Bend it like Bnei Sakhnin

A Docaviv highlight: The complex, fascinating saga of the little Israeli-Arab soccer team that could.

bnei sakhnin film 88 298 (photo credit: )
bnei sakhnin film 88 298
(photo credit: )
At first glance We Too Have No Other Land, may seem like a typical sports documentary. Filmmakers Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler, who have worked together for some 12 years creating segments for CNN, follow the compelling story of Bnei Sakhnin, the little Israeli-Arab soccer team that made good, winning the State Cup in 2004 and working to stay in the Premier League (where it today languishes in bottom spot). The two journalists became deeply acquainted with what they call the "Cinderella story" of the team's surprising success while co-writing a series of articles on the team. Over that time period, they had front row seats to some of Sakhnin's most dramatic games. Yet the film, which will be screened on April 6 and 7 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque as part of the Docaviv Festival, is far more interested in using soccer as a metaphor for larger social and political realities than tracking the success of the athletes on the field. For the filmmakers, the people of Sakhnin are members of a minority that has been largely ignored by Jewish Israelis. Kessel describes them as models of coexistence whose wish is to be accepted as loyal Israeli citizens while still having "a place in the character of the state." "We want this to be a film that people enjoy but also a platform for debate in Israeli society. Israelis are ill served by not dealing with the minority-majority issue," Kessel told The Jerusalem Post. To that end, the film shows a more human side to the sport, following Sakhnin players home as they break the Ramadan fast, visiting with various local philosophers and entering the stands with a mini-camera to document the fans in a more intimate way than the wide-angles at which sports fans are usually filmed. Particularly interesting are scenes of the victory celebrations after Bnei Sakhnin defeats its rival, Beitar Jerusalem. Although national flags are usually not flown by Sakhnin fans, the film captures the team's supporters wrapped in Israeli flags, chanting "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is great." "In a sense it's a real challenge to Israeli Jews to see these people wrapped in the flag, like the most patriotic Israeli Jew," said Klochendler. While the team's supporters do use the Hebrew chants familiar from other Israeli soccer games, their feelings about their Israeli identity are complex, according to the film. Many interviewed say they are deeply proud to have the team as a successful symbol of Israeli-Arabs and yet they also report that life in Sakhnin is full of inequality. The objections range from economic hardship to second-class treatment by Jewish Israelis to that familiar grievance - stolen land. An elderly Arab patriarch, a relative of one of Sakhnin's valuable players, is shown pointing on a map to the land his family occupied before 1948, when the Jewish state was established. The film silently shows the family visiting the site with plans of one day returning to live there. This and other similar moments suggest where the filmmakers' sympathies lie. "We do come to it from the Sakhnin side, We tell a story as seen by Sakhnin; and as seen by us, this situation is reflecting an issue in the relations between Jews and Arabs. Whether we have done it honestly and with integrity - that is up to the people to decide," explained Kessel. Balance is not achieved by a simple multiplication of points of view, according to the filmmakers. Instead, Klochendler adds, the role of the journalist is to "make a judgment call and honestly try to get at the situation." Free from the outmoded confines of "objective" reporting, the film has a leisurely, entertaining pace and indeed allows viewers an insider's look into not only Sakhnin, but also the national soccer subculture. The style is born of the filmmakers' long career in broadcast journalism, during which they witnessed a major change in the field. "Coverage became more instant and technological developments meant you could adapt live reports in a matter of an hour," said Klochendler. Yet quicker coverage has meant that it is harder to relay complex situations or deal with stories in depth. Although they "rebelled" against the system at CNN, the pair had little opportunity to really explore alternatives until 2003, when Klochendler returned from a year's sabbatical away from CNN, spent in Tanzania, where he made a film called Swahilini, about a street artist in a Dar es Salaam slum. At that point, Kessel left CNN as well and the two colleagues began their foray into the Sakhnin scene. As seasoned journalists in the region, they had little trouble winning the trust of the 25,000 person town. "We yearned for acceptance from them as they yearn for acceptance from the rest of Israel," said Klochendler. The connection forged between the two journalists and the little town, which will soon have a newly built stadium thanks to a huge donation from Qatar, has yielded more than a film. The "Other Film Festival on Minorities," an international Galilee event, is an initiative shared with Ghazal Abu-Raya, a local Sakhnin philosopher. It will see the town host screenings of worldwide films dedicated to the subject of "the predicament of minorities". The festival will aim to involve the people of Sakhnin and will be affiliated with the Givat Haviva Arab -Jewish Institute. Set to begin in 2007, there will be a one-day kick-off Mini Festival in early June, sponsored principally by the Swiss embassy. We Too Have No Other Land will be screened on Thursday, April 6 at 6 pm at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque as part of the Docaviv Festival and then on Friday, April 7 at 12:30 pm in conjunction with the Abraham Fund. The Thursday showing will be followed by a lecture.