A festival built on the hope that film can bridge the deep political divide over Israel

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Still from An Oasis on the Hill. (Other Israel Film Festival)
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Can you organize a film festival about Palestinians and ethnic minorities in Israel and not put yourself on one side or another of that deep political divide that separates "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestinian" New Yorkers?

Organizers of the Other Israel Film Festival, which kicked off last night with a screening and gala at the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, admit it's difficult. The unifying theme of the festival, now in its sixth year, is to examine unique stories of Arab Israelis, Palestinians, and other minorities in Israel.

“Anytime someone says 'This festival is not for me,' and I try to tell them that this festival is for everybody, it’s tough for people to hear," said the festival’s executive director, Isaac Zablocki. "It’s tough for people to hear the other side.”

He said both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate can be stuck in their opinion, but that the idea of the festival is that presenting movies that are well-made can help to bridge the gap. Of the entries they received this year, about half were relevant, leaving the curators with 100 films to sift through. The perfect film, according to Zablocki, favors the personal over the political.

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“There’s a lot of films that we love that are not really making the right point, or [we want to] emphasize that message [with] another film, so sometimes the selection gets a little bit tricky like that,” he said.

Among this year's 20 full-length and short films are works that feature the plight of Muslims attempting to fit into the legal and cultural architecture of Israeli society, finding a place somewhere between the extremes of Orthodox Jews and Bedouins.

During its first years, the festival focused specifically on dual identities among Arab Israelis. But that preoccupation been loosened in recent years to allow for examinations of other minorities. Among this year's featured films are The Invisible Men—about gay Palestinians considering seeking asylum to escape persecution—and Testimony, in which Israeli actors re-enact the military experiences of Israeli and Palestinian soldiers at checkpoints.

But meaningful connections between Jewish and Arab Israelis, tenuous as they may be, remain the bread and butter of the festival. One of the most renowned films being shown this year, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, looks at the relationship between a French-Israeli teen attempting to communicate with a Palestinian, at first with a bottle, then the Internet.

Last night an audience of about 125 people, many of them members of the J.C.C. and festival sponsors, heard testimony from festival directors and concerned members of the film industry. Actor and outspoken activist Mandy Patinkin told last night's audience it was “nothing short of a mitzvah” to listen to those who were so rarely given a voice.

“There are people who I can understand have suffered great loss on both sides of the conflict," Patinkin said. "And even here, everyone has suffered loss, but for those who can stand up and sit at the table, you must never leave that table of discussion until you take your last breath."

Before the festival’s first screening, its founder, Carole Zabar (wife of Saul Zabar, who co-owns the namesake specialty food store) said that while she was no politician, she hoped that people would leave the festival thinking about the situation’s complexity.

“And I have to end that by saying, I am so proud that we, America, have elected an ‘other’ for the second time,” she said, to hearty applause.

Afterward, Zabar said she had long been involed in left-wing politics and that films can be a practical way to feed people’s hunger for substantive art.

“You know, all it takes is the money and the backing to do it and you can set that agenda,” she said. (Zabar provides a good deal of the festival's underwriting, and estimated that festival's total costs run around $175,000 each year.)

One of Zabar's favorite aspects of participating in the festival is using her family's Fire Island house for her and three others on the selection committee to spend a weekend in August whittling down the final films. While Saul has no say, Carole said he is a good indicator of the general audience.

“When he watches a movie and he cries, you know it’s a winner,” she said.

Richard Lorber, C.E.O. of the Kino Lorber distribution company and a member of the festival’s advisory committee, said the social messages of movies have a chance to reach more audiences with the festival.

“’Mainstream’ is a really relative term,” he said. “But here you have a Jewish Community Center, you have a community where people come here to exercise and swim and take courses and do yoga. And suddenly they’re exposed to some ideas and political issues in the form of film.”

He went on to say that film fans who might not otherwise seek out political fare were the festival's target.

“I wouldn’t call it proselytizing," he said, "but I would call it [a] consciousness-expanding opportunity.”

Perhaps no movie in the festival could have provided a more fitting start than Sharqiya, the feature-length debut of Tel Aviv-based director Ami Livne.

Shot in just 12 days for a mere $300,000, it is a quietly tense film, full of spare, gorgeous shots. (It has a “Bedouin pace,” Zablocki said.) In it, a small, desperate Bedouin family grapples with an impending government demolition of their home. When, after a slowly wrought conclusion, the main character's eyes gaze directly at the camera, it feels as though everyone watching, whatever their politics, is implicated.

The Other Israel Film Festival continues through through Nov. 15 at the J.C.C. and Cinema Village. A selection of previous entries are also available on-demand.