Arts & Culture Arab, Jew and Neo-nazis Play in Israeli Film Up for Berlin Festival Prize

Two Israeli filmmakers have turned their own experience of fear in Germany into a film with a semisweet ending.

Now the two — Guy Nattiv, 30, and Erez Tadmor, 30 — are hoping for an award at the 54th Berlin International Film Festival, where their short film “Strangers” had its German premiere Sunday.

“Strangers” tells the compelling tale of two young men, one Arab and one Jewish, who help each other escape from a group of bald-headed neo-Nazis on a Paris commuter train.

“Strangers,” which Nattiv says was short-listed for an Oscar nomination, is one of 11 Israeli films showing at this year’s festival.

It is not the only one to deal with themes central to the German-Jewish relationship. Eytan Fox’s full-length film “Lalecet al Hamaim/Walk On Water,” which had its world premiere here Feb. 5, revolves around the hunt for an aging Nazi war criminal whose grandchildren, representing Germany’s new generation, have close connections to Israel.

Fox’s “Yossi and Jagger” was shown at the Berlinale, as it is known, last year.

“Germany is in the background of all of us, even if we are not directly connected with the Holocaust,” Amir Harel, producer of “Lalecet al Hamaim” said in an interview with JTA. Germany had “an impact on the formation of Israel as a nation. It is in our collective conscience. So to deal with ourselves is to deal with Israeli-German relations.”

Akiva Tevet, head of the film department at the Camera Obscura School of Art in Tel Aviv, said German moviegoers are appreciative.

“They are outstanding audiences,” Tevet said after the short film screening, which also included “Shibolet Bakafe,” or “Sliding Flora,” a film by 26-year-old Talya Lavie, a student at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem. That film is about a melancholy waitress who balances her tray while shooting down a slide.

“The Israeli films got the most applause,” Tevet said.

For Nattiv and Tadmor, 30-year-old graduates of Camera Obscura, the idea for “Strangers” came from an experience during a train trip in Munich in 2001. Several neo-Nazi skinheads boarded their car and began to hover menacingly near an Arab-looking passenger.

“It was terrifying,” Nattiv recalled.

But “they did not notice us,” Tadmor said. The Israelis stopped speaking Hebrew and put on their best British accents. Finally, they and the Arab passenger got off the train.

Nothing happened, “but the reality was more terrifying than the movie,” Tadmor said. “We told each other we have to do a movie out of this situation.”

In the film, a Jewish man notices a fellow passenger reading an Arabic newspaper across the aisle of the commuter train. Soon both men have something to worry about: a group of burly, bald bullies boards the car and makes their way straight for the Arab man. The Jewish passenger nervously tucks his Star of David pendant under his collar. Silently, the skinheads spray paint a swastika on the Arab man’s newspaper.

Just then, a cell phone begins to play “Hava Nagila” across the aisle. There’s no hiding now.

Tadmor said they wanted the film to show the shared experience of racism and hate by Jews and Arabs in Europe.

“The two guys connect because of their mutual fears,” Tadmor said.

The film touches on several current problems in Europe. Studies have shown that both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism — mostly by Arab youths — are on the rise. Right-wing extremists are equal-opportunity haters, but increasingly find common cause with radical Islamic groups when it comes to anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism.

Though “Strangers” deals with a dark theme, the directors wanted it to have a hopeful ending.

And, like many Israeli filmmakers, they have chosen not to deal with the darkest current topic of all — the conflict with the Palestinians.

“I don’t want to deal with that situation until it is over,” said Nattiv, who won a Berlin prize three years ago for his children’s film “Mabul.”

Already a successful working duo, Tadmor and Nattiv now are seeking funding for their first feature film, “Son of God,” a road-trip story about an agnostic Holocaust survivor and his newly religious son.

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