The Other Israel Film Festival, which runs from November 11 to November 21, offers a self-proclaimed “fresh take on Israel’s diverse communities.” Its films are meant to explore less-traveled narrative roads, specifically those dealing with minority populations in Israel, with a focus on Arabs and Palestinians.
The festival encompasses a wide range of material, some of it fairly well known beyond the parameters of the special-interest screenings. For example, a screening of the critically acclaimed film “Precious Life,” about a Palestinian baby in need of a bone marrow transplant that could only take place in an Israeli hospital, is the festival’s closing event. Other screenings include the popular 2009 film “Ajami,” as well as episodes of “Ha’Misrad,” an Israeli adaptation of the television show “The Office.”
But each year, the film festival also brings out more esoteric material — material that would be difficult to view anywhere else. This year, I had the opportunity to see “Back and Forth,” the American premiere of four Bedouin directors from the Negev who, in four short films, record a picture of Bedouin society and its unique circumstances and problems.
The films are not particularly exceptional in terms of their construction, their cinematography or even, in some cases, their factual content (more on that later). But they are worth viewing because they capture the festival’s aspiration in an honest, if not brilliant, way — shedding light on communities that are often left in the cinematic dark.
The film opens with the four directors reading facts about the Bedouin community of Israel over sepia-tinted footage of Bedouins shuffling through the desert. As one says, in 1948, the year of the Jewish state’s founding, his community was told, “Keep living on your land as you did during the British Mandate.” Whether due to migration or other reasons left somewhat ambiguous, Israel’s 2008 Goldberg Commission found that 70,000 Bedouins living in the Negev in 1948 had, by 1951, dwindled to 12,750.
The narration continues, stating that Bedouins are locked into a contradiction within Israel: They are loyal adherents of the state, serving in the army and security forces, but as a nomadic society they are “a threat to the territory of the new state.” This controversial statement is left without elaboration or explanation, leading the viewer to believe that perhaps the films themselves will elucidate what the narration has not.
In many cases, however, the films reveal a population that is something of a threat to itself. In the first short film, “Burned Notebooks,” filmmaker Yusra Abu Kaff talks to members of a community in which young girls hanged themselves because their parents prohibited them from attending school. Many young girls in Bedouin society, we learn, feel that education is the only way they can liberate themselves from poverty. But parents, fearful that “bad things” will happen to the “family honor,” often prohibit them from going to school beyond ninth or 10th grade.
“They just wanted me to be with the sheep,” one girl recounts. “It’s boring to stay home and herd the flock. Really boring.” In a world of iPads and iPods, it’s hard to keep the kids down on the farm generally — but all the more so when the Western world of education is in such conflict with the traditional lifestyle of veiled women in makeshift tents in the desert. When this particular girl threatened suicide, her parents told her she could keep going to school, but they would no longer give her financial support. The girl decides this is a risk she’s willing to take: “Struggle is better than death.”
The second film, “Bedouins Drown Like Stones,” deals with the highly particularized problem that most victims of drowning on Israeli beaches are Bedouins. Even in Rahat, a Bedouin stone-and-mortar city 20 kilometers from Beersheba, pools are scarce, and only a few of its 19,000 Bedouin children are taught how to swim.
This film is intriguing, but amateurish — revealed most tellingly when one person says that the reason Bedouins don’t know how to swim is that “they don’t let Arabs into Jewish pools.” The film swallows this unquestioningly, and yet within 10 minutes, the viewer is seeing footage of a Bedouin woman taking her children to swimming lessons at the pool at Ben-Gurion University. The conflict between what we’ve just been told and what we’re seeing is not even mentioned.
The third film, “Janice,” is a snippet of the life of an English-born woman, Janice, who is married to a Bedouin man in Rahat. Certainly Janice is intriguing, but the film is too short to truly capture much of her essence, other than her extremely good Arabic. (Her husband, notably, gives his interviews in Hebrew). In the class she runs for children, she teaches them to respect small animals, which are often tortured on the streets of Rahat.
The fourth film, “Obama From Rahat,” is Morad Al-Farouna’s directorial look at his father’s attempt to run for Rahat’s city council as a representative of the 3,000 black Bedouin from Africa. Nasser Al-Farouna’s wife, who is illiterate but supportive, endorses his campaign. Despite the father’s valiant attempts, he loses to the Islamic Movement, which celebrates its victory with fireworks and dancing in the streets, as numbers of celebrants betray the futility of Nasser’s cause.
Since we never really find out what the father’s platform is, we can’t get too wound up about his loss — but true victory is quieter. In the fourth film, the couple’s daughter returns from Germany, where she is the first Bedouin woman to go to medical school. The implicit message of the films’ creation (three of the four filmmakers are female) is simple: The greatest hope for Bedouin society can come from allowing women’s voices to speak, and allowing as many people as possible to listen.
Jordana Horn is the New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.