A man and his ass

The documentary ‘Niro and Flika’ challenges contemporary narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Filmmaker Hai Afik 521 (photo credit: Universal Live)
Filmmaker Hai Afik 521
(photo credit: Universal Live)
Over the years, the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts in Musrara has gained something of a reputation for churning out eclectic, if not totally out of left-field, material.
Judging by the lineup for the forthcoming Ma’aleh graduates’ screening event, which will take place at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Wednesday December 18 at 7 p.m., that reputation is richly deserved.
The film alumni’s final project offerings address such themes as a newly religious Jewish woman who realizes an ambition by documenting life in a monastery; an immigrant whose father became religious and whose mother converted to Christianity; and a man who grew up in a West Bank settlement, learned Arabic and to play the oud, and adopted the lifestyle of a Palestinian farmer.
The latter was filmed by 30-year-old Ma’aleh graduate Hai Afik, and the subject of his documentary is his brother, Niro, 10 years his senior. The film is called Niro and Flika, the latter referring to Niro’s trusty ass that takes her master around the hills of Tekoa and also does its bit to help Niro’s garden grow.
Afik says the documentary has been a long time brewing. “I always knew I’d do a film on him at some stage or other. In my first year at Ma’aleh we were asked to make a very short film, of just a few minutes, on the theme of ‘my hero’ or something like that. I knew that my brother was going to be the subject of that project.”
The storyline is, quite simply, incredible. Even in an age of reality shows, and a veritable avalanche of documentary output that feeds off all kinds of wild and woolly subject matter, Niro and Flika is a standout.
Niro was born in Petah Tikva, and when he was 11 his family relocated to Ofra. The move does not appear to have been motivated by purely ideological reasons. “My parents wanted a more rural style of life, and more space than you can get in Petah Tikva,” explains Afik.
It was a dream move for Niro and he quickly began to explore the environs beyond the settlement, both in a physical and cultural sense. “There are seven boys in our family. I was very small when we moved, but my older brothers tell me they were very happy to live in the open spaces of Ofra,” says Afik. “Niro says he was also drawn to the nature around the settlement. He began to roam the hills and he met Palestinian shepherds, and he connected with them straightaway.”
It seems that Niro was drawn to everything about his Palestinian neighbors. “He liked mules, and he was drawn to their language, and their music and food. When he was a kid in Ofra he wasn’t drawn to Bnei Akiva or some other youth movement. People knew he hung out with Arabs.”
Considering the Afik family’s political milieu, presumably that caused a few raised eyebrows, and probably some neighborly grief for his parents. “It was just before the first intifada and people didn’t really look upon what Niro did as some sort of political act,” explains Afik, “although some people did say things. My parents got a lot of stick, but they were mostly OK with it all and supportive of him, especially my mother. She didn’t care what people said.”
Afik says his big brother was way ahead of the New Age crowd. “As a very young child I remember him coming home with donkeys, and growing stuff in the garden – all sorts of vegetables that people didn’t recognize. One time, he brought home a goat. He was into natural and organic stuff, and all sorts of things that people got into only years later.”
There was a social price to pay. “He had a hard time with the adults, not his contemporaries. They’d take his mules away and all kinds of nasty things,” recalls Afik. “I remember people calling out to us on the streets. Things like: ‘Where are your donkeys?’ Where’s your Palestinian brother.’ It wasn’t easy.”
Even so, Niro wasn’t entirely ostracized. “He had his own friends, who would go with him when he went to visit the Arabs,” Afik continues.
“I think it was probably some act of rebellion. You know, to break away from the prevailing ideology on the settlement. For Niro it was simple. He just wanted to be in nature and peace and quiet, and away from the settlement.”
Today, Niro lives on his own small farmstead on the very outskirts of Tekoa. He inhabits a ramshackle structure, cultivates all sorts of traditional crops and trees, and works on perfecting his musical skills. He plays oud and sings and, thus far, has released two CDs, with a third on the way.
The film portrays a 40-year-man following his own spiritual and cultural muse to the hilt. He does not live in the lap of luxury – far from it – but, as Pirkei Avot has it: “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot.”
One bone of contention that comes up prominently in Niro and Flika is the troubled relationship Niro has with his dad. Niro has a few strong things to say about his parent, but thankfully, the situation thaws out as the documentary progresses, and the two appear to find some sort of common language. Part of this is thanks to Niro’s musical exploits, and he regales his father with some of his instrumental and vocal work on one visit.
Niro may also be visually and aurally familiar to many Jerusalemites, as he has a regular busking berth at Mahaneh Yehuda on Fridays. “He says he would love to break even from his agricultural activities and live off his music,” says Afik with a smile. For more information: (02) 565-4333 and www.maale.co.il