Israeli films challenge historical conditions

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There was a noticeable absence of films from Palestinian directors at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. However, Israel provided two intriguing award-winning films, both challenging long-standing Israeli policies.

The Israeli occupation of Palestine was addressed in a fresh controversial Israeli film, entitled “The Bubble,” by Etyan Fox. Addressing two hot issues simultaneously, this film follows the gay and lesbian activist community of Tel Aviv in its struggle against the occupation and homophobia. For many, life in Tel Aviv, with its modern urban commercial environment, is as far as can be from the brutal realities of life for Palestinians under the occupation. Many appear to live in a bubble, unwilling to accept knowledge of the gay community and the occupation.

In “The Bubble,” both taboo issues collide with tremendous force. A young gay Israeli soldier, Noam, sees the inhuman treatment of Palestinians and becomes disenchanted with his duty at a military checkpoint. He meets Ashraf, a young Palestinian living in the West Bank, and finds common ground not only in their sexuality but also in their opposition to the cruel and dehumanizing occupation of Palestine.

Ashraf eventually becomes immersed in the Tel Aviv gay community, many of whom are fighting to end the occupation. Noam, in turn, experiences life in the oppressed villages of the West Bank. He meets Ashraf’s family, who are preparing for his sister’s wedding.

In a fatal encounter, Ashraf’s future brother-in-law, a militant Hamas soldier, discovers Noam and Ashraf kissing in the back room, which sets off extreme consequences.

The tragic contour of the developing story weaves through the intolerance in the religious and social communities, and the inhuman and threatening conditions that people in both Palestine and Israel must confront on a daily basis.

“Sweet Mud,” by Dror Shaul, deals with a totally different time in Israeli history. It’s 1948 and the burgeoning state of Israel is developing hundreds of kibbutzim, small egalitarian communities based on common ownership and work. Twelve-year-old Drir lives with his industrious father, mentally ill mother, and sympathetic sister. One of the conditions of kibbutzim life is that children live in separate housing so parents can do their required share of communal work unimpeded. Also, children are allowed to be with their families for only three hours a day, usually after school. This and many other limitations of the system propelled Dror Shaul to paint a highly critical picture of life on the kibbutz, based on his own unpleasant childhood experiences.

Shaul left his kibbutz under extreme conditions in the early 90s. The story tears apart the idealism of communal living. Drir’s mother becomes isolated from the rest of the community and goes mad, feeling trapped in the controlled environment that inadvertently produces individual competition, aberrant sexual behavior and failed marriages. Certainly drawn from personal negative experiences, the film is relentless in its depiction of the failures of Israeli kibbutzim life. And what’s only shown at a glance in one scene is a big fence protecting the Jewish community from — what else? The film says more about the occupation than it is aware.

Several Jewish directors published a letter of solidarity with their fellow Arab filmmakers in response to Israel’s aggression in the region. The text from last July reads, “We, the undersigned Israeli filmmakers, greet the Arab filmmakers who have gathered in Paris for the Arab Film Biennial. Through you, we wish to convey a message of camaraderie and solidarity with our Lebanese and Palestinian colleagues who are currently besieged and bombarded by our country’s army.

“We unequivocally oppose the brutality and cruelty of Israeli policy, which has reached new heights in recent weeks. Nothing justifies the continued occupation, closure and oppression in Palestine. Nothing justifies the bombing of civilians and the destruction of infrastructures in Lebanon and Gaza.

“Allow us to tell you that your films, which we try to see and circulate among us, are extremely important in our eyes. They enable us to know and understand you better. Thanks to these films, the men, women, and children who suffer in Gaza, Beirut, and everywhere else our army exercises its violence — have names and faces. We would like to thank you and encourage you to keep on filming, despite the difficulties.

“For our part, we will continue to express through our films, with our raised voices, and in our personal actions our vehement opposition to the occupation, and we will continue to express our desire for freedom, justice, and equality among all the peoples of the region.”