Film fest focuses on Israelis, Palestinians

NEW YORK, June 12 (JTA) — A young Israeli terror victim lies on her hospital bed, her head swathed in bandages. “It’s really awkward because we are injured by the terrorists, and the terrorists themselves are treated here — being guarded by soldiers, our soldiers,” the woman says. “It’s really awkward. I wish I could choke them to death. But they won’t let me.” Then, in a matter-of-fact manner, she describes how she was injured by a terrorist bomb in a coffee shop. Such painful honesty lies at the heart of “Welcome to Hadassah Hospital,” one of several films on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict showing at this year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York, which begins Friday and runs through June 26. A selection of films from the festival will also travel to 35 cities in the United States, beginning in September. Other films focus on experiences in places such as post-apartheid South Africa, the Philippines, Thailand and Colombia. “Welcome” examines how Israeli doctors treat put aside their political views to treat both Jews and Arabs — victims and perpetrators alike — who have been injured in Israeli-Palestinian violence. The “hero” of the documentary is Dr. Avi Rivkind, Hadassah’s head of emergency medicine, who explains that Israeli hospitals cannot accept the attitude of the woman injured in the bombing. “I can understand her anger but we cannot be involved in this. I’m sorry,” he says. “We’ve never been involved in this anger, and we’ll treat them. Hopefully it will stop someday, and we’ll treat acute appendicitis. But meanwhile this is what we are facing.” The film, by Dutch director Ramon Gieling, intersperses interviews with patients, doctors, nurses, physical therapists and food service workers with off-color jokes from both Palestinians and Israelis — showing how humor helps each side to survive the absurdity of violence. Humor also is present in the films of Hany Abu-Assad, who will receive the Nestor Almendros Prize for courage and commitment to filmmaking, named after a late Spanish cinematographer. In Abu-Assad’s “Rana’s Wedding,” a father who disapproves of his daughter’s choice for a husband plans to take her abroad one afternoon unless she agrees to marry a man from a list he has prepared. But the daughter resolves to find the man she loves and marry him. In “Ford Transit,” Abu-Assad focuses on Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. The film highlights the difficulties Palestinians face in traveling to schools, workplace and jobs. It also provides an arena for Palestinians to voice their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of the film is a straight documentary, and the voices heard are those of ordinary Palestinians, riding in the Ford vans — Israeli police vehicles which now are used as Palestinian taxis. At its best, the film shows ordinary Palestinians struggling to survive. Its main character, Rajai, is appealing in his resourcefulness, showing an ability to make the best of what life has given him that is similar to Rivkind’s. At times, however, the film simply provides a soapbox for well-known figures — Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi and Israeli Arab Knesset member Azmi Beshara — to take potshots at Israel. The inclusion of such a film in the festival may give fodder to those who argue that the human rights community practices moral equivalence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or simply is biased against Israel. The main criterion that the festival board uses in selecting films is that they employ effective storytelling about human rights situations, says Bruni Burres, the festival’s director. This is certainly true of two other documentaries showing at the festival — Yulie Cohen Gershtel’s “My Terrorist,” which examines what happens an Israeli terrorist victim decides to get in touch with one of the terrorists who injured her, and “Kaddim Wind — Moroccan Chronicle,” a four-hour documentary about racism Moroccan Jews have faced in Israel. The latter won the best documentary award at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. Both films examine society and attitudes in Israel — but staunch supporters of Israel might not be pleased with the critical tone of the films, or at least might wonder why they’re not balanced by a film with a less critical view. That’s not a concern for the festival’s committee, Burres says, adding that most people who see the films find them thought-provoking. “We usually get complaints from people who’ve never seen any of the films. They stick with their beliefs and complain,” she says. In any case, there are no quotas or subjects that are off limits for the festival, Burres says. “It would be fascinating if we got a very complex film about the settlers,” she says.

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