Zohara is estranged from her ultra-Orthodox Jewish family and is living alone in the south of Israel as a modern single woman. On a drive for a rare visit to her family — her sister is getting married and, after painful negotiation, Zohara will attend — she is approached by a Bedouin Arab woman urgently seeking a ride.
The Bedouin, Nariman, has her own family issues. She is escaping from a forced marriage to a despised cousin. It is a satisfying dramatic setup: Two women who believe they have nothing in common discover a shared need to combat cultural claustrophobia. As they speed north on parched roads in the new Israeli film “Wherever You Go,” they project the image of a Middle Eastern “Thelma and Louise.” But the outside pressures are too great, as the ending makes clear.
“Wherever You Go,” directed by Ronny Sasson Angel, is a telling entry in the eight-day Other Israel Film Festival, which opens Thursday in Manhattan. Festivals devoted to coexistence seek to inspire hope, and the organizers assert that remains one of their goals. But the selections this year, the festival’s sixth, reflect the airless despair that hovers over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict these days. Hardly anyone on either side talks about coexistence anymore, and the films on offer help make clear why.
Though characters may discover a shared humanity with the other side, it is not enough to overcome the weight of history, culture and group dynamics. There remains only one path to relief, these movies seem to suggest — escape — and for those tightly bound to their homeland, that turns out to provide almost no relief at all.
Start with the documentary “The Invisible Men,” by Yariv Mozer. It tells the story of Louis and Abdu, two gay Palestinian men from the West Bank, each of whom has been threatened with murder by his own family. Louis bears a gruesome knife scar across his cheek from when his father tried to kill him. The men do not know each other but have been absorbed and welcomed by the gay world of Tel Aviv, taking odd jobs and Jewish lovers. They are introduced by mutual friends, and Louis is amazed to find a Palestinian soul mate after 10 years of hiding among Israeli Jews. But their quest for acceptance is hardly over. The Israeli police are after them for being in Israel illegally. “The Palestinians won’t accept us because we are gay, and the Israelis won’t accept us because we are Palestinians without permits,” Abdu tells Louis one soft evening as they sit on a beach listening to the music of the Egyptian singer Um Kultum. “It makes me sick. Everyone here hates everyone else.” Through the help of the Tel Aviv University law clinic, both men ultimately find a way out, but they make clear that they miss their home desperately.
Isaac Zablocki, executive director of the festival, and director of film programs at the JCC in Manhattan, where many of the films are playing, said that the outlook of this and the other movies in the festival may seem bleak but that the goal is still to inspire dialogue and change. “Our festival is kind of a last hope,” he said by telephone. “We do attract a diverse audience and a young one. Seeing so many people in their 20s and 30s at last year’s festival made me hopeful for the younger generation.
” The festival was created by Carole Zabar, whose husband, Saul, is an owner of Zabar’s, the Upper West Side food emporium. Ms. Zabar, who puts up all of the $175,000 it costs to run the festival, lived and studied in Jerusalem in the early 1960s. She is both a great lover of Israel and a harsh critic, especially of its treatment of Palestinians. She said one goal of the festival was to make American Jews face difficult realities. “I am doing this for those Jews who go to Israel and see only the fine and rosy parts of life there,” she said. “I think they have to see this. It is the real Israel. That is the bottom line of why I started this festival.”
That approach has made her and this festival outliers, in a way, among the Jewish establishment. Palestinian and other Arab organizations are even less supportive, with many of them urging people not to attend or submit their works to this festival as part of a boycott of all Israeli products, even those that highlight Palestinian stories.
Efforts by the festival organizers to reach out to Arab groups have met with rejection over the past few years, Mr. Zablocki said. Nonetheless reaching across such barriers remains perhaps the central theme of the films being shown.
In “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” by Thierry Binisti, an Israeli girl of French origin who lives in Jerusalem wants to understand what motivates someone to strap a bomb onto his body and blow up a cafe. So the girl, Tal, asks that in a message and places it in a bottle. Her brother, a soldier on duty at the Gaza border, tosses it into the sea. A group of young Gazans find it and one, Naim, begins an e-mail correspondence with her. It starts with dismissive sparring and softens over time into one of mutual caring. Naim is beaten up by Hamas security officials, who suspect him of collaborating with the enemy. When Tal’s family finds out, it is not much more understanding. Naim does gain something concrete from his correspondence with Tal. He becomes intrigued by the French language and starts studying it at the French cultural institute in Gaza. There he sees an advertisement for a scholarship to Paris, and with Tal’s essay-writing skills as an aid, wins one. The happy ending? Like the two gay Palestinians in Tel Aviv, he leaves his homeland.
The Other Israel Film Festival runs from Thursday to Nov. 15. Full program and schedule: otherisrael.org.