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Now Seeing the 'Other' Side

November 5, 2009 By:
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A scene from "Zahara," marking Carole Zabar's producer's debut.

Is there a biblical back lot to Israel's burgeoning movie industry?

That's the contention of sorts of the "Other Israel Film Festival"www.OtherIsrael.org , the third annual output of Israeli movies focusing on that nation's 20 percent population made up of Muslims, Christians, Bedouins and Druze.

A movieland minority report? Yes, and people are coming into the tent -- 6,000 miles away.

The New York festival unfolds Nov. 12-19 at several central Manhattan sites, with discussions and debates on the agenda.

A contentious event? The woman who's organized and founded the festival is not one to run away from a risk.

"I do trust the audience," says Carole Zabar, festival founder/guiding light.

They will have much to choose from, including "Sayed Kashua -- Forever Scared," dealing with an Israeli journalist whose own diaries might be filled with tales of aversion from Israelis because he's Arab and distaste from Arabs, who don't trust him; and "Badal," about Arab intermarriage, in which a Muslim brother and sister marry siblings from another Muslim family.

While her family's foodie fame (Zabar's husband runs a world-famous eponymously named food empire, taking over in 1950 from his father, Louis, who founded it in 1936) has focused for so long on catering to the delicate palettes of upscale New Yorkers, Carole found this project so cinematically suited to her tastes and left-of-center leanings that it serves as an "other" artistic outlet.

The festival is a celebration -- not an elision -- of all peoples in Israel, she points out.

Sometimes, it helps to remind oneself, she says.

After all, the problems faced by these movies are not of the milquetoast "Milk and Honey" variety. One expecting "Kazablan" meets chaos instead; "I Love You, Rosa" has been displaced by "Get Out of My Face, Ashid/Aaron," a figurative name from a nation that figures much in the headlines of hate-mongering on all sides.

Can't we all just get along? Maybe the festival can help, serving as a screen saver.

"I believe in the art of change," says Zabar.

Much has changed globally in the past year; some detractors boycotted the just-concluded Toronto Film Festival for bringing in an Israeli feature ("$9.99"), which got its title's worth of attention and publicity, with most discounting the call for a boycott.

Art for Art's Sake

"I am against the idea of boycotting art for political stances taken," says Zabar. "Israel is a perfect example of a nation bringing people together. By working with the arts, you are not supporting Israel's government," but its creative cadre of visionaries.

That vision will be in focus on Nov. 14, when the festival hosts a symposium on "the art of change -- in a nonconfrontational" format, says Zabar.

To her credit this year: "Zahara," directed by Mohammad Bakri, marked Zabar's premiere as producer.

Glancing through the schedule -- and, for that matter, much of the output of Israel's film business over the past several years -- one is more likely to be confronted by a howitzer than howls of laughter.

Where are the comedies of old? The confections rather than the confrontations? Popcorn movies, rather than submachine-gun cinema?

Certainly, the funny business in Israel isn't solely related to governmental politics; filmmakers still get a chuckle out of making an unforced farce, and fun-raising is at the heart of several of the "Other" offerings, such as a film about a Palestinian rapper called "Saz," which says it all.

But what gets more international attention is a film like "Ajami," a juicy slice of Jaffa life that has been called a "Crash"-course in Israeli Arab/ Christian politics, where turning the cheek could get one stabbed in the neck.

For American Jews, this may well be the film about "the other" problems in Israel. Zabar valiantly tried to land the film for her festival, but "the producers declined to give us the film as they have not yet found U.S. distributors."

Time will tell with other ventures; and what the current climate tells us, explains Zabar, is that we are living in troubled times.

"You have to come to a place from which you can climb out" to face the sun of optimism, she says, tellingly. "And in the Israeli film industry, you have to go through the angst before you're able to climb out, too."

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