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Crossing Borders at the Jerusalem Film Festival

The festival program successfully raises universal questions that transcend the context in which they’re asked.

Jerusalem Film Festival 2018
Photo: Jerusalem Film Festival

As the opening film of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, The Unorthodox establishes a context for the necessity of compromise—personal, political, and otherwise—in the pursuit of what one believes to be the greater good. The origin story of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political party in Israel, which was established in Jerusalem in 1983 and was the first to explicitly represent the interests of ethnic and religiously observant Jews, the film delineates how Ya’akov Cohen (played by Shuli Rand) created the party in defiance of ethnic prejudice inflicted upon his daughter at her school. Cohen was then unable to sustain his control of the party’s development due to his refusal to concede his idealism to the necessity of corruption and the proliferation of falsehoods, namely in the form of signatures that were necessary to fake in order for his party to be legitimized in the eyes of the state.

The Unorthodox’s tone vacillates consistently between gravitas and lightness, juxtaposing moments of complicated seriousness about the often shady political system in Israel with small human touches, such as when a pious man celebrates an election win by listening to “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees in the privacy of his car. Riddled with in-jokes about Israeli politics and the relationships between its multiple competing factions, writer-director Eliran Malka’s film marked a brief look inward in what was otherwise a largely international festival program that promoted vibrant conversations about crossing borders and listening to voices from the other side of both metaphorical and devastatingly literal walls.

The screening of The Unorthodox broke with the festival’s tradition of almost always showcasing a foreign film during its opening-night celebration. On the night of the screening, the Sultan’s Pool amphitheater—a striking outdoor venue in the heart of Jerusalem from which you can see the lightly illuminated walls of the Old City cascading up over hills dotted by lush green gardens—was crowded not just with filmmakers, critics, and industry representatives, but also with observant Jews who came to see their community represented on screen in a very public forum.

A short promo film offering brief statements from local politicians—including Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat—preceded the screening, and the crowd grew suddenly hostile at the appearance of Miri Regev, the Israeli Culture and Sport Minister who has called for funding to Israeli filmmakers to be cut unless they allow her ministry to supervise and control the development of their projects. And the audible outrage about the power of the state of Israel to control individual freedoms, even simply via its government subsidies, was not unfamiliar to me, even after such a short time there.

I arrived in Tel Aviv only a few days before the opening of the festival late during a massive protest by more than a hundred thousand gay rights activists in the city’s Rabin Square almost immediately following the passing of what’s now known as the nation-state law, decisively exclusionary and racist legislation that further limits the already fledgling rights of the nation’s Arab minority. The law establishes Israel as the official state of the Jewish people, thus limiting the right to self-determination to Jews alone, a move that has been met with significant backlash from the international community and the overwhelming majority of the Jewish diaspora.

And while the official reason for the protest in Tel Aviv was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vote against surrogacy rights to same-sex couples that he’d vowed to support, the passing of the nation-state law—made possible by Netenyahu’s anti-LGBT vote in a typically convoluted deal between multiple Israeli political parties—had only further emboldened the atmosphere of liberal dissent expressed by the protesters. And the context of my arrival in Jerusalem was that the law had named the city—one of the most complicated and contested in the world, violently partitioned over thousands of years and still home to a literal wall between Jewish and Muslim claims to the city’s most holy sites—as the “whole and united” capital of the Jewish state.

The film festival took place only a few short months after news broke that the United States Embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in what has been recognized as an endorsement by the Donald Trump administration of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and I was told that American flags were flown from countless windows in Jerusalem following the announcement, openly celebrating the collusion between America and Israel in perpetuating some of the most exclusionary politics in the world.

Meanwhile, I arrived in Jerusalem during the week leading up to the city’s Pride celebration, vibrant rainbow flags hanging high along the wide streets that I walked to attend film screenings. I’d already been told by a Jewish friend in New York that Israel engages in what’s known as “pink-washing,” the practice of appearing to openly embrace the queer community—and thus appear tolerant of difference—in order to offset attention from its government’s human rights violations in other spheres. From the rooftop of my hotel, I could see over to the other side of the wall separating the east from the west, the Palestinian territories visible from my vantage point as an endless desert expanse, so close and yet so far away. The ways in which I’d been trained in politics by what I’ve come to realize are largely Western binaries had not prepared me for the sense of ambivalence I felt as a queer American liberal in a city purportedly celebrating some of the intractable elements of my identity but to an end blatantly at odds with others.

Lukas Dhont’s Girl, a vibrantly expressionistic Belgian film which debuted earlier this year at Cannes, was one of several expressly queer titles screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival. The film is meditative character study of a 15-year-old girl named Lara who dreams of becoming a successful ballerina and who willingly puts her body through grueling, often painful manipulations toward achieving that goal. Lara is told by her teachers that she will struggle with dance because her toes and ankles have not developed in ways that are congruent with the demands of ballet, but these teachers are at the same time impressed by Lara’s tenacity and dogged work ethic, and she improves her technique and skill level despite the limitations of her body.

But even as she manipulates her physical form toward a particular outward aesthetic, Lara is also in the process of beginning her transition from male to female, first with hormone therapy and ultimately with gender reassignment surgery, and this more interior transformation is revealed slowly to the viewer due mostly to Lara’s—and, by extension, actor Victor Polster’s—ability to already pass as female. She’s desperate to become something that she’s told repeatedly that she already is. But each of Lara’s attempted transformations mirror each other even as they undermine each other.

The physical exertion of Lara’s dance practice comes to be at odds with her body’s ability to respond to the hormones, and the drama of Girl lies in Lara’s increasing frustration—and, ultimately, the heartbreaking effects of her desperation—with the fact that the two identities most precious to her do not sustain the presence of the other. As she dances feverishly through both her physical and existential pain, the camera tightly framing her increasingly exhausted face as she spins and leaps as prescribed by the choreography she has been assigned, the audience, too, is trapped in the gulf between what she desires for herself and the future that’s actually available to her.

Several films programmed at the festival were overtly curious about clashes between the old and the new, the traditional and the secular, native homeland and far-flung diaspora. Perhaps most notable among these was What Will People Say, Norwegian-Pakistani filmmaker Iram Haq’s harrowing sophomore feature, which follows 16-year-old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) as she’s forced by her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain) from her home in Norway back to her family’s native Pakistan, where she’s never been, because he believes her to have been contaminated by Western culture.

Mirza discovers Nisha in her bedroom with her Norwegian boyfriend (Isak Lie Harr)—barely kissing, barely touching—and condemns her to the much more conservative environment of his youth, falsely believing her to have had premarital sex and thus be unworthy of a respectful future marriage. As the film opens, we see Nisha successfully code-switching between her traditional Pakistani household and the more relaxed sphere that she shares with her Norwegian peers. But when the careful balance between her two worlds is dangerously tipped, the passion with which her father reacts to what he believes to be her undoing is terrifying insofar as it plainly demonstrates the inviolability—and frightening limitations—of his belief system.

In an early scene, in which Mirza essentially kidnaps Nisha and threatens her with physical violence, and even death, we’re made strikingly aware that we can’t quite comprehend the limits of what this man might do in the name of his faith, and in the name of his pride. For us, the other—in the form of a man whose value system we cannot comprehend—has become unreadable. Nisha’s father has deceived her into thinking that he has forgiven her for her transgressions while actually escorting her to the airport to enact her banishment, and her dawning recognition of her lack of agency in the situation she has found herself in is communicated through a tightly controlled shot structure that vacillates between her own increasingly forlorn facial expressions and the coldly blank stoicism of her father’s.

The space between what we hope to see and what we’re afraid might happen is a liminal one that Haq’s film travels within and never again leaves behind, and the immigrant diaspora is revealed to be automatically infused with fear, one small misstep potentially spelling doom for a family’s reputation in the fragile new social ecosystem that’s apparently incredibly vulnerable to corruption by Western temptations. And through the process of being trafficked between varying states of subjugation and containment, Nisha suffers the effects of her family’s existence in this new territory between Western freedom—the often apocryphal promise of a better life elsewhere—and the family’s responsibilities to the traditions from which it has emerged.

In a film about a very different kind of immigrant experience, the workmanlike but heartfelt This Is Home: A Refugee Story follows several Syrian refugee families as they attempt to integrate into life in the United States as part of a program designed to teach them the skills that will make them employable, and thus self-sufficient, following a probationary period funded by government subsidies. The families are largely befuddled by life in America—the adults increasingly relying on their quick-learning children for guidance, and the culturally conservative men reluctant for their wives to obtain employment, even though the family would likely not otherwise succeed—and the juxtaposition of their current circumstances with the stories they share about the destabilized world that they’ve recently fled gradually establish the boundaries of a permanent holding zone, the way forward in this new place and the way back to a ruined homeland both equally impossible to bridge.

The title of Alexandra Shiva’s documentary might as well end with a question mark. And in conversation with one another, it and other films about navigating the space between and creating new identities in a changing world begin to elucidate the elements of a genre of inquiry inherently formed by cultural clashes, largely due to globalization and regional strife, or at the very least to the rapid secularization of generations of young people being raised by traditional families in non-traditional spaces.

Before the festival began, I traveled north from Tel Aviv to Haifa with a tour guide who insisted on explaining to me and others in great detail how “the borders of Israel were created by God,” in what I recognized as a preemptive effort to curtail any hesitations anyone in our group might express about the right of the Jewish return to the holy land in the manner in which it had taken place thus far. And as he then drove me even farther north to the Israeli border with Lebanon, he elaborated further to include the idea that the regional borders that he was describing—based exclusively on passages from the Bible—seemingly excluded Lebanon from statehood even as it confirmed Israel’s own such claim, as he insisted that Lebanon was merely an extension of Syria in the way that he conceived of the region’s various boundaries.

My guide described his version of Israel’s involvement in the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s following the attacks on Israel by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a force that had taken root in southern Lebanon following the Six-Day War in 1968 and the PLO’s eventual banishment from Jordan. And as he spoke louder about these regional politics, with more and more fervor, sweating and red-faced while gesturing wildly and angrily in the direction of Lebanese territory, I felt a growing sense of despair at my lack of context for his rage, as well as my own complicity in the forces that have allowed it to fester. After all, I’d paid him for this experience with my American money.

The Israeli documentary short film The Men Behind the Wall, by Ines Moldavsky, addresses the complexity of the conflict between Israel and the people existing just outside its borders in the context of location-based dating apps. The film opens with an image of the fence between Israel and the West Bank shot from a car window while a voiceover phone conversation takes place between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman—who we later learn is Moldavsky herself—who have recently connected on Tinder. The app is designed to match desire with proximity, allowing people to limit their dating pool to candidates who are physically nearby, and the irony that the film exploits is that Moldavsky is continually matched—through Tinder and other online dating platforms—with men in the West Bank whose bodies are separated from her own by the presence of a literal wall. Through the use of phone and in-person interviews on dates with Palestinian men, many of which discuss sexuality and desire with a liberating and surprisingly intimate frankness, Moldavsky privileges the personal behind the political, the individual faces and the private yearnings of those who are frequently reduced to a collective battle cry for independent statehood.

Many of the men discuss strategies for getting Moldavsky safely into Palestine in order for their encounters to take place. Some name specific sexual acts that they would like to perform with her. “Can you take all of me in your mouth?” asks one man, and Moldavsky insists over the phone that she can, and that she’s willing to prove it to him. One man—older, Christian—laments how we cannot choose our origin stories, cannot choose where and into what religion we’re born, perhaps responding indirectly to the conundrum he finds himself in when seeking out a potential partner in a world so meticulously mapped by conflicting political boundaries. And one of the most powerful images in the film is an extended shot of Moldavsky standing provocatively at a busy intersection in Ramallah, wearing a short red dress and holding a boom microphone above her head while men walk past her, ambling in and out of the shot, perhaps wondering what to make of her project. She wants to show us that she has in fact crossed the border herself.

This image can be read as a metaphor for the Jerusalem Film Festival in particular, as well as the role of the arts in the political sphere more generally. Moldavsky has not set out to create a blueprint for the way forward through a conflict that’s perhaps too complicated to ever be truly and satisfactorily resolved. Instead, she comes to her work in an effort to reflect that complexity back to her audience as honestly, generously, and holistically as possible, and the remarkably unflinching festival program as a whole successfully raises universal questions that transcend the context in which they’re asked.

The festival’s closing-night film, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, can be seen as reflective of Israel’s own internal strife about its political past, present, and future, as well as that of the people it excludes from—or deliberately undermines within—its borders. A remarkably salient and aesthetically daring stop-motion parable about the dangers of political corruption and succumbing to propaganda, the film begins with the mass deportation of dogs out of Japan to a place called Trash Island, an abandoned dump suddenly repurposed into a sprawling detainment camp. Mayor Kobayashi, the despotic leader of the dystopian city of Megasaki—who, incidentally, comes from a long line of cat lovers—passes emergency legislation in the film’s opening minutes to immediately evacuate the city of all iterations of man’s best friend.

Kobayashi cites the ubiquity of a dangerous dog flu in order to sway popular opinion in his direction—a disease which it turns out his own company has actually invented and subsequently spread—masking what is really just a general distaste for the animals and an unceasing desire to see them suffer. And the rest of the film is structured as an adventure story, as well as a showcase for Anderson’s accomplished animation techniques, in which a young boy crash-lands on the Isle of Dogs after journeying there in order to bring home his beloved pet, a devoted hound named Spots. But the emerging political theme, as student activists back in Japan uncover the truth and successfully overthrow Kobayashi’s regime, thus freeing the unfairly quarantined dogs, is that of government-sanctioned prejudice and our collective ability—and willingness—to resist.

While standing at the Lebanese border with my Israeli guide and looking through the chain-link fence separating the two desert landscapes from one another, a woman pulled up alongside me in a small, nondescript vehicle to deliver a pizza to the guards who were stationed there. The seemingly impermeable gate between the territories was suddenly opened, and an almost impossibly young man not yet in uniform dashed out to grab the pizza box and offer payment for its contents. He was flanked by his similarly youthful peer—uniformed in the traditional olive green of the Israeli Defense Force—holding an assault rifle at the ready, protecting his comrade from any possible threat that might suddenly emerge during the transaction. Probably standard protocol, probably mandated by very specific guidelines meticulously internalized and then never again questioned, but even as the guard defensively positioned his body across the newly vulnerable checkpoint, I couldn’t stop looking at the open gate. How easy it felt in that moment to just walk right through to the other side.

The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 26—August 5.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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