Films Reveal Israeli, Palestinian Women’s Lives

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Michal Aviad

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The daily news reports about the Palestinians and Israelis provide a consistent view of the bloody conflict orchestrated by a predominantly male cast of politicians, soldiers and suicide bombers.

For those interested in gaining a different understanding of Israeli and Palestinian societies, two filmmakers have created documentaries that shed light on the complex reality of life along the western banks of the Mediterranean.

At the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York, which will end today, Israeli filmmaker Michal Aviad and Palestinian-American filmmaker Mai Masri each presented their startling films to packed audiences. While their documentaries explore vastly different issues, Aviad and Masri are both women making movies that look at life through the eyes of average Israeli and Palestinian women and girls.

In “Ramleh,” Aviad weaves together the stories of three women living in the ethnically mixed working-class Israeli town for which the film was named. By focusing on Svetlana, a recent immigrant from Uzbekistan; Gehad, an Arab Israeli; and Sima, a Jewish Israeli of North African descent, Aviad explores unique subsets of Israeli society. Not only are her characters women in a militarized culture, they are also members of ethnic groups marginalized by the dominant Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.

“All of my films deal with women’s issues as an added complexity to other issues,” said Aviad, 47, who was in New York last week for the screening of her film. “I’d like people to be aware of the complexity of the situation.”

Film Shows Israeli Women Facing Discrimination on Many Levels

Not only do Svetlana, Gehad and Sima represent groups of Israelis that are often at odds with one another, as women they must also cope with the restrictions their similarly gender-biased communities impose.

Abandoned by her husband while still living in Uzbekistan, Svetlana, 33, is seen in the film struggling to build a better life for herself and her two daughters in Israel. Throughout the documentary Svetlana, a savvy woman who lacks formal education, is seen walking the city’s dusty streets in search of a minimum-wage job. Along the way, she encounters a number of potential male bosses who are condescending and sexist. She eventually lands a job as a manicurist.

For Gehad, 31, education results in little freedom. Although she is studying to become a lawyer, as a Muslim Palestinian she will never be seen as an equal by the Israeli establishment. Being a woman only compounds the difficulties. With the men in charge at home, women are forbidden from living on their own or choosing their spouses. Disobeying can lead to death. As Aviad notes in the film, six “honor killings” in Ramleh have gone uninvestigated.

At the age of 26, Sima already has three children and by the end of the film a fourth will be born. She grew up poor and married at 17. Since marrying, Sima and her husband have returned to a form of Jewish fundamentalism that has appealed to masses of Sephardic Jews with roots in Arab countries. Treated as second-class citizens by the Ashkenazi elite, these Israelis found themselves living on society’s economic, geographic and political fringes. Eventually, their frustration fueled the rise of the fast-growing, ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which offers followers spiritual and economic support as well as a strong sense of ethnic pride.

Sima’s life now revolves around taking care of her children–and having more–while her husband concentrates on studying Judaic teachings. Although she is perhaps the most content of the three characters in the film, Sima’s satisfaction underscores the unsettling truth about the effect religion can have on the disenfranchised.

By concentrating on these three compelling women, Aviad offers a frank look into cross-sections of Israeli society rarely seen by the outside world. She also delivers a menacing message: Given that the women in “Ramleh” represent sizable minorities within Israel’s population of 6 million, Aviad reminds the viewer that behind the all-encompassing Arab-Israeli conflict lurk many economic, political and religious problems inside the Jewish state.

Palestinian Teen-agers Look to Past, Future

While Aviad’s film highlights Israel’s inner tensions, Masri looks at the issues brewing around the country’s edges. In “Frontiers of Dreams and Fears,” Masri focuses her lens on two teen-age Palestinians: Mona, lives in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, and Manar, resides in the Dheisha refugee camp in the Palestinian-controlled city of Bethlehem. Thanks to the Internet, the girls are able to meet online and build a relationship based on their mutual desire to return to the villages in Israel that their grandparents fled as a consequence of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

Mona, a 13-year-old who tends toward the poetic, and Manar, a charismatic 14-year-old, have grown up in camps where running water and electricity are scarce. The short supply of such basic amenities is, however, matched with an abundance of family stories about their former homes in the hillsides of Israel. Although three generations have passed since Israel was established and these villages were destroyed, the stories continue to exert a powerful role in shaping the young Palestinians’ sense of themselves.

“In the younger generation that sense of identity [which is connected to the land] is even stronger,” said filmmaker Masri, a 43-year-old Palestinian-American who divides her time between Beirut and London. “They hold onto it and reconstruct their sense of identity from stories and their own imaginations. The ideal image, which isn’t necessarily true, keeps them going, helps them to survive.”

In one particularly poignant scene, Mona opens a letter Manar sent after she visited the village where Mona’s grandparents once lived. As Mona sifts the dirt from the envelope of the destroyed village of Saffouria through her fingers, one wonders if any refugee is ever capable of forgetting “home.”

The film reaches its climax when Mona and Manar, joined by dozens of their friends from the camps, meet at the Lebanese border in June 2000, just after the Israeli military ended its 20-year occupation of southern Lebanon. Through a barbed-wire fence the children exchange kisses and gifts in an emotional meeting that embodies a potent combination of history, friendship and national longing.

“The ability to break these barriers gives these young people the chance to exchange ideas and build relationships,” said Masri, noting that over time these interactions have the potential to develop into a stronger force of resistance against Israel than the one that already exists.

Yet, as political as the underlying message of the movie is, Masri’s real strength comes in her ability to demonstrate the teen-agers’ boundless humanity. Despite the poverty and the fear that mark these children’s lives, they also manage to laugh, dream and hope.

As the film airs on television and in theaters around the world, including in Israel, Masri hopes her message about Palestinian humanity will cause people to act on behalf of the children whose lives are on the line every day.

Masri said that while she believes the Israelis and Palestinians would one day find a solution to their conflict she is concerned about the number of people who might die in the interim.

“The question is how many thousands of people will die before we reach the conclusion that both people need peace with justice?” she said.

Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival:
http://www.hrw.org/iff/2002/

“Ramleh”:
http://www.hrw.org/iff/2002/ny/ramleh.html

“Frontiers of Dreams and Fears”:
http://www.hrw.org/iff/2002/ny/frontiers.html


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