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.