Films at East Bay festival pack a punch: Three picks offer perspectives on Muslim-Jewish relations

Three films in this year’s festival focus on Muslim-Jewish relations, not an unusual topic for a Jewish film festival. But by telling largely unknown stories — from the perspective of Muslim protagonists, with a focus on personal relationships rather than geopolitical affairs — they give the issue a fresh resonance that often gets lost in more politicized films.

“David” is about Daud, an observant Muslim boy in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood who, through a series of mistakes, ends up in a black-hat yeshiva. There, he passes as a Sephardic Jew and befriends Yoav, an Orthodox boy who introduces the insulated and lonely Daud to baseball cards, Coney Island and basketball.

This is a lovely, quiet film that tweaks the more familiar conceit of a secular Jew dressing up to sneak into the Orthodox world, and allows us to see what that world looks like through the eyes of a Muslim boy who is fascinated as well as frightened by it.

Daud (Muatasem Mishal) shares a moment with his father (Maz Jobrani) in “David.” photos/courtesy of east bay jewish film festival

It is a character-driven film, with the added authenticity of many nonactors from the neighborhood, including Arabic speakers playing the Arabs and Jews playing the Jews. Brooklyn-based filmmaker Joel Fendelman found the boy who plays Yoav in a kosher diner, and the man who plays Daud and Yoav’s Jewish studies teacher (Noam Weinberg) is in fact the principal of Judaic studies at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, N.Y.

Iranian-born, Tiburon-raised Maz Jobrani is excellent as Daud’s father, a strict imam who raises his son to love the Koran and resist outside temptations, ironic for an actor best known as a founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.

But it is Palestinian-American Muatasem Mishal, who plays Daud with what one reviewer calls a “hushed sweetness,” who gives the 2011 film its lyricism. His shy joy at being accepted by Yoav and his friends demonstrates how, at its core, most conflicts are about people’s desires and shortcomings more than anything else.

Just as quiet as “David,” but with a sharper edge, is “77 Steps,” a 2010 documentary by Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana, who left her small Arab village in the Galilee  three years ago and moved to Tel Aviv.

Mara’ana, now the founder of Ibtisam Films and a lecturer at Jersalem’s Bezalel Academy, turns her camera on herself for a year as she meets and falls in love with Jonathan, a recent Jewish immigrant from Canada. She then gets involved with the left-wing Meretz party, and eventually runs for Knesset.

Ibtisam Mara’ana, director of “77 Steps”

The power of this film lies in its unrelenting gaze. As the year goes by, Mara’ana becomes more radicalized and more strident in her opinions, and Jonathan becomes increasingly annoyed with the camera that chronicles the blow-by-blow disintegration of their relationship.

I was left wondering whether Mara’ana loved Jonathan or the camera more — a dilemma  faced by countless artists, and their families.

“Les Hommes Libres” (Free Men), a 2011 French thriller by Ismail Ferroukhi, is unusual in that it is about saving Jews in Nazi-occupied France, but the few Jews in the film are minor characters. Based on a true story, “Free Men” tells the little-known tale of a group of Algerian freedom fighters who joined the Resistance and, working out of the Grand Mosque of Paris, helped Jews escape the puppet Vichy regime.

By bringing that amazing tale to light, “Free Men” has already accomplished a lot. The narrative is engaging enough, following the political maturation of Younes (Tahar Rahim from “A Prophet”), a young Algerian black marketeer who falls under the spell of a nightclub singer (Mahmoud Shalaby) whom he later discovers to be Jewish (the singer and the mosque’s senior imam are the film’s  two real-life characters).

Tahar Rahim in “Free Men”

But the dramatic arc of this fictional narrative, including Younes’ homophobia (the singer is gay), is less compelling than the opportunity it gives Jewish audiences to see a story they know well — the Nazi occupation of France — through a very different lens.

In one particularly moving scene, Younes passes a group of French Jews being hauled into a truck by Nazis, one of whom eyes the dark-eyed Algerian and, taking him for a Jew, demands he drop his pants. Of course, as a Muslim, Younes is circumcised, and we hold our breath as he’s pushed toward the truck with the hapless Jews before a French police officer recognizes him and pulls him to safety.

Our sigh of relief catches in the throat. Who is it that we’re rooting for here?

So far, “Free Men” is the only one of the three scheduled for theatrical release, on April 6.

9:30 a.m. March 11, CinéArts. In English and Arabic with subtitles. (Rated PG-13, 80 minutes)

“77 Steps,”
11 a.m. March 16, Orinda Theatre. In Hebrew, Arabic and English with subtitles. (No rating, 56 minutes)

“Free Men,” 2:40 p.m. March 16, Orinda Theatre. In French and Arabic with subtitles. (No rating, 105 minutes)

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].