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The Reeler Blog

Into the Other Israel

The subject of Roy Jacob Westler's doc Shadya, featured at the inaugural Other Israel Film Festival (Photo: OIFF)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

If I've learned anything from the last couple years covering New York cinema, it's that everyone has a film festival in them. And I mean everyone, from filmmakers to critics to Upper West Side gourmet grocery proprietors.

"I thought it's a film festival that hadn't been done before -- it's a topic that hadn't been covered," said Carole Zabar (yes, that Zabar) of her inaugural Other Israel Film Festival, which launched last week and continues through Nov. 15 at JCC Manhattan, Symphony Space and Cinema Village. The program spotlights films about the culture of Israeli Arabs -- Muslim, Christian, Druze and Bedouin citizens who make up more than 20 percent of Israel's population. "People here in New York and America don't have an idea of the lives that Israeli Arabs live. And I thought I'd like to give it a human face."

That was two and a half years and, Zabar estimates, nearly 100 films ago. Active in philanthropy and other civic involvement for more than four decades, the fest rookie took her idea to her frequent partners at the JCC; she said she didn't know what form the event would take, but she resolved to avoid politically themed titles in exchange for films that dealt more with a "reflection of daily life and different communities." Teaming up with JCC film and literary programs director Isaac Zablocki, Zabar made multiple trips to Israel, including a scouting and word-of-mouth visit to the Jerusalem Film Festival.

The experience proved essential to programming the diverse inaugural event she envisioned. "One thing I wanted to do was to reach a much broader audience than the usual left-wing audience that comes out to see films about Israeli Arabs," Zabar told The Reeler. "Those people already have the story. I wanted to reach mainstream Jews. I wanted to go into high schools and Jewish day schools and have them come to see the films. I wanted to go into synagogues. I wanted Arabs to come, and we've had some -- not as much as I would have hoped. My main concern was how to reach that middle ground."

Among the selections screening this week are the acclaimed narrative Close to Home -- about a pair of young Israeli women whose military service overlaps with the political torment of Arabs in Jerusalem -- and Roy Jacob Westler's documentary Shadya, about a 17-year-old girl in Northern Israel urged to give up her champion-caliber karate for a more traditional way of life. This evening the festival revives the influential 1984 film Beyond the Walls, whose star, Mohammed Bakri, hosted Zabar during her curating efforts in Israel. (He also directed the autobiographical doc Since You Left, which screened earlier in the festival.) "There's a whole generation who haven't seen it," she said of the film, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1984. "It's a must-see for young people."

Moreover, Zabar noted, her emphasis on entertainment as well as engagement has thus far resulted in a crowd supportive enough to warrant a second event in '08.

"They've been pretty successful," she said. "On opening night we had people who knew nothing about the topic. And what really warms my heart is to see how many people in the region are interested in the topic anyway. I've been astounded."

The Other Israel Film Festival runs through Nov. 15 at venues around Manhattan. Visit the festival Web site for ticket and program information.

Posted at November 13, 2007 10:47 AM

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