As we move toward 2020 and a presidential election, what better time to look back at the fight it took for women to gain the right to vote — and how sectors of the American female population were overlooked, despite their contributions to the struggle. The show is structured by chronology and themes:
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My personal anxiety had started in November 2016, on Veterans Day. It was just a week after the Election. In reaction to Trump’s win, I had opined on how his administration would portend for American Jews. “We are part of the other,” I warned.
“How do we build an America that’s ready for the next pandemic? Frontline communities have always known about the lack of access to healthcare and housing. We’ve tried to raise the alarm about these challenges. The response has not been acceptable.”
In December, the JCC in Manhattan held the 2020 annual Other Israel film festival. It was a slate of top movies and shorts chosen by co-founders Isaac Zablocki and Carole Zabar.
I checked in with Zablocki via email to get insights into how the pandemic and the virtual format impacted this year’s event.
Zablocki, who was born in New York and spent his formative years in Israel, told me that constructing the yearly screenings was an excellent way for him “to grapple with [his] mixed feelings toward Israel.”
Reflecting on the impact of COVID on the proceedings, Zablocki said that the final list of movies was “created within the pandemic.” He added, “I’m sure it influenced our state of mind.”
Using a virtual platform, viewers watched features on their own and then joined Zoom panels, which culminated in breakout rooms.
Zablocki related how he and Zabar continued to widen the scope of Other Israel and “dive deeper into themes that related to the deconstruction of history, through political figures like Golda [Meir] and Meir Kahane.” Describing their process, Zablocki stated, “We also reflected on our American Jewish relations to Israel through “Til Kingdom Come“ and “Kings of Capitol Hill.” Furthermore, we looked to build balance and diversity in the films. We were proud to show “Crossings,” which gave a soldier’s perspective of checkpoints, and “One More Jump,” which gave perspective on life in Gaza. All of these took us beyond our themes of Palestinians in Israel and other minority populations.”
I was able to see a majority of the films. More than a few gave me sleepless nights. There were threads connecting the different movies. In this series, they will be grouped within that context.
Several offerings presented a window into the daily challenges faced by Palestinians, and in the case of “One Hundred Percent,” Druze high school students.
Jalal Saad anchors that story, as he and his team of educators dedicate themselves to showing pupils that they have other options after graduation. Operating on a seven-day-per-week schedule, Saad explains, “No one guided me or directed me.”
Saad presents as a combination drill sergeant, mentor, and confidante. Along with his colleagues, he encourages both male and female students to consider choices beyond the Israeli army (Druze in Israel have the option to serve.) or marriage. As he underscores in one sequence, “As a Druze, you are a citizen on probation…If you don’t succeed, they will take one of their own.” With Saad using “education like a weapon,” the village of Beit Jann ranked first in matriculation exams throughout Israel.
In partnership with Film Forum, a special screening of “Mayor” showed Ramallah mayor Musa Hadad’s travails as he tries to govern his city in occupied territory. Whether planning a Christmas celebration or dealing with olive trees that settlers have burned, his top philosophy is: “Remember to make space for joy until we get freedom and independence.” During the time frame that director David Osit was shooting, Trump announced his decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Hadad’s succinct response is, “We’re doomed.”
Situated in the Gaza strip, “One More Jump” portrays a story combining personal athletic achievement with a pervasive aura of despair. Young men from the area train in the sport of parkour amid the rubble, burnt-out buildings, and the sound of nearby bombings from Israeli forces. Neither Jehad, who remains in Gaza, and Abdallah, who has moved to Italy, can escape feelings of displacement.
Coping with the eleven-year blockade of Gaza and the red tape restrictions on travel brought on by both the Egyptian and Israeli authorities, Jehad describes the feelings of being a “foreigner in your own country.” While dealing with electricity blackouts, caring for his very ill father (getting medication is almost impossible), and trying to pass on his knowledge and skills to the next generation, Jehad remains trapped by despair. Despite fulfilling his goal of traveling to Sweden for a major competition, he is overwhelmed by the conundrum of being unable to build any future in Gaza.
Two years ago, when traveling was a regular occurrence, I took the train from New York to Washington, D.C., to attend a Jewish conference. I looked forward to several days of panels on Israel, American politics, social justice, and numerous other topics.
Upon exiting Union Station, I got in line to wait my turn for a cab. As I looked up, I saw the Capitol dome, its stunning white architecture framed by a clear blue sky.
It took my breath away.
It certainly wasn’t the first time I had seen it, either from a distance or close up. Yet, like a tourist in Manhattan staring at the lights in Times Square on a busy evening, I was enthralled. I was also moved and awed by its majesty.
That moment came back to me clearly as I watched the horrific events of January 6.
Read the rest of this story at The Times of Israel.
Director David Osit shifts that narrative in his new documentary “Mayor.” Osit follows the daily schedule of Musa Hadid, who presides over Ramallah with intention and devotion that earns him hearty welcomes from citizens. He is a constant presence on the streets of his metropolis.
In opening shots, Osit’s camera pans the streets of Ramallah, accompanied by a swelling musical score and urban imagery equivalent to a Woody Allen ode to Manhattan. Humor is integral to Osit’s approach, although occurrences facing the residents are anything but funny. Hadid’s engaging personality gives Osit the perfect interlocutor for his story. It’s easy to imagine Hadid as a modern-day Fiorella LaGuardia, the kind of a guy who would read the Sunday funnies to kids if it was called for.
Ramallah, a historically Christian city, serves as the seat of the Palestinian government. It is at the epicenter of Palestinian commerce and culture. It is also ringed by Israeli settlements.
Storefronts of various establishments, from the Café de la Paix to Popeyes, are shown. Coca-Cola ads pop up alongside meticulously landscaped areas. The sound of church bells and the call of muezzin are accompanied by the visual juxtaposition of a cross and a minaret.
The key event connecting the various story threads concerns detailed plans for the annual Christmas celebration, including an outdoor concert, a tree lighting, the arrival of Santas, a parade, and a children’s activity. (There is a Plan B if it rains.)
During the time period when Osit worked on the film, several important events occurred. These are interwoven throughout, via news from the television or directly in conversations. When told that Trump will announce Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the American embassy is being moved from Tel Aviv, Hadid comments, “We’re doomed.”
Meetings between the Mayor and staff members occur outside, in his car, and at Ramallah’s City Hall, established in 1908. Ongoing dialogues include how the city should be branded (Hadid is more concerned with infrastructure.), new doors needed for an elementary school, beautifying the old town with benches, and the daily humiliations from Israeli rule. “We are living under an occupation with hardly any help from the outside, and no sources of income,”Hadid underscores.
Yet, despite the ongoing ordeals, Hadid keeps his eye on whatever ball he is juggling. When he visits a class of third graders to check out the “door situation,” he stays focused on the task at hand – even as a radio blares the news that “the Israeli army has arrested seven citizens across the West Bank.”
Hadid comes from one of the five founding Christian families of Ramallah. His dedication to the city is palpable. His goal is to be a “pragmatic leader.” Hadid understands the situation that he and his city are trapped in. Coming from a background in civil engineering, municipal services – rather than political statements – are his priority.
When the Israelis close off the entrance to Ramallah, raw sewage begins to fill the streets. Hadid has the pavement immediately washed down. Dealing with the ramifications of settlers polluting Palestinian irrigation water and burning olive trees are all part of a day’s work. However, Hadid does not shy away from speaking about facts on the ground. In response to a dumpster fire of burning tires, he states wearily, “We need permanent solutions.”
Despite the constant pressures, the tree lighting ceremony holds Hadid’s full attention. His philosophy is clear: “Remember to make space for joy until we get freedom and independence.” Hadid leads his constituents in their national anthem and then asks for a moment of silence for the dead. Simultaneously, he takes notice of two unlit bulbs.
Ramallah, like other cities, hosts delegations from foreign countries. Speaking with a group of German parliamentarians, Hadid points out the problems of being a mayor on occupied land. He explains that in 2002, Israelis invaded Area A and demolished the city’s infrastructure. An assistant emphasizes that it has taken fifteen years to get permission for a cemetery to get built. “It’s not nuclear weapons. It’s a cemetery,” he adds dryly. (Osit continually uses humor to highlight the negatives.) To German suggestions of personal exchanges between Palestinians and Israelis on a local level, Hadid stresses, “It’s about dignity, which is not negotiable.”
The audience does get to see an Israeli and Palestinian interaction, and it’s devastating. After the embassy move, there are Israeli incursions into the West Bank, including Ramallah. This results in the invasive presence of soldiers in the town square, as they approach City Hall. At 7 in the evening, shots are fired. An arrest is made, tear gas canisters explode, and smoke fills the night sky. Israeli soldiers take selfies in front of the Christmas tree, oblivious to the pain they are causing. In response, Palestinian rock-throwing begins as they retreat.
In a quiet voice, Hadid asks Osit, “David, do you think people in America know or hear about what’s happening here?” He then answers his own question with the assertion, “People don’t know about us.”
In a featured panel at the 2020 OtherIsrael virtual film festival, Osit spoke about his efforts to show Ramallah through the eyes of its citizens and Hadid; working to balance the tragic with the comic. In expressing his motivation behind the film, Osit stated, “I always understood Judaism to be deeply rooted in human rights.”
An end credit dedicates “Mayor” to the memory of Palestinian filmmaker and journalist Yaser Murtaja (1987-2018).
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