New York has more than enough Jewish gathering points, so what’s lost and what, if anything, is gained when the city’s 14th annual Other Israel Film Festival from the Marlene Meyerson JCC goes virtual?
The main advantage is the joy of being able to stream the festival, which ends Dec. 11, throughout the US. It’s not too late to binge the festival’s features, documentaries, shorts at https://www.otherisrael.org/ The festival Q&As with filmmakers are numerous and streamed post-event. Select breakout sessions with other viewers are a virtual substitute for those film discussions on line outside the ladies room. (Remember those days?)
And there’s the intrusive intimacy of Zoom – is that Carole Zabar partially hidden by pillows during a Q&A question? Long time filmmaker Lilly Rivlin’s brown cardigan is hanging from the knob of a partially opened closet door behind her. A bedroom is at least a break from cable commentators’ living room bookshelves.
Carole Zabar’s founding vision was a film festival showing the “Other Israel” – minorities, women, Palestinians not part of the Zionist dream or Israel propaganda.
This year’s selection of films feels more freewheeling. There’s the shock of the Other America in “ ‘Til Kingdom Come,” a documentary showing the unholy alliance between Zionist Jews and Evangelicals raising millions of dollars for Israel. The Kentucky Bible belt poverty is so unbelievable that Yael Eckstein, daughter of Yechiel Eckstein, founder of Holyland Fellowship of Christians and Jews, wonders if people actually live in the falling down houses.
Another departure for the OIFF, “Kings of Capital Hill” documents the power of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the Israel lobby. Women made both these films, and what an achievement that it’s no big deal.
I’d like to say “My Dearest Enemy,” a woman made and woman financed feature about a Jewish and a Palestinian girl reunited after 25 years, is a must see. Alas, the film, directed, produced and written by Tzipi Trope and financed in part by Itzili Charney (founder of the Leon Charney Resolution Center), is not as good as the two women’s Q&A. Their passionate session is moderated by JCC film center director Isaac Zablocki from the empty bar of Gazala’s, the Upper West Side Druze restaurant kept going by festival participant Gazala Halabi. Watch the streaming Q&A for the chemistry between the two women and Trope’s just-do-it determination. “Making a documentary, I just go to my car, shoot film myself, and get a shlepper to edit for bubkas.” She says, “We’re in a virus. The Occupation is an even worse virus. It’ll kill a lot more people.” Her message: “We need to develop a vision for the future. We have to find the Martin Bubers of our vision.”
So who will be our Martin Buber?
I’m not nominating the mayor of Ramallah, but “Mayor” is certainly my pick so far of this year’s OIFF. American director David Osit’s prize-winning film of Musa Hadid, the Christian mayor in the historically Christian Ramallah, makes you want to end the Occupation now. Hadid’s up against the impossible – running a city without a country. He does it in a suit, with dignity and stays on message: “This is our city, our land.” He controls the Christmas celebration but not the police.
Israeli soldiers arrive for a surprise night attack of tear gas in front of the classy, glassy city hall by the Café de la Paix then pose for selfies in front of the plaza’s Christmas trees. It’s absurd; it’s wrenching; it’s immoral. The mayor wipes tear gas from the eyes of an injured journalist then pulls Osit out the next morning to film the new doors he’s gotten installed at a local school. One sign of progress –the women students from Birzeit University are told by the mayor that involvement in municipal government is the most worthwhile thing to do. Watch the streaming Q&A with the director and go to Film Forum to screen “Mayor” https://filmforum.org
And we can reach out from our Covid cocoon to support repairing the world NOW. The OIFF site includes the NIF (New Israel Fund) action guide for each film and the festival’s sponsors are numerous. To support life as we knew it pre-Covid, renting “Mayor” from Film Forum helps keep a beloved temple of movies alive. Ordering a meal from Gazala’s helps keep one fine woman-run restaurant in business.