With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict having become seemingly banal and the Goldstone Report working its way through the UN bureaucracy, one may be surprised that the touchy subject of Jewish-Arab relationships is gaining more attention in the world of filmmaking.
Following in the footsteps of Erez Tadmor's and Guy Netiv's Strangers (2007), writer/director Alain Zaloum and producer Kari Bian have brought us David and Fatima, which initially premiered in 2008. The independent film is set in Jerusalem and tells a Romeo and Juliet tale of a Jewish boy about to be drafted into the IDF and a Palestinian girl straining under her culture's conservative rules. The film received almost no attention in Israel, not surprising since the country's cultural elite tends to praise films that have self-critical messages (Waltz With Bashir) and the average film-goers tend to prefer American blockbusters.
So what is one to make of David and Fatima? Whereas Strangers was able to get an actual Arab woman, Rana Sweid, to play the female lead, this film secured Danielle Pollack to play the Palestinian girl. The little-noticed film David and Layla, which tells the tale of an American and an Iraqi living in New York who fall in love also had this problem. Even though it was based on a true story, the lead role was played by Shiva Rose. It seems in the case of finding actual Arab women to play the role of an Arab woman falling in love with a Jewish man, the chances are as rare outside the movie industry.
Israelis have made two recent films which made Jewish-Arab relationships a centerpiece of the plot. The 2009 Jaffa follows the story of a Jewish woman who falls in love with an Arab mechanic. The mechanic subsequently murders her brother and she raises his son. Writing in Variety, Jay Weissberg called the characters in this film "colorless" and "empty."
Another movie, Dror Zahavi's For My Father tells the tale of a Palestinian suicide bomber whose belt fails to explode and the Jewish girl in Tel Aviv who falls in love with him while he waits for his next mission.
ONE CENTRAL problem with all these films is that they require the Jewish character to either negate his culture or condemn it to cross the cultural divide. However this unfortunate fact is mirrored in the reality of most relationships that take place in Israel between Jews and Arabs. There are few recorded stories of Jewish men who dated or married Arab women. However, according, to Yad L'Achim, a Jewish organization that combats "assimilation," there are more than 3,500 Jewish women living with or married to Arab men in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
David and Fatima managed to secure Martin Landau, a brilliant actor, and Tony Curtis, both of whom play bit parts in the film. The film was awarded the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Award for Peace and Cultural Understanding at the Napa Sonoma Wine Country Film Festival. It has been released with Hebrew, Arabic and Persian subtitles. The gritty portayal of the IDF and police is as accurate as it is sometimes unflattering. Shot in Jerusalem, the film certainly appeals to any who have lived in that city or hold it dear.
Several scenes seem unrealistic, but others reveal the filmmakers' knowledge of the city. One scene shows Jews and Arabs dining at a belly-dancing restaurant, one that in five years spent exploring Jerusalem's watering holes I've never seen and I doubt ever existed. The Arab family's living quarters are decidedly run-down for a family whose breadwinner is supposed to be a doctor. The actual homes of Arab doctors in Beit Hanina, the address of most wealthy Arab Jerusalemites, are palatial, not run-down apartments.
Many people see film as a way of providing a new glimpse on the conflict. However the ridiculous story told in Don't Mess with the Zohan (in which the character played by Adam Sandler falls in love with a Palestinian woman), the story of a Tel Aviv woman falling in love with a suicide bomber, a woman falling in love with a mechanic who murders her brother or the short-term and hard to fathom story shown in Strangers fall short of sending a message. What is the message of For My Father? That Israelis should "love the other" to the extent that they love murderers? And the message of David and Layla, Zohan and Strangers is that Arabs and Jews can get together so long as they are in another country?
Tragedy stalks those who find themselves in these kind of relationships in Israel. David and Fatima presents an honest story, but one that also doesn't work in the end. Perhaps the most poignant scene is the couple at a Greek-Catholic church seeking to get married by a priest, who responds to them, "Compromise... We do not make compromises here... You are asking for way too much." Indeed.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.