Otherwise Engaged — and Engaging, as Well

If this had been part of the just-concluded presidential campaign, John McCain would have referred to it as … "that one."

Call it what you will, but the Other Israel Film Festival — reflecting a love for Israeli cinema that almost dares not speak its name — is otherwise engaged these days.

With its focus on the Arab citizens of Israel, this second-annual film fest (www.otherisrael.org) unspools at and spills over its home base at the Manhattan JCC to the Cinema Village, as a score of films presented by the New York Israel Film Center are abetted by special programs and discussions that tell a lot about Tel Aviv, and other cities and 'burbs, on screen and off.

Perhaps more than any of the offerings, "The Heart of Jenin" is at the heart of the festival's intent, as it reels in the soul and unloads the tears, with a tale of a Palestinian father who donates his late 12-year-old son's organs to Israeli youngsters.

Organ of change? Film could do much worse at such noble efforts. And thanks to the noblesse oblige of one woman who has learned to cater to diverse and complicated tastes, the "other" Israel gets its film face time, too, now through Nov. 13 (running concurrently as New York's Israel Film Festival; but that's another … festival.)

Carole Zabar — whose family name is spread thick with fame and fortune amid New York's food business, where their bialy stock is as densely delicious as their lox luxuriant — once carped that Israel's Arab citizenry had their cinema shrouded in the dark. And this entrepreneurial, erstwhile lawyer and board member of the Manhattan JCC, American Friends of Meretz, as well as the New Israel Fund, was the one to fund an opportunity that would bring the lights! camera! Arab action! to the public eye.

Oy! It hasn't always been easy being the film fest's Jewish general.

"There was no media coverage the first year," and even when there was a calendar listing by one of New York's more well-known Jewish newspapers, it may as well have been listed from right to left.

Forward thinkers? "They were so off, they even got the dates wrong."

Annoyed like an old Jewish man returning his soup at a deli — with a salute to "Seinfeld" — Zabar zaps wrongs with rights. Or is it left?

No Worries

"I am not trying to stir up controversy with this festival. We are avoiding political controversy."

But, still, why has the mainstream media abandoned them? "They get so many film festivals in general to cover, but it is a mistake to approach this as just a film festival."

Indeed, it is her movie mission. What if Rodney King were a filmmaker: Can't we all just get along?

Along the way, Zabar is offering a multitude of movie answers to go along with such fuzzy notions as "When Muppets Dream of Peace," a particularly promising discussion dealing with "Sesame Street's" paths to pieces of Israeli and Arab audiences through diverse Mideast missions.

When things are tense, it's easier to be past imperfect. "In the past, we tried to avoid hard topics, but we are not avoiding them this year," Zabar relates of such choices as "Desert Brides," of bedouin brides and bridegrooms dealing with polygamy in a polyglot land; and "Boys From Lebanon," about exiles from the South Lebanese Army trying to find a life and lifestyle for themselves, scraping for acknowledgment amid the hardscrabble desserts of Israel.

Probing the Israeli Arab problem is a deep concern for the festival director. "Israel's fate depends so much on how they treat their minorities," says Zabar.

Some treatments are better than others; indeed, medical treatment can be astoundingly good. "Hadassah Hospital is a perfect model of what a community can achieve," says Zabar of the internationally acclaimed medical center, "a model of cooperation," whose patient paraphernalia is oft-emblazoned with Stars of David amid stars and crescents.

Arts can heal, too: "The best place for Jews and Palestinians to collaborate is through the arts."

And a good bite couldn't hurt either; but that hits home. After all is said and done — and noshed — Zabar's isn't the official catering company of the film fest's food-stuffed cineastes.

Is that kosher? Exactly, says Zabar, with an appreciation for the comestible complication. "We can't do it; it has to be kosher."



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