The Jerusalem Film Festival has, for the last three years, awarded a special prize for films in "The Spirit of Freedom" - films dealing with the quest for freedom of speech and expression, human rights and social awareness. This year, a new prize was awarded for the first time: the Mediterranean Film Prize "In Pursuit of Peace and Tolerance" for the best film in this cat¬egory from countries around the Mediterranean.
In this context, Lia van Leer, founder and director of the Festival, who is committed to the struggle for peace and justice, sees the inclusion of films dealing with the Israel/Palestine conflict as essential.
Swallows Never Die in Jerusalem, was, however, the only feature film in this year's Festival dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the first film from an Arab country to be an official entry in the Jerusalem Festival. Swallows is an ambitious and courageous film, directed by Tunisia's Rihda Behi. The main plot centers around a French TV reporter, Richard, who arrives in Jerusalem following the Oslo agreement, and becomes involved in the search for his guide's grandmother who had dis¬appeared during the flight from Jaffa in 1948.
The plot seems simple enough, but the film is a complicated one, with several subplots. The most important is Richard's ongoing affair with an Israeli psychologist and the tension it raises between love and work. Another is the conflict between the guide's sister and her husband. Recently released from prison after serving five years in an Israeli jail, he comes out committed to Islamic fundamentalism and insists that his "Westernized" wife lead a "pure" Muslim life and be veiled when she goes out. Finally, the film also takes a jab at Palestinian "collaboration with the enemy," which leads to a shocking ending.
As an "outsider" making a film about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Behi is aware that he has left himself open to criticism, of not knowing or really understanding the material. Whereas most Israelis I talked to thought Swallows was politically "fair," many Palestinians were critical, particularly of the presentation of Islamic fundamentalism, and the con¬troversial approach to collaboration.
However, for a film that is described as pro-Palestinian, I found it extremely well-balanced. For instance, after an Israeli soldier brutally beats a Palestinian, we see the soldier visiting a psychiatrist and confessing that he "cannot live with himself." But commendable though the film's inten¬tions are, the result is problematic. In his brave and honorable quest for political balance, Behi has perhaps sacrificed the deeper personal truths of his characters. By trying to deal with too many issues, none of them has been satisfactorily explored.
This begs the question about the validity of film as a medium for deal¬ing with political conflicts. Does a political message detract from a film's quality? Behi was at pains to stress that he was not into making propagan¬da films. "Since Sabra and Shatila, I have wanted to make a film about the Palestinian problem. But it was also very important to me to show Jewish suffering in an Arab film. The Jews suffered terribly in the Holocaust and I wanted Arabs to see this. At the same time, this is no reason for Israelis to treat the Palestinians badly now. The grandmother in my film represents the land, and her loss is the loss of the land for the Palestinians. But it is not an absolute loss, because somewhere she is still present. So hope is still pre¬sent, and the peace process will give the Palestinians a chance to regain at least part of their land."
Behi has no illusions that films will change the world. But he makes films as a testimony, to show what is happening now, what excites and revolts. To show that we have choices - to show both sides to each other.
Nizzar Hassan, the director of Istiqlal, screened at the last year's Festival where it won the Wolgin Award for best documentary film, has other priorities. "At the moment I am living under occupation; my land and my identity have been stolen from me. But I want to make my films, about things I love, things I hate, but not in relation to Israel. Filmmakers are not politicians, and they should not try to be. I make films about the endless and contradictory human predicament, films that document a certain reali¬ty. We are writing history in films, but a very subjective history. I am Palestinian, so I make films about Palestinians. If people love the characters in my films, and they [the characters] are Palestinian, maybe they will come to be more 'human' in their attitudes towards Palestinians. But I don't set out to make 'political film.'"
But not for every¬one. Nissim Mossek is the Israeli director of Neighbors or Foes, one of only a handful of documentary films made about the con¬flict in this year's Festival. Set in el-¬Khalidieh Street in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, it deals with the Jews and Arabs who are forced to live there together, in uneasy truce at best, in open hostility, at worst.
Mossek and his crew began filming in the el-Khalidieh Street ten years ago, when a rabbinical student was murdered there, in broad daylight, and no Arab went to his aid, though Jews maintain that some must have seen the incident. This led to riots and the burning of Arab homes. With the start of the Intifada, the situation worsened. This is a pes¬simistic film, though clearly an honest one; Mossek has not manipulated his material to prove any point, and was restrained in his showing of vio¬lence. But why make this film now, when such efforts are being made towards dialogue and peace?
"Jerusalem is divided, and it is important to show the reality. Maybe as nations we are not yet ready to live together. But as individuals, the peo¬ple on the Street are friendly towards each other. The future status of Jerusalem will be decided by politicians; but the real dialogue will happen in streets like EI-Khalidieh."
Return to Oulad Mounmen is a beautifully-made French film by Izza Genini, tracing the dispersion of her family from the village of Oulad Mounmen, which lies amidst olive groves south of Marrakesh, all over Morocco and eventually to France, America, Mexico, Italy and Israel. Eventually, she succeeds in reuniting her family in the village where the dynasty began in the 1920s. This gentle, beautifully-shot film is a heart¬warming story of the search for personal history - and so is strictly speaking beyond the brief scope of this article - but it is important, per¬haps, because of its depiction of the harmony and coexistence that had always existed in the village between the Jews and Arabs. By the end of the film, we love them all.
To David Benchetrit, the director of some 40 films, "the emotional impact is what is important in all films, documentary as well as feature ... My purpose in making films is to touch people's hearts and souls, to show what is human in all of us; perhaps to unveil one side to the other, to act as a kind of bridge between the two societies. Film can help to break the myths and stereotypes that each side has of the other. And perhaps it can show that forgiveness is possible." And maybe good films - from the evi¬dence of this Festival - can, in some way, help us to see this.