Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 12, 2019

The 2019 Other Israel Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Israel,Palestine — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

For as long as I can remember, I’ve received invitations to cover the Other Israel Film Festival in New York that I’ve consistently ignored. This was largely a reaction to the word Israel rather than Other. In the back of my mind, the idea of covering the festival was a violation of the BDS campaign even though I have been covering Israeli films for as long as I have been a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Recently, I wrote a review of an Israeli documentary titled “Advocate”, whose subject Lea Tsemel is a 73-year old Israel attorney who might be compared to William Kunstler in her willingness to take on cases of outcasts that are prejudged in the media just like The Central Park Five. Both her and her husband were members of the Israeli Trotskyist movement and utterly fearless in their anti-Zionist stance. If you haven’t seen this powerful documentary, you can do so now as part of the Other Israel Film Festival that opens on Thursday, November 14th.

It was only because of the persistence of publicist Isil Bagdadi that I took the trouble to look at the festival schedule. After having seen the films listed below and “Advocate” beforehand, my recommendation for attending the festival is unqualified. For both their subject matter and their cinematic mastery, they are evidence of both Israeli and Palestinian’s pride of place in the film world outside Hollywood. The festival is largely a result of the funding and hard work of the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan, which could not be more unlike the 92nd Street Y, just a block from me, that provides a regular platform for Israeli government officials. Even if the JCC embraces Zionist values, its support for the Other Israel film festival will likely shake up Jewish thinking about Israel as should be evident from the films discussed below

Schedule information is at https://www.otherisrael.org/oi-13-schedule-venues/.

“Comrade Dov” is Dov Khenin, a Communist Party member who served 13 years in the Knesset for the Jewish-Arab party Hadash, a coalition to which the CP belongs. Like Lea Tsemel, Khenin is an attorney but not one with a history of defending Palestinian militants, as far as I know. By the evidence of the documentary, he is a Zionist who supports a two-state solution based on his belief that it is impossible for two nationalities to co-exist within the same borders.

History would seem to be passing Khenin behind based on the evidence of opposition to his most recent run for the Knesset from within Hadash. Two young women, one Arab and the other a Jew, state that they can’t support him because Israel needs a revolution, not reform, even if well-meaning.

Well-meaning does describe Khenin. He sponsored a rise in the minimum wage that paralleled the campaign for $15 in the USA and which succeeded to his credit. He also took up the cause of workers in a small textile manufacturing company that was about to be shut down. Another priority for him was blocking the demolition of a Palestinian village in the West Bank and its replacement by settlers. Both of these campaigns failed.

Despite his inability to see beyond the Zionist facts on the ground, Khenin is a courageous and principled politician. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is him being interviewed by a TV reporter connected to the Lubavitcher Hasidim. When the reporter makes an Islamophobic comment, Khenin stops him in his tracks and tells him to never question other people’s faith. With leaders such as this, it is not hard to understand why the CP gained a foothold in Israel while revolutionary groups have functioned mostly on the margins.

Director Emmanuelle Mayer spent 10 years filming the attempts by a Ghanaian immigrant named Johnny trying to pick up skills in Israel that he could use back in Africa. Like most African immigrants, he has a dead-end job. He scrubs toilets and mops floors for an Israeli building owner but dreams of making a living as the owner of a fish farm like the kind that exist in China and other East Asian nations. As the son of a fisherman, he wants to avoid the vicissitudes of fishing in the coastal waters of Ghana but lacks the skills to get a fish farm off the ground. He is in a race to gain such skills before a nativist pogrom or immigration cops force a premature flight.

As an initial stab at this business, he gets his brother to dig a pond in his home village and fill it with catfish. It is only after Johnny gets an apprenticeship with an Israeli fish farmer that he understands how much technology and capital are required to be successful. Fish farming requires a deep knowledge of the chemicals and food required to keep hatchlings alive as well as tools such as microscopes to check on their progress. Without the director making a heavy-handed statement on Johnny’s chances, the film dramatizes the immense gulf between Third World countries and those that are fortunate enough to get a seat the imperialist table. It makes those Thomas Friedman articles about Africa’s pending rise look more foolish than ever.

Directed by Palestinian Bassam Jarbawi, “Screwdriver” is a gripping narrative film about the attempts of a man named Ziad to recover from the effects of 15 years in an Israeli prison. Although it is drawn from the collective experience of the Palestinian nation, it is much more of an existential and psychological portrait of a lost soul. As Ziad, Ziad Bakri captures the wraith-like quality of someone who is still a caged man despite his release from prison—caged by his psyche rather than iron bars.

When he was young, Ziad hung out with a posse that hardly fit the mold of Palestinian activism. Their favorite pastime was stealing a car, driving off somewhere, parking on the side of a road, and drinking beer. One night as they sat in one such car, someone shot at them from afar and killed Ramzi, a good friend of Ziad’s. A week or so later, when the posse—minus Ramzi—was driving down a road late at night in another stolen car, they spotted a man standing next to a car with Israeli plates. Except for Ziad, they decided to take revenge on the man. Taking a U-turn, they drove past the car and shot him. A few seconds later, Israeli cops pursued their car and chased them on foot as they fled. Only Ziad was apprehended. During his interrogation, he refused to finger his accomplices. No problem, the Israeli cop told him. You shot an Arab, not an Israeli. Despite the plates, he was one of them.

Upon Ziyad’s release from prison, he is regaled as a hero by the Palestinian politicos despite the problematic aspects of his imprisonment. Complicating things, the man they shot came to a ceremony to announce his forgiveness. It was part of the struggle, so to speak.

Meanwhile, Ziyad walks around with a perpetual headache and an inability to connect with any friends or family members emotionally. Although the term PTSD does not get mentioned in the film, it is obvious that this is his problem. The only person who is able to break through his invisible cage is a Palestinian filmmaker named Mina (Yasmine Qaddumi) who is making a documentary that focuses on human emotions rather than politics. Open to her initiative, Ziyad spends productive but often painful filming sessions with her until he finally decides that she is exploiting him. He accuses her of using the trapped people of the West Bank for her film until she makes it back to the USA, where she lives the good life. The theme of imprisonment, both literal and figurative, provides the narrative thrust of a powerful film breaking with Middle East filmmaking conventions.

Director Bassam Jarbawi put it this way in an interview with The Daily Sabah:

Since Palestine is a captive country, Jarbawi said: “I always wanted to make a film about Palestine and captivity; thus, I made this film.”

“Cause of Death” is an investigative report into the death of a Druze cop named Salim Barakat in 2002 based on the stubborn pursuit by his brother Jamal to get at the truth. On the evening of March 5, 2002, a terrorist opened fire on a Tel Aviv restaurant with an M-16. On patrol not far from the scene, Salim raced to the restaurant and began struggling with the man who stabbed him in the neck until either Salim’s weapon or those of another cop left him dead.

In the police report, Salim is credited with saving lives and portrayed as the stabbing victim of the terrorist in a ferocious struggle just outside the restaurant. However, Jamal, who was an investigator for an insurance company, is not satisfied with the report. Paying close attention to police recordings, he hears his brother announce that the terrorist is dead. But in a few seconds, another two shots ring out in clear contradistinction to the police claim that with the death of both the terrorist and Salim, calm returned to the scene.

This is a far more gripping tale than anything you can see on network TV like NCIS, especially since Jamal is so different from the cops he is investigating. Homespun and deferential to everybody he speaks to, he is convinced that someone dining at the restaurant fired a weapon that accidentally killed his brother but is frustrated by the man’s refusal to take responsibility and the police stonewalling his efforts.

The film is the first one ever made by Ramy Katz and amounts to a condemnation of the Israeli police for telling self-serving lies. If this can happen with the Druze, a sect that collaborates with Israeli authorities, what fate would Palestinians suffer under most other circumstances?

4 Comments »

  1. I think you meant BDS campaign, not BDE. In any event, the relevant question is whether or not the films were funded in part by Israel’s Cultural Affairs Ministry. If they’re clean of that association, then seeing them should be fine.

    Comment by Sheldon Ranz — November 12, 2019 @ 9:22 pm

  2. If a film, or any work of art, speaks the truth, it transcends its funder.

    A tip of the hat to a member of the Zabar family, who has been funding this series for years. Zabar’s is a deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, many of whose customers who make them prosperous are blindly devoted to Israel.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — November 13, 2019 @ 1:09 am

  3. “If a film, or any work of art, speaks the truth, it transcends its funder.”

    Indeed! Beethoven’s music may have never existed if it were not for the sponsorship of a particular Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein (https://www.biographyonline.net/music/beethoven.html). Nor Mozart’s if it were not for his sponsors. The list is endless.

    Also … Just wondering if anybody knows …

    Is there now, or has there ever been any effort by socially-conscious, art-oriented and RICH filmmakers (say, Martin Scorsese, or Francis Ford Coppola, or others from the global north), to create a fund to help filmmakers from communities or societies (say, in Palestine) where artistic-oriented filmmakers don’t have enough resources to produce their art?

    Comment by Reza — November 13, 2019 @ 2:01 am

  4. Good question from Reza. And considering how relatively inexpensive it is to make films in most countries–the cost of a single Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ could support many countries’ film industries for a year or more–it would cost a film lover like Scorsese chump change to keep many nations’ film industry afloat, in addition to advice and connections he could provide them with.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — November 13, 2019 @ 2:44 am


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