Did you hear the joke about the Arab who volunteered for the IDF? He was so patriotic that the Beitar Jerusalem fans in the Border Police were impressed. They even considered visiting his family’s home in Sakhnin. Well almost, anyway.
Except it’s not a joke, it’s a documentary. Recently screened at the Jerusalem International Film Festival and opening this week at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, “Ameer Got His Gun” (“Bnei Dodim L’Neshek”) is so full of pathos and Israel’s trademark absurdity that it’s impossible for any audience member with a live heartbeat not to identify with the main protagonist and namesake of the film, Ameer Abu Ria.
Living as an Arab citizen in Israel is no easy proposition, what with loyalty oaths and territorial swaps, legally sanctioned exclusion from private communities and rabbinical proclamations against renting homes to Arabs. But if Israel’s Arab communities have difficult political and social choices to make, at least their members can usually count on the support of their neighbors, local associations and extended families. Ameer goes down a road much less trodden and far more alienating.
The idea for the documentary came to director Naomi Levari after she read an article on Ynet in 2004 that listed several soldiers killed during a terrorist infiltration along the Gaza border. She realized when reading the surnames of the causalities that five of the dead soldiers were from Arab families, not the more typical Jewish or Druze IDF recruits. “I didn’t know that Muslims volunteered for the army, so I began doing research on the subject,” she said in an interview. “No one knew about it.”
Still, the force that drove Levari to turn a moment of personal educational into a film was political in nature. “The day after that incident a Knesset member said that [Israeli] Arabs are like worms,” Levari said. “‘They are everywhere. They are a fifth column.’ And on that day the film was born.” She continued: “I asked myself how was it possible that a member of the Knesset talks that way and at the same time some of these Israeli Arabs go and fight to protect Israel in the most dangerous conflict areas.”
But finding someone like Ameer was no small feat. Levari, along with her partner and producer Saar Yogev, canvassed Arab villages across northern Israel looking for the 20 or so Muslim Arabs who volunteer for IDF service in any given year. “Most of the Arab IDF enlistees, even if they are volunteering out of ideological reasons wouldn’t expose themselves [to public recognition],” said Levari. “They would keep it a secret.”
Eventually Levari and Yogev heard rumors of an Israeli-Arab family in the Galilee town of Sakhnin that flew an Israeli flag over its home, an unusual sight in the area. What followed was a 58-minute film about Ameer and his family as they go through the emotionally difficult process of IDF service.
Seeing the Abu-Ria family go through these moments without a mediating narrator makes “Ameer” an even more powerful movie. Whether its Ameer’s village friends flaking out of attending his pre-draft induction party, or his mother Dalal’s consistent worry coupled with her unconditional maternal support, almost every scene in the film is a potent brew of emotions.
One of the more grotesque moments in the film comes when two members of Ameer’s unit bombastically declare their intention to solve Israel’s security problem by cleansing the state of its Palestinian citizens. At another point one of Ameer’s friends declares his wish to expel all Israeli Arabs because they breed like rabbits. He joyfully exclaims that of course Ameer and his family can stay because he is a good guy, but please only have two or three children, “like a normal family.”
Disturbingly, these moments are also quite humorous, and can easily be dismissed as army hijinks. Ameer’s army friends also grew up during the aftermath of the First Intifada, during the suicide bombings and shootings of the Oslo period and Second Intifada, and in all likelihood knew someone who died in a terror attack. But living in an environment where they barely have any interaction with Arab-Israeli citizens, this anguish metastasizes into a hate for all Arabs.
“[Israeli] people will say ‘pro-Palestinian Arabs are all fifth columnists’ while they will call patriotic [Israeli] Arabs crazy,” said Levari. “Either way they are screwed.”
Never has a film summed up so neatly the dilemma of Israel’s largest ethnic minority without resorting to didacticism or political dogmatism.
Watch the trailer for ‘Ameer Got His Gun’: