In Amos Gitai’s film “Ana Arabia”, premiered in Venice this week, a Palestinian whose late wife was an Auschwitz survivor and Muslim convert treks to Arab cities to find a dentist instead of one five minutes away in Tel Aviv.
In “Bethlehem”, the work of an Israeli director and Palestinian screenwriter, an Israeli Shin Bet secret service agent uses a young Palestinian boy as an informant with tragic consequences, mostly because they have become close friends.
The two Israeli films shown at the Venice Film Festival depict Israelis and Palestinians married or working closely together. But alongside these glimmers of hope lie deep misunderstandings and enmities that reinforce the impression of an unbridgeable divide.
Gitai’s “Ana Arabia” is in competition for the top Venice awards, the Golden Lions, to be awarded on Saturday. Yuval Adler’s “Bethlehem” is being screened out of competition.
Gitai, who has made some 80 feature films and shorts over four decades, said he was drawn to the true story of a Polish Auschwitz survivor living with her Arab husband in a village on the outskirts of Tel Aviv as a way to undermine stereotypes and show the need to embrace diversity.
The film is made from a single 81-minute shot, uncut.
The camera trails an Israeli journalist called Yael, played by Sarah Adler, walking through alleyways and into houses and a garden that had been reclaimed by the dead Jewish-Muslim woman from a stone-and-rubble-strewn plot.
Yael interviews the woman’s husband Youssef, who says his family has lived in the area for 150 years, and talks to her children and relatives about her and their lives.
One of them tells her that even though Palestinians provide the backbone of manual labour in Israel, they are treated worse than newly arrived immigrant Russian Jews.
“It’s really a story of Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Israelis and I think that my personal question to this very bloody Middle East, very savage and brutal Middle East, is that we can instill relations of people from different origins, different beliefs, even not agreeing with each other necessarily,” Gitai said.
He said the decision to film everything uncut in a single shot symbolised the future possibility of an undivided society.
“THERE WILL BE BLOOD”
Adler’s “Bethlehem” stands in contrast to “Ana Arabia”, with trade publication Variety describing it as “a tightly wound clock-ticking thriller”.
Director Adler said the landscape and tone was inspired by the Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle “There Will Be Blood” about the early days of the oil boom in America.
“I’ll tell you something I like about ‘There Will Be Blood’. First of all is the exteriors, this nature … so we shot in this stony landscape,” he said in a joint interview with the film’s screenwriter, Palestinian journalist Ali Waked.
The main characters are the Shin Bet agent Razi, his teenaged informant Sanfur and operatives from the Islamic militant al-Aqsa Brigades and Hamas.
Both militant groups agreed to provide technical advice on their operations in order to help make the film more authentic, “as long as they are sure we are telling the story as it is, without any agenda to show them bad or good”, Waked said.
“The secret service guys were the hardest to get,” said Adler.
It pays off in the film’s most gripping scene, where the informant’s militant brother is holed up in a Palestinian house, with an Israeli patrol outside set on nabbing or killing him. The whole neighbourhood shows up to stone the Israelis and destroy their vehicles.
“I think that films about the conflict, we have plenty. We wanted the new angle that … there is no black and white in this conflict,” said Waked, who covered Palestinian affairs for Israeli Internet site Ynet for 11 years.
“For me it was much easier to … describe Israelis as victims or Palestinians as the only victims. We made the hard choice to focus on the grey.”