"World Cinema: Israel"

My book, "World Cinema: Israel" (originally published in 1996) is available from Amazon on "Kindle", with an in-depth chapter comparing and analyzing internationally acclaimed Israeli films up to 2010.

Want to see some of the best films of recent years? Just scroll down to "best films" to find listings of my recommendations.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Disappearing Act

The Israeli TV sitcom, Arab Labor, scripted by Sayed Kashua, has just begun its third season.  This TV series has done more than any other form of cultural expression to bring Israeli Arabs into the homes and hearts of mainstream Israel, using humor to break barriers and combat stereotypes.

The main character, Amjad, is a Palestinian journalist, living in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem with his family.  In this recent episode, his neighbors are trying to sell their apartment.  Amjad goes to welcome the potential buyers, to introduce himself, and to talk to them about the wonderful tenants in the building.  This scares away the buyers and the neighbors ask him to lower his profile or disappear. 

Having invested most of his energies in trying to prove that Arabs and Jews can live together, Amjad is truly offended.  He decides to try to go on the TV show, Big Brother, in order to have an opportunity to express his feelings publicly.  Instead, Big Brother gives him a mission to hide his identity and pretend to be a Jew, while the rest of the participants must try to discover who is the Arab among them.

This need to hide your identity, to pretend to be someone you're not, and to disappear completely was also the main message of a brilliant short drama, The Magician (20 minutes, 1993).  This short was directed by Rashid Mashrawi, a Palestinian from Gaza who moved to Ramallah after the Oslo agreements. He has directed a number of feature films, including Haifa, Curfew, and more recently, Laila's Birthday.
The Magician takes place in a Tel Aviv nightclub, a short while before opening.  The owner, a blatant chauvinist, is playing backgammon with a friend, while his girlfriend sits by chewing gum. The other characters in the nightclub represent various sectors in Israeli society: there is a new immigrant from Russia, who stands by tuning his violin, a college student working as a waitress, and an Arab washing dishes in the kitchen.

A magician drops by, looking for work. His expertise is making people vanish! None of the people present in the room are willing to let the magician demonstrate this skill on them, so they ask Ahmed, the Arab kitchen worker, to volunteer. But after the magician causes him to vanish, he finds it difficult to bring him back. Instead, he manages to conjure up another Russian immigrant. The new Russian is an unemployed musician, and is also looking for work, but he is unwilling to take Ahmed’s place in the kitchen. The magician therefore makes him vanish again. Nobody seems to care that Ahmed is missing, but they do need someone to take over his job washing dishes in the kitchen.

The filmmaker is making a comment about the invisibility of Arabs within Israeli society.

When I worked with a team of people studying films for coexistence education, we discussed this film in depth and paid particular attention to this theme of the invisibility of Palestinians --

"The Arab worker, Ahmed, is present in the club only in the context of his job in the kitchen. He has no real existence – a fact that raises the subject of Israeli Arabs and their place in Israeli society. Israeli Arabs are familiar to many Jews only in the context of jobs they perform. The media pays scant attention to what is happening within Arab society in Israel, which suffers from economic, civic, political and social discrimination. All these facts, along with the very use of the term 'Arab sector,' reflect the status of Israeli Arabs as a marginalized national minority. From the point of view of the Jewish majority, they are 'transparent,' 'invisible,' 'erased'.The pub owner thus has no qualms about causing Ahmed to disappear, since he is already 'invisible,' to a large extent, by virtue of his status in the public discourse."

(excerpted from Understanding One Another – The Use of Film for Coexistence Education, published by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel).

As we see from these film and TV expressions, deep down inside, Israelis wish that the Palestinians would just go away, vanish, disappear.  Last night, I heard Prof. Mohammed Dajani, Palestinian professor at Al Quds University and the founder of a moderate Muslim organization called "Wasatia"   speak to a foreign audience.  When you ask Palestinians and Israelis about their big dreams, he said, they wish the other would just disappear. But when they get realistic and talk about their small hopes, they talk about compromise, about establishing two states and sharing this land, and about getting along together. This comment gave the audience some sense of hope that perhaps continued invisibility is not the way of the future.

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