Voices Forward: A Festival of Israeli & Palestinian Film & Culture at the Royal Cinema (608 College), Thursday to Sunday (March 2 to 5). All films in Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles. For complete schedule, see Indie & Rep listings. Tickets: Manulife Centre (55 Bloor West). 416-967-1528, voicesforward.org. Rating: NNNNN
The inaugural Voices Forward festival of Israeli and Palestinian film and culture includes four days of thoughtful, uncompromising works from all sides of the debate. Here's NOW's roundup of some of the film highlights.
Paradise Lost (Ibtisam Mara'na). 56 minutes. Saturday (March 4), 12:30 pm. Rating: NNN
When 27-year-old filmmaker Ibtisam Mara'na asks some tough questions of her family, they admonish her, "It's a political matter. It's none of your business." That didn't stop Mara'na, a graduate of the school of cinema and television at the Jewish-Arab academic centre Givat Haviva, from turning her camera on her own village of Fureidis (Arabic for "paradise").
Did her father help dig the mass graves in the neighbouring village in 1948? Why did the Israelis leave Fureidis alone when all the other Arab villages were destroyed? And the worst question of all, Did you know Suuad?
Suuad was the hero of Mara'na's childhood, jailed by Israelis in the 70s for waving the Palestinian flag. No one wants to talk about her.
With a poetic and measured cinematic eye, Mara'na paints the portrait of a sad, scared town. Isolated from other Arab communities, rumoured to have been saved during the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) so its residents could work for the Jews, Fureidis today is very poor. Most of its inhabitants still work as servants for the settlers.
Mara'na shoots herself asking the questions. Like her camera, her mascara'd brown eyes face stonewalling and accusations unblinkingly, whether from petty government officials or her own mother.
Al Jisr (The Bridge) (Ibtisam Mara'na). 48 minutes. Sunday (March 5), 3:30 pm. Rating: NNNN
Addressing another isolated Arab village surrounded by wealthy Jewish settlements, Mara'na goes to Al Jisr, a fishing village, where she focuses on single 25-year-old Hamama Jarwan, the strongest girl in the village. The film opens as Hamama watches the funeral of a murder victim and says that until recently women were barred from the cemetery.
Hamama plays soccer with the boys, runs on the beach and refuses to marry. At a wedding, she dances with the men. She seems respected, but Mara'na suggests danger in the disapproving faces of the matrons as Hamama, lobbying against an Islamist on the local council, walks by.
In Al Jisr , Mara'ana has evolved into a more mature filmmaker, using stills and music to moving effect and suggesting the spiritual malaise that infects both an occupied people and their gender relations in an experiential way that is never didactic.
Occupied Minds (Jamal Dajani, David Michaelis). 60 minutes. Saturday (March 4), 5:30 pm. Rating: NNN
In Occupied Minds , San Francisco producers Jamal Dajani (Palestinian) and David Michaelis (Israeli) go to their birthplace, Jerusalem, to see if they can face the harsh realities of their homeland together. They interview regular citizens, right-wing settlers, even the head of a Palestinian fighting unit. A Christian Palestinian dentist wonders why someone from Russia can take his land. An ex-deputy mayor of Jerusalem throws Dajani out of his house, incensed at his questions.
"Arabs to the gas chamber," says the wall of one settlement. "You would have been lynched anyway," says Dajani to his Jewish friend who couldn't make it to Gaza.
Although it seeks to initiate dialogue, Occupied Minds is really a heartbreaking profile of both sides of the conflict spiralling further apart. What makes it palatable is the charm and intention of both hosts. The film also captures the beauty and horror of Israel's and Palestine's landscape, from the crowded markets of Jerusalem to the ghettos of the Gaza strip, in a way that no media outlet has done.
The Land of the Settlers (Chaim Yavin). 55 minutes. Saturday (March 4), 9:30 pm. Rating: NNN
Israel's decades-long war between the Arabs and the Jews is a subject so often debated, with no hope or end in sight, that it would seem there's nothing left to say on the matter. Somehow, though, Chaim Yavin has come up with new insights. In this, part 5 of his searing Israeli documentary series, Yavin's found a fresh angle by focusing on the government-forced eviction of Jews in West Bank settlements and the conflict between Jews in favour of the move and those who vehemently oppose the evictions.
Yavin clearly has a bias, but he's a wonderful pot-stirrer. Each person he interviews -- from the parents of a slain soldier who insist defying orders would be a betrayal of their son's beliefs to the man who wears a gold star, likening the expulsion to the Holocaust -- seems born to give the perfect sound bite.
Shrewd, skilful journalism, but not without authenticity.
KNOWLEDGE IS THE BEGINNING: daniel barenboim and the west-eastern divan orchestra (Paul Smaczny). 90 minutes. Sunday (March 5, 9:30 pm). Rating: NNNN
Not only does this absorbing doc illustrate the "music as universal language" theme, but it also offers one of the last looks at the brilliant Palestinian-born literary critic Edward Said . Said and his good friend the Israeli conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim , founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999, and director Paul Smaczny follows the orchestra and its young Israeli, Arab and Palestinian musicians over several years.
Said and Barenboim saw the orchestra as a symbolic way to encourage discussion and find common ground. Between clips of gorgeous music-making (Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, mostly), we glimpse how difficult but rewarding it can be to see through someone else's eyes.
The film's structure is slightly disorienting, shifting time periods and locations continually. And the death from leukemia of the noble and articulate Said leaves a big gap in the film's second half. But there's lots of thoughtful material here, including Barenboim's controversial speech after winning an award, during which he recounts the principles of the founding of Israel, much to the chagrin of the prize jury.