Building bridges: The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival features 'Bridge over the Wadi,' about a bilingual, bicultural, Jewish-Arab school. (Photo courtesy SFJFF)

The 28th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Lynn Rapoport July 23, 2008

In a small elementary school in Kafr Kara, an Arab village in central Israel, two teachers stand at the front of a classroom to deliver the day’s lesson. The topic is independence—for half the class. For the other half, it’s catastrophe. At least, that’s how the teachers, one Jewish, one Arab, seem to see it, and a classroom of small human sponges waits to see who will get the last word.

It’s not exactly just another day at Bridge over the Wadi, a bilingual, bicultural Jewish-Arab school that is one of half a handful in existence. Rather, it’s the anniversary of the creation of the Israeli state, known as Independence Day to Israelis and to Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe. But how to tell a coherent story to children when narrating from opposing points of view is a question that surfaces repeatedly in the documentary Bridge over the Wadi, which screens in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Directed, written, and produced by the sibling filmmaking team of Barak and Tomer Heymann — a selection of whose films are highlighted this year in a festival tribute — Bridge follows the school, located in the Wadi Ara (wadi is Arabic for "valley"), through its first shaky year of existence in 2004 and 2005.

As the camera rolls and the children watch, the two teachers engage in a tense exchange over how to tell the story of 1948, specifically the part where lands formerly inhabited by Palestinians came to be inhabited by Israelis instead. The Arab teacher objects to the neutralizing effect of "they left," suggesting that "uprooted" would be more accurate; the Israeli teacher essentially argues that the facts of war are that one side wins. It’s an anxious, uncomfortable scene in a film whose protagonists, burdened with unresolved conflicts about their own mission, daily face the challenge of building bridges across a chasm.

The chasm yawns, shrinks perceptibly, undergoes erosions and accretions, and in a sense the 60th birthday of Israel this year—recognized in the festival via a slew of films examining the country from various perspectives—is simply another political fact alongside ceasefires and exchanges of prisoners for remains. One is always looking backward and forward along Israel’s timeline, as well as fighting over how to tell the story. That circumstance is reflected here in films about the Holocaust and its aftermath, in documentaries such as Péter Forgács’s The Danube Exodus and Jean-Michel Vecchiet’s We Were Exodus, about the flight of European Jewish refugees to Palestine; in Ari Libsker’s Stalags—Holocaust and Pornography in Israel, a critique of Israeli writings on World War II and the Holocaust, explicitly pornographic and otherwise; and in the pairing of Chris Marker’s 1960 Description of a Struggle, a lyrical paean to a 12-year-old nation, and Description of a Memory, Dan Geva’s troubled response nearly half a century later.

Watching *Bridge over the Wadi*’s children form affectionate friendships, go to slumber parties, and otherwise build their own bridges is like catching at a scrap of unadulterated hope. Adults in the film, meanwhile, sometimes seem driven to dash that hope, such as the Jewish grandmother who, in the wake of a terrorist bombing, coldly grills a little Arab boy who has come for a sleepover. And yet, the film illuminates an essential convergence, that of Israeli and Palestinian citizens, however conflicted, mastering prejudices and fears and their own education for enough hours in the day to make a change through the (co)education of their children.

These sorts of charged encounters surface throughout the festival, beginning on opening night with Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv’s feature film Strangers, a tale of young, cross-cultural amour amid the frenzy of the World Cup finals. (See also: Bilin My Love, about Arab and Israelis protesting the security barrier; the provocatively titled doc My Father’s Palestinian Slave; and the equally contentious Israeli sitcom Arab Labor, nine episodes of which screen here.) Rana, a Palestinian living in Paris, and Eyal, an Israeli, meet by chance on the Berlin subway and find it most practical to shelve discussions of the homefront in favor of flirtation and soccer.

The filmmakers purposely provide them with a place in which to do so, a "detached environment, clear of history, anger and blood." It’s the modern age, however, and the eve of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon war. History, anger, and blood wait outside the door, on the television, on the other end of a telephone call (in one scene, the characters learn about the capture of the two Israeli soldiers whose remains were returned in last week’s exchange with Hezbollah). Plus, there’s no oxygen in a vacuum, and the question remains: Can one contentedly turn one’s back on family, friends, the state, the evening news, and the precepts and narratives one has lived by, boiling what remains down to essence of love-conquers-all?

Escape may be impossible, but the ex-IDF soldiers in Flipping Out try their best. Yoav Shamir’s documentary travels to India, where certain touristic zones are overrun each year by young Israelis detoxing from mandatory military service by consuming massive quantities of drugs. Interviews with these temporary dropouts mainly feature incessant sucking on makeshift bongs and catalogings of a buffet table of controlled substances at their disposal. Conversations with the nonprofit workers — hailing from Orthodox religious missions as well as state-funded secular organizations — who provide support and occasionally rescue are less addled, but the film mostly glides along the surface of the phenomenon.

More emotionally involving are the stories told by six young women back home in Tamar Yarom’s To See If I’m Smiling, an account of their experiences serving in the Occupied Territories, as medics and monitors, on patrol and in combat. Their reminiscences steer clear of political discourse and only rarely acknowledge the world outside their assignment. But at this distance, post-discharge, the women are able to describe the psychological states into which they moved, relate abuses of Palestinians covered up by superiors, and weep over behavior they became ashamed of later, reflecting on the recent past from the edge of the chasm.

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