists, people wearing keffiyehs and other stereotypical images," says Isaac Zablocki, the event's executive director. "We want to show another image of that population, other areas of their existence in Israeli life."
Running through November 19, the festival performs exactly that function, showcasing Israel's Arab minority in an assortment of genres and contexts.
Featuring works by several of the country's top filmmakers - both Arab and Jewish - this year's festival includes a carefully selected array of documentaries and dramas, as well as episodes of one of Israel's most talked-about TV comedies. The screenings will be supplemented by a variety of additional events, ranging from discussions with filmmakers and a photo exhibition, to a concert by SAZ, a self-described Palestinian rapper from Israel who serves as the subject of one of the festival's documentaries.
Among the most accomplished of this year's films is the opening-night selection, Jaffa, a drama that screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May. With dialogue in both Arabic and Hebrew, the film unfolds largely in a Jewish-owned garage, where an Arab mechanic nurtures a clandestine relationship with the boss's daughter.
"I decided that one of the most important subjects to speak about is the Palestinians who live inside Israel, because it's such a complicated situation for them," says Keren Yedaya, Jaffa's writer and director. "Life may be harder in Gaza, but it's more complicated [in Israel]. We're living together, and the enemy is less clear."
Like many of the festival's films, Jaffa features both Arab and Jewish actors, among them some of the country's most celebrated performers. The mixed cast and characters were a conscious decision, says Yedaya, the winner of several prizes at the Cannes Film Festival for an earlier drama, Or (Light).
"For me, as an Israeli-Jewish filmmaker, I cannot do a film just about the Palestinians," she says. "They cannot be my only heroes, because that would be patronizing. My heroes also need to be Israelis" - who come across, in this case, just as complicated and conflicted as their neighbors.
BROAD SOCIAL issues tie together several of the festival's documentaries, also contributed by both Arab and Jewish filmmakers. In Chaim Yavin's ID Blues, Israel's former premier news anchor examines discrimination against the country's Arabs, a topic explored from a different angle in The Invisible, Gil Karni's 12-year "diary" of a Beduin village not officially recognized by the government. Interestingly, it's an Arab director, Ibtisam Mara'na, who offers perhaps the most critical take on Muslim society, focusing her lens on a traditional practice known as badal, in which a brother and sister from one family are married to a brother and sister from another.
Illuminating the arrangement's impact on female participants, the film joins a growing body of Mara'na documentaries about Israel's Arab women, a group often left out of the country's internal debates.
Diverse in their criticisms and in the forcefulness of their views, the festival's films can also prove quite funny, as is the case with Arab Labor, a mostly Arabic-language TV comedy that made a splash when it aired on a Hebrew channel several seasons back. (The series' Arab writer, Sayed Kashua, is also the subject of one of the festival's documentaries, which looks at his work as a columnist and author writing in Hebrew.) And in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, one of the festival's short films, director Boaz Rosenberg considers a topic of vital importance to both Arabs and Jews: humous, a food sometimes capable of bridging one of the world's great cultural divides.
Festival-goers may detect a political slant as they make their way through the films - which is okay, says Zablocki.
"The Israeli film industry does lean to the left," he acknowledges, "but if Israel is to represent itself to the rest of the world, which often sees it as being more to the right, I think showing images from its left is a good way to balance it out. I think that's a positive thing."
In any event, he adds, the purpose of the festival is not to promote a single attitude or image - an impossibility when you're viewing a multitude of films.
"Films never represent all of a society," he says. "They portray one slice, one frame."
Considering those contrasts simultaneously, says Yedaya, is part of what audiences should do.
"We already live together," she says, speaking of her fellow Israelis. "We all die here or we all find a way to live together. We don't have a choice."