Two thumbs up Israel, Arab film festivals join hands

"Diogenes: Ansar 3" documents the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in December 1987. The title of the film refers to the detention camp in the Negev Desert where many Arab protestors were detained.

A team of Dutch and Israeli filmmakers — who will participate, along with Israeli and Palestinian journalists, in a post-film discussion — revisit the period and interview former guards and prisoners.

One guard, according to a blurb in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival program, wonders "how Israeli Jews had traversed in one generation from being inmates in concentration camps in Poland to a complete role reversal in the Negev."

Although Sam Ball, the festival's assistant director calls that an "accurate paraphrase" of an Israeli officer's statement, he cautions that people should see the film before making a flip judgment.

"It's basically an optimistic film," said Ball. "The Israeli prison guards and the intifada activists find common ground, and both sides maintained relationships after the camp closed."

And if the 50-minute film causes a stir, perhaps it's a good thing, according to Janis Plotkin, the festival's director.

"If a film generates controversy, then it's doing its job…maybe it means that the issues haven't been discussed before. Without these films, perhaps those debates wouldn't occur."

Plotkin was considerably less sanguine when looking back at the controversy over another film that took a hard look at Israeli-Palestinian issues, "Al-Nakba," which screened in 1998.

The film, shown on the heels of Israel's 50th anniversary, roughly translates as "the catastrophe." It detailed the mass displacement of Palestinians upon Israel's birth in 1948.

Some members of the Bay Area Jewish community lambasted the film as appalling, and the S.F. screening prompted a slew of critical dialogue and letters to the festival and to the press.

But Plotkin was quick to point out that the film had many supporters, and that many other films shown during the festival's 20-year history highlighted harmonious relations between the two cultures.

One such film is "Return to Oujda," this year's other effort jointly presented by the Arab and Jewish festivals.

It documents the historical ties between Arabs and Jews in a Moroccan village.

"The purpose of this collaboration is really to explore our mutual cultures and get beyond the hatred," Plotkin said.

Her comments were reinforced by Tarek Elhaik, the co-curator of Cinemayaat: The Arab Film Festival, which will be held Sept. 7 through 18 at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema. "Diogenes: Ansar 3" and "Return to Oujda" will both be part of that festival, as well.

"Nobody is courting controversy for controversy's sake," said Elhaik. "That's just way too simple. But each community has its own takes on history, and the intifada and the events of 1948 are definitely among them.

"That being said," Elhaik continued, "there's really no reason why our festivals shouldn't collaborate on something like this. And I think San Francisco is a great venue for this type of venture."

Laura Mameesh agrees. The other curator for Cinemayaat, she said the talks between the two festivals progressed from nuts-and-bolts gab sessions about marketing and finances to serious discussions about joint film efforts.

"With our film festival, as with the Jewish Film Festival, we walk a fine line," Mameesh continued. "We don't want to do a total glamour job on the Middle East — we deal with the issue of honor killings in the Muslim world — but at the same time we feel that the images of crazed, violent Arabs has to be countered.

"Hopefully these films and other future works will clear up some of the myths that have been built up by both sides."