Israel Pulse

Kurdish film festival screens, then withdraws, Israeli movie

Article Summary
Israeli filmmakers were surprised to learn that their film had been selected to be shown at the Duhok International Film Festival, only to be notified later that it was removed from the competition after being screened.

On Oct. 25, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Oman with Sultan Qaboos Bin Said. Three days later, Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev and Israel’s national judo team were moved to tears when judoka Sagi Muki won a gold medal at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, and Israel’s anthem, “Hatikva,” was played for the first time in the United Arab Emirates. That same week, an Israeli film, “The Dive” was screened at the Duhok International Film Festival, in northern Iraq. These events do not attest to a new Middle East. None of the three Arab states has diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Dive,” directed by Yona Rozenkier, won four prizes in August at the 35th Jerusalem Film Festival, among them Best Israeli Feature Film. Rozenkier was surprised to learn that “The Dive” would be screened in late October at the Duhok International Film Festival, in Iraqi Kurdistan. He and the film's producers, Efrat Cohen and Kobi Mizrahi, immediately grasped the political sensitivity of such a decision and the pressure that would likely be exerted on the festival's organizers. They therefore decided to keep the news to themselves, at least until the festival concluded.

The news, however, leaked, and on Oct. 25, the SHAFAQ News website reported that “an Israeli film would be screened for the first time at an Iraqi film festival.” Rozenkier shared the news with his friends on Facebook, in the process taking a dig at Regev, who has been pushing controversial legislation referred to as the “culture loyalty law,” which would deny state funding to cultural institutions that she does not consider loyal to Israel. “We were screened in Iraq,” Rozenkier wrote, “a country full of leftists that surely has a culture loyalty clause.”

“The Dive” is about three brothers who during the Second Lebanon War (2006) meet at their kibbutz, which is adjacent to the border with Lebanon, to bury their father. The funeral takes place a year after the father’s death, because he had donated some of his organs to science. The youngest brother is about to be deployed to Lebanon and is scared to death at the prospect. His militant older brother puts him through a series of drills and tests of courage in the spirit of their dead father, much to the chagrin of the third brother, a shell-shocked army officer trying to come to grips with the trauma of the war he had experienced.

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In an interview with Al-Monitor, Rozenkier said that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he was trying to deal with in making the film.

“I served in [the elite paratrooper unit] Orev during the second intifada, and there was enough action for me to get hit and hurt,” he said, referring to the Palestinian uprising that lasted from 2000 to 2005. Rozenkier sought treatment at the Tel Hashomer Hospital, but was not acknowledged by the Defense Ministry as a PTSD victim, because he was deterred by the exhausting red tape involved in obtaining official recognition. “The film is a kind of therapy and healing,” he said.

Rozenkier's movie exposes viewers to the fears and pain of a PTSD victim and the way he, as perhaps Rozenkier himself did, learns to deal with the fear he feels, as Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah land in his kibbutz while he and his brothers prepare to inter their father. He takes quick, deep breaths and counts to 30 until the danger has passed, and the memories of war dissipate. It is a short respite, until the next time, for a person handicapped by war.

“Are you OK?” one of the brothers asks his shaking, terrified sibling. As with many PTSD victims, the film's character must hide his fear and anxiety and deal with it alone. Only toward the end of the movie does he confide in his mother about the crippling fear and anxiety that make it difficult for him to fall asleep at night.

Rozenkier said that he had previously dealt with the issue in film shorts despite the difficulty in revealing and telling his story. “The Dive,” his first full-length feature film, was funded in part by a grant from the Steve Tisch Fund of Tel Aviv University’s Film and Television Department and a grant from the Rabinovich Foundation, which is partly supported by the Ministry of Culture. With a relatively modest budget, Rozenkier, joined by his two brothers, Yoel and Micha, in the three lead roles, sets out on an odyssey resulting in a cinematic family journey at times brilliant, clever, surreal and painful.

“The Dive” has been well received. In addition to winning awards at the Jerusalem festival, it has been screened at the prestigious Toronto and Locarno festivals and will be screened in November at the American Film Institute's AFI Fest in Hollywood.

Rozenkier said he does not know whether he would have received partial state funding for the film if the Knesset had already adopted the culture loyalty law. “The idea that art has to be loyal to the state neuters the whole idea of film,” he remarked. “For me, this is a crazy redline, to create mobilized art. It suits repressive regimes with which we want nothing to do.”

Only a regime that is afraid or unsure of its way passes laws that ban criticism of the government and silences its artists, Rozenkier noted. “It says more about them, and I see it as sad and dangerous,” he added.

Rozenkier said that not a single Israeli official has congratulated him for his film being accepted by an Iraqi festival. “The choice of [screening] an Israeli film is a political statement,” he asserted. “Nonetheless, it looks like the festival directors identified strongly with the message the film conveys. Kurdistan is a battlefield on which lots of blood has been spilled, a [region] that has suffered greatly from wars.”

Rozenkier further explained that due to the film's surreal nature, often bordering on the absurd, it successfully conveys a universal message with which viewers in Iraq or any war-weary region can identify and empathize with the distress of its protagonists.

The Iraqi festival screened “The Dive” twice. Rozenkier, extremely curious about its reception, emailed festival organizers to inquire about it and also to request a photo of the venue and the audience. The reply was an unpleasant surprise: “Due to regional complications and considerations, Duhok IFF unwillingly withdraws the film THE DIVE by Yona Rozenkier from the world cinema Competition, although the film was screened in the festival program. Duhok International Film Festival deeply apologizes for this incident.”

The organizers appear to have tried to deflect the pressure exerted on them, but politics in Iraq, as in Israel, defeated artistic freedom.

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Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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