Double bills

Two Israeli film festivals are taking place this month in New York City.

photographer 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
photographer 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
New Yorkers not satisfied with this month's Israel Film Festival can always check out the Other one. For the second consecutive year, New York City is playing host to simultaneous Israel-themed movie series - the 23rd Israel Film Festival and the newer Other Israel Film Festival, now in its sophomore outing. Taking place 14 blocks apart on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the festivals offer contrasting visions of Israel but overlapping schedules in their screenings, panel discussions and public outreach efforts. The two-week Israel Film Festival, the bigger and better established of the two, lasts twice as long as the Other Israel Film Festival and also stops each year in Los Angeles and Miami. With such "official Israeli" sponsors as the country's New York consulate, El Al and the Israel Film Fund, the festival showcases mostly mainstream Israeli features, such as this year's Lost Islands, as well as documentaries and episodes of commercial TV series like Srugim, about young religious singles in Jerusalem. With the backing of successful Israeli transplants to Hollywood like media mogul Haim Saban and producers Danny Dimbort and Avi Lerner, the festival attracts A-listers past and present. This year's opening night gala has drawn actors Michael Douglas, Liev Scheiber and Danny DeVito, as well as Oscar-winning producers Irwin Winkler (Rocky) and Edward Zwick (Shakespeare in Love). As the other festival's name pointedly suggests, it's offered as a contrast to its older counterpart, focusing attention on Israel's non-Jewish minorities. The festival's founder and main sponsor is Carole Zabar, whose family owns Zabar's, the Upper West Side deli and bakery that's long been a major culinary institution for Jewish and non-Jewish New Yorkers alike. Guests at this year's Other Israel Film Festival include Israeli filmmakers and actors of Arab and Druse background, as well as former Channel 1 news anchor Haim Yavin, who will attend a screening of ID Blues, his two-part documentary about the treatment of Israel's Arab and Beduin populations. Perhaps inevitably, both festivals feature films that touch on the Arab-Israeli conflict and on ethnic and religious tensions within Israel. Yet it is the festival devoted to the country's non-Jewish population, ironically, that is being hosted mostly at Manhattan's Jewish Community Center. (Israel Film Festival screenings are taking place mostly at a Clearview Cinema theater, part of a regular movie chain located near Columbus Circle.) "The JCC in Manhattan is establishing an Israeli film center, and this will be part of that - celebrating the renaissance in Israeli film," said Isaac Zablocki, the executive director of the Other Israel Film Festival. Both he and Zabar emphasize that "the Other Israel," in the context of their festival, is not code for "anti-Israel" and that the festival's mission is primarily to deepen moviegoers' understanding of the country by highlighting its lesser-known populations. "Our favorite moment is when someone says, 'I didn't know non-Jews serve in the Israeli army, that Arabs vote, that Arabs are part of Israeli society,'" said Zablocki, who grew up in Jerusalem and served in the IDF. "Those numbers are small, but hopefully they're growing." Zabar, who studied in Israel in the early 1960s and continues to travel to the country regularly, said she's "always had left-wing politics" but that spreading precisely her own views is not the festival's objective. "It's really my hope to get the center, not just the left wing," she said of prospective audiences. Her target viewers are "people who are interested in Israel and what's happening but who don't have clear and focused ideas. We want to expose them to what Israel is, and that includes its non-Jewish citizens," she said. That exposure, as she and Zablocki point out, is not to a single image - ennobling or critical - of Israel's minorities or of those minorities' relationship with the Jewish majority. Desert Brides, about polygamy as practiced by Israeli Beduin, takes place with few references to the Jewish population, while Lady Kul el-Arab, previously screened in July at the Jerusalem Film Festival, examines the efforts of a Druse community to prevent one of its female members from competing in the Miss Israel pageant. If anything, Lady Kul el-Arab holds up Jewish Israel as a positive "Other," unburdened by the restrictive Druse gender politics depicted by filmmaker Ibtisam Mara'ana. Nevertheless, some Israel supporters are likely to recoil at opinions expressed in some of the films, such as Yavin's ID Blues, in which one Arab interviewee likens Israel's policies to those of apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany. "He's not afraid to let people voice things," Zablocki said of Yavin's film. "This hasn't been on TV in Israel yet, and I'm sure there will be outrage about it, [such as,] 'How could he let someone compare Israel to Nazi Germany or apartheid?' The point is that Israel is a democracy with freedom of speech, and Yavin will use that to question someone. These are views that are out there, for better or worse, so let's try to prove the ways in which they're wrong."