Film fest sees common bond between Arab, Israeli women

When Tunisian documentary filmmaker Nadia El Fani touched down in Israel last week, she made a little bit of history.

El Fani, who flew to the Jewish state from Paris, where she lives in exile, arrived to present two of her documentaries, “Laicite, Inch’Allah!” and “No Harm Done” at the ninth installment of the Women’s Intl. Film Festival in Rehovot, a city in central Israel. She is the first Muslim filmmaker to personally present her work at the festival, and one of the few Arab cultural visitors that this country, ensnared in worldwide boycotts over its 40-year Palestinian occupation, has had the opportunity to host.

“It’s a great achievement,” says Netalie Braun, the fest’s artistic director, of El Fani’s willingness to come to Israel, a decision that will likely further infuriate the Islamic clerics who have already called for her execution because of her films, which promote the fight for secularism in Tunisia and tackle the issue of Islam taking over private citizen’s lives. “And it’s not an achievement for the festival, it’s an achievement for us as people in Israel — that we can have this dialogue.”

This is El Fani’s second visit to Israel; she came to Tel Aviv earlier this year as a guest of the French Embassy, and has also made it a priority to visit the West Bank and Gaza on several occasions. A champion of Palestinian rights and a two-state solution, El Fani says that boycotts of Israel are self-defeating.

“It’s better to come and meet the people and discuss all the subjects. It’s better than having no communication between the two sides,” she said in a phone interview from Paris hours before her flight.

The Rehovot Festival is a project of the Women in the Picture Assn., launched in 2004 by Naama Prizant Orpaz and fest director Anat Spherling as an initiative to promote female filmmakers both in Israel and abroad. This year’s theme is Women and Religion, a topic that is particularly relevant in a post-Arab Spring Middle East and in Israel specifically, where a rise in Orthodox Jewish extremism has seen many of the nation’s women relegated to the back of buses and vanishing from posters and advertisements throughout Jerusalem.

“It’s timely,” Braun says of this year’s theme. “What Nadia did in her films, it’s very much the same here. ”

Sixty films unspooled at the festival, which ran Nov. 5-11; 33 were helmed by Israelis. All of the films, Braun says, provide an opportunity to bridge gaps of nationality, religion and ideology.

“Our system of identification as women, and also as human beings, is stronger than nationality. I feel that I can identify much more with gender issues than politics,” Braun says.

Israel is an established democracy marooned in a region of fledging tyrannies-cum-republics. Nevertheless, Braun says, women across the region have more in common than they may realize.

“We as citizens are also trapped by our government,” she says, referring to the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his newly inked alliance with the extreme right wing, a faction that routinely forces ultra-Orthodox legislation through the parliament here. “In Israel, we also must talk about the place that religion takes in citizens’ lives.” Much like El Fani’s films do.

El Fani began shooting “Laicite, Inch’Allah!” three months before the toppling of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The film traces that first, catalytic uprising in Tunisia, and its release led for calls for her head. Violent protests over its distribution prompted her emigration to Paris.

In the midst of furor and extremism, Braun says, something as simple as feminine sisterhood might just have the power to circumvent the Middle East’s many barriers.

“We can use gender identifications to bridge a gap that is political,” she says. “We’re not going to sit there and talk about the separation of religion and state, for example, without also talking about the occupation.”

This year’s fest includes the Israeli premiere of the Oscar-winning Pakistani-American documentary “Saving Face”; retrospectives with German helmer Margarethe von Trotta and Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, who were both on hand; and a closing night screening of Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle.”

This year, the festival also extended its hand to Israel’s religious Jews with a special screening of films by graduates of the religious Ma’aleh School of Television, Film in Jerusalem, as well as the first-ever pitch event for Haredi female filmmakers. That event was accompanied by a discussion of ultra-Orthodox women’s cinema.

Panel discussions included “Between Religion and Patriarchal Rule,” moderated by feminist writer Bili Moskuna Lerman; and “Separation of Religion and State in the Middle East,” featuring El Fani and moderated by Anat Saragusti, executive director of Agenda, a non-profit that aids Israeli orgs pushing for social change.

Spherling, who says she started the Women in the Picture Assn. in order to force a discussion of the glass ceiling faced by women in film and television, sees a major shift in Israeli acceptance of women’s films.

“Every year the festival grows. Every year we succeed in crossing another threshold,” she says, a significant achievement for a macho country that idolizes its war heroes and often shuns sentimentality.

Films made by women, El Fani says, have the power to shift perspective.

“When women make movies, most of the time they give the women actors a real, more interesting role,” she says. “And that can be an education for the viewer, to see women as equal.”

But could femme-centric film really be an antidote to fanaticism? Braun’s enthusiasm is checked.

“I am not an optimist,” she says. Nevertheless, using the Hebrew term for repairing the world, a central tenet of Judaism, she adds, “But I am a Jew. So I always believe in tikkun.”

What: Muslim director shows pics at Rehovot fest.
The takeaway: With Israel becoming more fundamentalist, Jewish, Arab women face many of the same challenges.

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