With over 80 Jewish film festivals nationwide, we can certainly fathom how New York’s Other Israel Film Festival, with its mandate to focus on the “others” within Israeli life, has thrived, and reached its tenth year. One could in fact claim that this perspective is crucial to understanding Israeli life — many societies are predicated on or infused with the stress of ethnic disparity and antagonism, but in Israel it comes close to being the sine qua non, the aspect of life that has most marked the nation’s real-world historical identity, and geography, over the last half-century.
This year’s films plunging into this tumultuous landscape are as varied in their temperament as real people, but they nearly all struggle toward accepting and embracing the social scramble, in defiance of state policy.
Ori Sivan’s “Harmonia” is the hyper-civilized side of the coin, set in the rarefied upper-crust realm of symphonic music, and telling the Genesis story of Hagar, the Egyptian slave who bore Sarah and Abraham a son, Ishmail (the prime progenitor of the Arab tribes). With plenty of irony, Sivan follows the Bible tale closely: Hagar (Yanna Yossef) is a young Palestinian French Horn player joining the Jerusalem Philharmonic, taken in by conductor Abraham (Alon Aboutboul) and his wife, harpist Sarah (Tali Sharon), whose many miscarriages inspire Hagar to volunteer as surrogate. The film leaps ahead years at a time, tracing the triangle’s break-up, wild piano-playing son #1 Ishmail’s oppositional defiance disorder (also in Genesis), a second son, and so on, and the experience is abrupt and puzzling, at least until the inevitable (and unBiblical) feel-good we’ll-all-play-together resolution.
Udi Aloni’s “Junction 48,” on the other hand, embraces a viscerally contemporary Palestinian perspective, of the crudest kind: the hero is a twenty-something Arabic rapper (Tamar Nafar) from Lod, whose social circle is made up entirely of dopers and dealers, and whose songs are injustice-enumerating rants. The story, co-written by American filmmaker Oren Moverman and co-produced by stateside indie pope James Schamus, is chockablock with cliched tropes from the hip-hop playbook, from police harassment, systemic brutality, rival rap gangs (Jewish, of course), selfishness spiraling into tragedy and grief, spontaneous rap concerts in defiance of state power, threats of druglord vengeance, and so on. Certainly, a fondness for rap posturing and semi-articulate young-rebel cant could make it go down easier.
Yaniv Berman’s “Land of Little People” is a different kind of new-generation beast, and maybe the oddest entry on the fest’s docket. As brightly lit as an ‘80s Disney movie, this nasty little creeper follows four cold-blooded tweens (three boys, one girl) as they act out their country’s militaristic instincts hunting and playing war in an abandoned Army post; once a pair of bickering AWOL soldiers hide out there, antagonizing the kids. A real war blazes elsewhere, and consumes the kids’ fathers, but here the hiding grunts become the enemy, and a stealth battle begins that ends, for the grown-ups, very badly. Think “Lord of the Flies” with its metaphor sharpened down to a spear point.
One of the more refreshing aspects to the OIFF’s docket is the prominence of women directors — none of whom bludgeon us with message. Elite Zexer’s dynamic, aptly titled “Sand Storm” is already a bonafide festival hit, entering into a Bedouin family in the Negev desert just as the spineless father (Haitham Omari) is reluctantly taking a second wife, his spirited daughter (Lamis Ammar) resists her arranged marriage, and everyone is helplessly subject to the old laws of tribal patriarchy. It’s sharp-eyed and iconic, whereas veteran editor Tova Ascher’s debut film “A.K.A. Nadia” melodramatically pivots on the by-now classic gag of mistaken/hidden ethnic identity (by now almost a narrative archetype of cultural split-personality), as it follows a Jewish mother and wife (Netta Shpigelman) whose long-buried identity as an Arab (and wife to a runaway PLO bomber) gets uncovered by happenstance. The textures and attention to character detail make it work, as also in Miya Hatav’s somewhat programmatic “Between Worlds,” in which a grieving woman (Maya Gasner), attending to her estranged son in the hospital after a terrorist stabbing, bonds with a younger woman (Maria Zreik) who may or may not have secrets to reveal.
A measured, unemphatic touch permeates Eran Kolirin’s “Beyond the Mountains and the Hills,” a middle-class-menopause drama in which the placid privileges and presumptions of a retired Army officer (Alon Pdut) and his family begin to collapse into chaos after he accidentally kills a Palestinian youth impulsively firing off his handgun. But the festival’s peak moment might belong to Maha Haj’s sneaky “Personal Affairs,” a deadpan ode-satire to modern middle-class Palestinian life, which is just as enfeebled and suffocated by technology, media and narcissism as everyone else’s. This Nazareth family is aging out — the elderly father and mother (non-pros Sanaa and Mahmoud Shawahdeh) barely speak in their grindingly empty quotidian, much to the worry of their three children, two of which live across the border in Ramallah, and one of which has already shoved off for Sweden.
Virtually every scene entails real life being squashed or halted by screen media; the one character who can’t abide the inertia is Tarek (Doraid Liddawi), who refuses to commit to his girlfriend Maisa (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a tension that eventually explodes during a checkpoint search and results in the two of them being arrested. Haj, who worked as a set designer for satirist Elia Suleiman, has a jeweler’s eye, and a knack for sudden quiet comedy that can’t be faked. Best of all, her characters aren’t defined by their categories, or their country.