In response to requests for more light-hearted themes, the 18th annual event includes more comedies than in past years.
In a scene from the documentary Handa Handa 4, Ronen Davidov waits to take the stage during a performance with his Israeli Bukharian theater group. Before their cue, his older brother — dressed in drag for his “diva” costume — jokes that Ronen and his girlfriend, Orit, are like the opposite of Romeo and Juliet: Their families want them to get married, but the couple is content just to date for years.
It’s easy to laugh at this conversation and others in the film, which focuses on the pressure the couple faces from their relatives, several of whom say, “Two dates, then get married.”
But in the film, which will be screened during the 18th annual Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia, director David Ofek also shows how this relatively unknown ethnic group from Central Asia exhibits some of the same traits and idiosyncrasies as Jews from anywhere else in the world.
“You can laugh and see it as primitive, but you can also see the other side of it and understand and appreciate the goodness in them,” said Ofek, who will travel from his home in Ramat Gan, Israel, to make an appearance at the April 5 screening at Gratz College in Melrose Park.
This year’s festival, which starts March 8, features more comedies than in past years. And yes, a documentary can be a comedy, too. In addition to Handa Handa 4, the festival features Hunting Elephants, a crime comedy starring Patrick Stewart about three gray-haired men and a teenager who decide to rob a bank in Jerusalem, and Peeping Toms, about an old hippie who sells assorted items on Tel Aviv beaches to make a living.
The comic relief came by request.
“People have been complaining” about the lack of humor in past years of the festival,” said chairwoman Nurit Yaron, laughing. “There was one person who went up to a director of a film last year and said, ‘How about making a comedy?’ ”
That’s often easier said than done in Israel, Yaron continued.
“Usually, the American way — you have the happy ending. The Israeli way — you don’t have the happy ending,” said Yaron. “As you know, Israel is not always a happy ending. It’s part of the culture, part of the existence of being Israeli.”
This year’s festival is not all laughs, though. Other films include the 2008 documentary Sharon: An Inner Journey from War to Peace, in honor of the former prime minister who died in January, and Israel’s 2013 submission to the Academy Awards, Bethlehem, about a Palestinian teen torn between loyalty to his militant older brother and an Israeli secret service agent he has become close to.
Ofek said he got the idea for his documentary after spotting DVDs of the Handa Handa theater show in a Bukharian neighborhood of Tel Aviv.
The 46-year-old director, who is from an Iraqi Jewish family, said he could relate to the experience of growing up in a small, tight-knit ethnic group in Israel.
“In Israel it was hard to speak Arabic or have Arabic culture. It was the culture of the enemy,” Ofek said. “Inside the house, we had Arabic music but it was all very closed.”
He found his angle for a story about the Bukharian community in the ultimatum Ronen and Orit eventually faced from family and friends — get married or break up.
Most Israelis know that Bukharians are “a very strong community, but they don’t know much about the inside,” said Ofek, who has also made Home, a documentary about his family’s experience observing the first Gulf War from afar, and No. 17, in which he tries to identify a victim of a terrorist attack in Israel.
One of the comedic scenes in Handa Handa 4 features Hay Davidov, the main character’s older brother, impersonating his grandmother talking to him when he was little.
“Don’t go to kindergarten,” Hay says, in his grandmother’s voice. “They’ll kill you there! I’ll raise you. I don’t need your money. Just remember me. That’s enough.”
Despite being a traditional community, the Bukharian stakeholders agreed to be filmed, Ofek said, because he promised them the chance to voice their opinion.
“Every side in this conflict felt that he was doing the right thing,” Ofek said. “And every side was willing to defend his opinion.”
Initially reluctant to participate in the film, Ronen said he agreed to take part because he thought it could help “the younger generations.
“In the Bukharian community, the younger generations, they really respect their parents,” said Ronen during a phone interview while he and his brother were in the midst of a U.S. tour. “They are telling them what to do and when to do it and most of the time, they are listening, but we want young people to be able to say, ‘We respect you guys but we can choose for ourselves,’ and that’s the idea of the movie, to make your own decisions about your life."
Careful not to have their message turn into a public service announcement, Hay said that a Bukharian friend in New York who had enjoyed the movie described it as “making striptease for your soul.”