Saturday, November 3, 2018

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: The Optimists

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 12th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 1st-8th, 2018.

The Optimists
Directed by Eliezer Yaari
Festival Information

If there’s one thing that’s truly lacking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, and here at home in America, it’s optimism. The sense that so much has happened which simply can’t be reversed and that politics have become too divisive and isolating is shared by people on opposing sides of issues, with a middle ground seeming like an impossibility because working together in pursuit of a compromise that could, to some degree, please all is no longer anyone’s first priority. This film seeks to combat that notion by showcasing a small subset that does believe a happy ending is possible.

Mandy Patinkin introduces and narrates the film, which primarily looks at the roots of Kibbutz Ketura, which was founded by members of the Young Judaea youth group decades ago. As its history is explored, there is an eye to the future, with the ambitious goal of creating an Arab kibbutz that can coexist alongside it. The proposal is met with mixed responses, and one of its most passionate supporters is Dr. Tariq Abu Hammad, a Palestinian chemist whose daily commute into Israel proved to be too stressful and unpredictable. The work of the Arava Institute, which strives to unite those living within Israel and its border countries, also comes into sharp focus as one potential sign of hope from a deeply conflicted region.

Having Patinkin explain much of what is shown in the film helps to give this film an affirming context, utilizing a popular American actor well-known for his immersion in Judaism as the mouthpiece for this effort to do away with cultural labels that encourage division and to think productively about to come together and truly work for peace. If nothing else, those interviewed in the film are honest, with certain residents of the kibbutz expressing fear about not knowing who their neighbors would be and others telling stories of artificial obstacles that threatened to destroy friendships and relationships only when explicitly revealed long after an initial meeting.

Running just fifty-four minutes, this film is evidently merely a starting point in the conversation. It acknowledges that in its inability to find or even propose a specific solution that could actually work, but it manages to cover a handful of different facets. Some, such as a glimpse of the Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that meets monthly at the Western Wall to hold egalitarian services not typically allowed at the site, feel tangential and unexplored, but hopefully this film can be exactly what it wants to be: a way to get people talking and to continue this work.


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