Lebanese and Iranian Directors take the spotlight at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Makhmalbat (right) at the Jerusalem Film Festival

The Jerusalem Film Festival, held at the Cinematheque, a modern four-story building built into a hill overlooking the walls of the old city, is the most important film event in Israel. In the last 30 years, it has screened hundreds of Israeli movies, some of which went on to win major awards around the world, including the coveted Oscars. This year, however, the stars of the festival are directors from Israel’s most hostile nations: Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Lebanese Ziad Doueiri.  Both directors are screening their movies, The Gardener and The Attack respectively, which they shot in Israel itself.

The executive director of the Festival, Alesia Weston, beamed with unbridled pride when she told me that Makhmalbaf, was attending the Festival as its guest of honour. But she couldn’t conceal her frustration and sadness for Doueiri’s absence. “We really wanted him to be here with us,” she lamented. Weston, who ran the Sundance Feature Film Lab before she took the helm of the festival 2 years ago, was also instrumental in bringing Doueiri’s project to fruition, helping in securing funds and resources.

Speaking to Doueiri in LA, before I left for Jerusalem, he told me that he was eager to come to the festival and join his Israeli and Palestinian production team at the film’s premiere, but doing so would certainly lead to his imprisonment upon his return to his hometown, Beirut. In fact, he is already in trouble with the Lebanese authorities for violating the 1955 Lebanon Israel boycott by shooting in Israel and working with Israeli crew and cast. His film, The Attack, has been banned in Lebanon and ignored by the rest of the Arab world. “This is hypocrisy,” he cried. “Why don’t they ban films made by Palestinian filmmakers, who make similar films in Israel and sometimes with Israeli money?”

The Attack, follows an award-winning Israeli-Palestinian surgeon, who discovers that his Christian wife was the suicide bomber responsible for the blast that killed 17 diners in Tel Aviv, where he lives. Shocked and incredulous, he heads to the West Bank to confront those who recruited her.

The Israeli audience was by and large impressed by Doueiri’s take on the subject, and rewarded him with a rapturous applause, albeit some  saw as too far-fetched, saying that there had never been an Israeli-Palestinian suicide bomber, let alone a Christian or a married woman.

The subject of suicide bombing is a very sensitive issue to Israelis, who regard it as a despicable act of terrorism, and the Palestinians, who hail it as an heroic form of resistance to occupation, something that Doueiri was conscious of, he told the audience over Skype from Paris, following the screening.

The film indeed presents fully rounded characters and benefits from a solid script, compelling performances and arresting visuals, but sometimes it lacks authenticity, for the Israeli characters are too forgiving to the suicide bomber’s husband, who was inconceivably too impervious to the suffering of his people. A Palestinian doesn’t need to go on a journey to understand what motivates suicide bombers to commit their act. Every Palestinian, regardless of their perspective on the issue, knows the answer.

Doueiri had visited Israel three times and spent ample time in Tel Aviv before he embarked on making the movie in order to understand the psyche and mentality of the Israelis. “I learned, you are just as fragile as we are, just as insecure as we are,” he told the Israeli Audience. “It humanises that element, of people who were viewed as an enemy. There is a sad reality on the ground. This is one aspect of Israel. I’ve seen another aspect that is terrific.”

Born in south Lebanon, Doueiri had to endure the unforgiving wrath and devastating might of the Israeli army that had wrecked havoc in his country for decades of relentless wars. He also had some unpleasant incidents with the Israeli Army while filming in the West Bank, yet his perspective on Israelis has completely changed. “I love all the Israelis that I’ve worked with,” he told me.

Doueiri’s affectionate words towards the Israelis prompted the moderator to quip that “we should make films with the enemy in order to bring peace between nations.” However, The Arab audience, who are deluged with TV images depicting the brutality of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians, will most likely not share Doueiri’s new favourable perceptions of Israelis. In fact,  humanising them has no doubt contributed to the banning of the movie in the Arab world. So far, the only deal for commercial distribution has been secured solely in Israel.

Doueiri, however is undeterred by the disparaging attacks on his work by Arab critics, telling his Israeli audience before he hung up that he hoped to make another movie in Israel.

The Attack is the only Arab movie to premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival, because many arab filmmakers, including Oscar-nominated Palestinian director, Hany Abu Asad, whose recent film Omar had won the Jury award at Cannes Un Certain Regards in May, boycott Israeli cultural events. Amazingly, an Israeli director, Udi Alone, who spoke after the showing of his own documentary, Art/Violence, expressed his support for boycotting Israeli Cultural events, as long as Israel continued to occupy the Palestinian territories.

Unlike Doueiri, not only was Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film, The Gardner, which dwells on religion in general and the Baha sect in particular, not banned in Lebanon for having been shot in Israel, it was even accorded the Gold Aleph Best Documentary award at the Beirut International Film festival.

It was the first time that Makhmalbaf, director of films including “Kandahar” and “Boycott” presented a film at an Israeli film festival. Receiving a standing ovation from the audience at the screening of The Gardner, Makhmalbaf said that he arrived to Israel in order to provoke the Iranian authorities, who have banned him from Iran since the 90’s.

Watching the Israelis’ rapturous reception of Makhmalbaf and Doueiri, one could sense their thirst to connect with and see how they were perceived by the other side. But these directors have left their countries a long time ago. Doueiri has lived in LA and Paris since the 80’s and Makhmalbaf has lived in Paris since the 90’s, hence their perception of Israel has no doubt soften by their exposure to international point of views, hence their perspectives is not truly reflective of their own nations.

Ironically, the harshest criticism of Israel comes from its own filmmakers. In a documentary titled Wild West Hebron, Nissim Mossek unveils the ugly face and ruthlessness of Jewish settlers, who illegally usurp the land of impoverished Palestinian farmers with the protection of the Israeli army, and the support of the settler-infected Israeli court system.  Another documentary, Art/Violence, charges Israel with systematically attempting to annihilate Palestinian culture. A narrative film, Inchalla, presents the harsh reality of living under the Israeli brutal occupation of Palestine.

There are more such movies at the festival that fearlessly expose the ills of the Israeli society and their destructive consequences on the Palestinian people, yet they are received with reflection and admiration from the festival’s audience. I was astonished when Alone was applauded for calling for boycotting Israeli cultural events. Even in the United States, such harsh criticism of Israel can have sever repercussions on artists, hence I was truly impressed by the maturity of the Israeli freedom of expression.

This kind of maturity will take a long time for the Arab world, which is still struggling for emancipation from the shackles of  despotic regimes and for enlightenment from the darkness of religious fanaticism, to reach.

Having said that, the audience attending the festival are mostly left-leaning liberals, who, judging from the Israeli political landscape that is dominated by right-wing extremists, are a minority in the Jewish state. In fact, a 10 minute walk from the Cinematique over the hill and through the ancient walls of the old city of Jerusalem, plunges you deeply into a vicious conflict of mistrust and hatred that seems light years away from the festival’s utopic atmosphere. You can literally sense the simmering tension between Arabs and Jews, who are jostling to fit in the confines of this ancient city. Palestinian residents told me that they had been squeezed out by Israeli settlers, who are on a religious mission to take over the holy city.

As I walked down the ancient market, late in the evening, a group of Palestinian youth, suspecting that I was Jewish, shouted at me in Hebrew “get out of here, Jew!” and, when I arrived at the Ben Gurion airport to catch my flight back to the US, I was lead to a secluded room, where a security guard scrutinized every item I was carrying and every piece of garment I was wearing. My Israeli passport was to no avail. Unfortunately, mistrust in the holy land will continue to underpin the relationship between Jews and Arabs, and films are not going to change that.