The 13th annual Other Israel Film Festival runs Nov. 14-21 across locations in New York City. Over 13 films will be showcased that lend a view into some of the lesser-known sectors of Israeli society. Below, a review of the three of the films.
Sometimes the story you need to tell is right under your nose.
“Oftentimes filmmakers overlook what’s closest to them,” Rachel Leah Jones said, a little sheepishly. “I’ve known Lea Tsemel all of my adult life, from before I started making films. About 15 years ago my partner, Philippe Bellaiche, said, ‘Wow, somebody really has to make a film about Lea,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, someone will.’ And for years nobody did. Five years ago, he said to me, ‘I think that someone is going to be us.’”
The resulting film, “Advocate,” is a tensely intelligent portrait of an Israeli woman who has devoted her life and career to defending the most unpopular and disadvantaged legal clients in Israel, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who have chosen to push back against the 52-year-long occupation, often violently. The film is the opening night presentation at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival, which focuses on Palestinian and other underrepresented communities in Israel and begins Nov. 14.
In an adversarial legal system, the right of a defendant to competent counsel is probably the closest thing to a guarantee of a semblance of a fair trial. When the imbalance of power between the state and an individual is extreme, a good advocate may be the only thing going for the accused.
What makes her a good defense lawyer, the film suggests, is her hard-headed realism. She doesn’t sugar-coat reality for her clients, even when she is representing a 13-year-old boy who was a not-entirely-innocent bystander at the stabbing of an Israeli kid of the same age. Yet she conveys to the youngster the mix of compassion and earnest energy that you would want in a lawyer representing your own child.
At the end of the film, Tsemel describes herself as “an angry optimist,” but Jones gave a more complex description of her in a telephone interview last week.
“I understood, watching Lea, that we’re products of the 20th century, an age of ideology, an age of a worldview,” Jones explained. “My kids don’t have either. They fight wrongs without [seeing] a defined ‘right.’ It’s a daily act, it’s in the means, because the ends never come; it’s a moving target and you never really arrive. So it’s about getting up in the morning and going through the motions of seeking that better place. Watching Lea with her crazy Energizer Bunny thing, you realize that you’ll never reach anything that resembles that [utopian] end, if you don’t go through the means.”
There is something of that same oddly idealistic fatalism in Jones’ approach to documentary filmmaking, which she has been doing for 20 years. Born in Berkeley, Calif., and raised in Israel, she splits her time between her two countries while focusing most of her creative attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I don’t know, as a filmmaker dealing with political and social subjects and ruminating on human nature, I would hope that none of my films ever give you clear-cut conclusions,” she said. “I want people to walk away troubled. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube that you never solve. I don’t want any of it to be absolute.”
Her attitude towards Tsemel is positive, but realistic.
“My hope is that we err on the side of appreciation and a little admiration,” Jones said. “Because we’re Jewish, we should feel guilty that we don’t have that same tenacity and energy.”
“Advocate” follows Tsemel through two of her recent cases while using archival footage and interviews to take us simultaneously through the threads of her life. Jones and Bellaiche were given full access to the lawyer and her clients, and allowed to rely on their own judgment to avoid potential lapses of ethics. They use as brilliant device to disguise the faces of the clients a cunning mix of animation and collage marked off from the live footage by a thick, black dividing line. Through it all, Lea Tsemel moves between the two visual worlds, at home in both yet without belonging entirely to either.
In a sense the device is a perfect metaphor for her status as a lawyer and officer of the court, but even more for her place in Israeli society as a dissenting voice in her own home. That makes her a perfect subject for the festival.
You could say the same about Dov Khenin, a former member of the Knesset, a lifelong committed Communist and, like Tsemel, an attorney. The subject of a new documentary by Barak Heymann, “Comrade Dov,” Khenin is at a turning point in his activist career as the film starts. While he is widely respected by a surprisingly broad range of fellow Knesset members, he is beginning to get pushback from younger leftists who think it’s time that the causes of Palestinian and Israeli Arab citizens and women were represented by those directly affected. He is also hearing rumblings from those who find his rhetorical references to Israeli “democracy” too accommodationist.
Like Rachel Leah Jones, Heymann has been following his protagonist’s career for a significant amount of time, first as a journalist then as a fan. The portrait given in the film is affectionate but balanced, and Khenin is an impressively realistic version of a modern Communist, resolutely realistic yet still deeply committed to improving the lives of his constituents and fellow Israelis. By the time the film ends, with his resignation from the Knesset to pursue a socially progressive agenda by other means, Khenin has produced an increase in the minimum wage and several other bills that make a modest improvement in the daily lives of citizens. But he is unable to avert a factory closing in Arad, and his impact on the condition of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians is negligible.
Still, as Heymann says in the film’s conclusion, “desperation and passivity aren’t options,” and Khenin soldiers on.
One of the nicer benefits of the Other Israel Film Festival’s programming mandate is that viewers can learn about tiny sectors of Israeli society that never get into the mass media here (and only seldom in Israel’s). “Samaritan,” an hour-long documentary by French filmmaker Julian Menanteau, is an elegantly structured case in point.
Although the overwhelming majority of Americans and Israelis know of the existence of the Samaritans because of the appearance of the proverbial “good” Samaritan in the New Testament, the group is still extant, albeit in vastly reduced numbers in Israel. Its members live on Mt. Gerezim, the holiest site in the Samaritan religion, which is a variant on biblical Judaism. Their homes are situated on the West Bank, overlooking Nablus, but they hold both Israeli and Palestinian IDs and move between the two societies easily. It might be said with some justice that in their way the Samaritans are set between the two larger social bodies much as radical dissenters like Tsemel and Khenin are, although with much less volition.
The central focus of Menanteau’s film is Abood Cohen, the grandson of the current Samaritan high priest, a thoroughly modern young man who is trying to negotiate his way between an ancient faith, now reduced to a mere 780 adherents, and the accoutrements of the modern world. Menanteau depicts his good-humored reflections within a graceful visual framework that emphasizes the sense of estrangement at the heart of a minority in any contemporary society, dwarfed not only by social, political and demographic realities but also by the sheer vastness of the Creation. The result is a handsome, frequently witty and often moving miniature.
The 13th annual Other Israel Film Festival runs Nov. 14-21. Most of the screenings will take place at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan (Amsterdam Avenue at 76th Street) or the Alamo Drafthouse (445 Albee Square W, Brooklyn), although there are other venues as well. For more information, go to otherisrael.org.
Trailers of the films mentioned above: