A preview of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival

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Sayed Kashua, the Arab-Israeli scriptwriter and creator of the remarkable comedy series 'Arab Labor.'

Israel may have problematic politics but it is also a hothouse for remarkable storytellers and journalism as demonstrated by some upcoming offerings at the upcoming Toronto Jewish Film Festival, on from April 17 to 25.

The latest available episode of the Israel TV sitcom, "Arab Labour" is only on at 12 p.m. on April 23 at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto, but you may be able to rent it eventually in some video and DVD outlets along with past episodes. Sayed Kashua, the scriptwriter and creator of this remarkable series may be among the funniest men in the Jewish state. I wish someone could do something as biting in Canada.

A satirical newspaper columnist, TV script writer and novelist, this 30-something Israeli citizen and member of the Arab minority has created a striking picture of the toxic political mix that is the Jewish state.

The central character is Amjad, another 30-plus Israeli-Arab journalist (well played by actor Norman Issa) who desperately and generally unsuccessfully tries to fit into the Jewish Hebrew-speaking majority.

In the latest episode "Independence Day," which is being featured in the festival, a millionaire promises to donate a million shekels to the first baby born on the 60th anniversary of Israel's birth.

When it looks like the boy born to Amjad's wife Bushara may have won the contest the millionaire announces that there has been a mistake, because he is aghast at the thought that an Arab might end up being the winner. The money is slated instead to go to the first child born in the country bearing first name Israel.

When it looks like a competing Jewish mother in the neighbouring bed in the hospital is willing to comply with the sudden change in rules, Amjad jeopardizes his marriage to Bushara by announcing that his new son -- to his wife's chagrin he is already carrying the nice North American Jewish-sounding name, "Adam" -- will now be registered as Abu-Israel.

I won't give away too much more than say there is a subplot where Amjad's only friend, a Jewish-Israeli newspaper photographer called Meir, will do anything, even convert to Islam, to win the heart of Bushara's rather skeptical and feminist Arab girlfriend Amal.

Amal is continually upset that Meir has so far managed to avoid having the two of them sit down for dinner at the home of his mother -- who incidentally has a heart attack when she discovers whom her son is dating.

What makes "Arab Labor" work is that the characters are multi-faceted and not always especially nice. Kashua avoids offering cardboard people either in the foreground or background.

Also, the show deals with the blatant racism, religious intolerance and paranoia in Israel in an upfront manner that is unimaginable on Canadian TV. The equivalent to "Arab Labor" in Canada would be to have a satirical show focused on the multicultural tensions in Montreal. Hey someone take that up!

In a telephone interview, Kashua says that 10 episodes of the show, including "Independence Day," have been broadcasted to great acclaim and ratings on Israeli TV and another 13 are in production now.

He says "Arab Labor" has been attacked in his country by both the Jewish right and his own Israeli-Arab community -- the latter makes up about 20 per cent of Israel's population. With the latter, he says, "[Israel's Palestinians] are expecting me to represent their problems. Sometimes it is not easy to laugh at very heavy things."

Kashua is a busy man these days. He has also written the script for a feature film based on one of his novels, "Dancing Arabs."

Furthermore, he is the subject of a documentary, "Forever Scared" which accompanies "Arab Labour" at the Al Green Theatre on April 23. Directed by Dorit Zimbalist it provides a poignant portrayal of a conflicted artist (is he Hebrew or Arab?) who seeks to find his cultural space in face of powerful segment of a Jewish majority that increasingly and unfairly doubts the loyalty of the Arab population within a shared state.

Kashua makes no bones in the documentary about his fear that the citizenship rights of Israel's Arabs may be sacrificed for a Palestinian state in the West Bank down the road.

One last thing about Kashua is that his parents sent him to Hebrew speaking boarding school in his teens, which somewhat explains his ability to penetrate both cultures in Israel.

More dated in a depressing way is "Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams," the new documentary on perhaps Israel's best novelist and a likely prospect for a Nobel Prize for literature. The directors are Masha Zur Glozman and Yonathan Zur. It is being show at 1:30 p.m. on April 25 at the Bloor Cinema.

Urbane and full of ideas for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, Oz represents a saner more Zionist-left Israel that barely exists today amidst the harsher environment of the Jewish state under Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.

The novelist makes the interesting point that the Jews during the rise of fascism before the Second World War were the first unhyphenated Europeans in terms of their willingness to be multilingual and their identification with the continent's entire cultural heritage including classical music, art and literature. Israel seems more narrow and ethnocentric.

The film was made before Oz's distressing endorsement, along with other literary lights, David Grossman and A. B. Yehoshua, of Israel's assault of Gaza. These guys all backtracked once it became clear what was happening to the besieged Palestinian population. But their action did remind me of the U.S. politicians who jumped on board to support George's Bush war in Iraq, out of a desire not to be marginalized in face of a pro-war tide.

Sometimes it pays to just read the literary work of a man like Oz, especially "My Michael" or his more recent family sage, "A Tale of Love and Darkness" rather than go and see a plodding documentary on the same subject.

Finally, I want to direct you to Eyal Sivan's documentary, "Jaffa: the Orange's Clockwork" which depicts the politics behind Israel's once lush export. It is featured on April 20 at 8:15 p.m. at the Bloor Cinema and on April 22 at 9:15 p.m. at the Cineplex Odeon at the Sheppard Centre.

Jaffa's orange orchards were originally largely Palestinian but in the early days of Zionist settlement Jewish and Arab farmers were somewhat cooperative in their cultivation of the expansive crop. But following the 1948 war Israel in its socialist zeal nationalized all of the land. As the state was set up for the benefit of the Jewish people, the Palestinians who had farmed the area for generations found themselves without their groves and relegated to being paid pickers of the fruit.

The new state imbued with the mythology of the Zionist pioneers made the Jaffa orange an important component of its ideology and in the process eliminated the earlier history.

Palestinian nationalism which began in 1970s to make its presence with the PLO sought to take back the symbol of the Jaffa orange. One spokesperson discusses the mystical impact of the fragrance of the orange orchards on the local farmers.

Sadly, in that very same decade the Jaffa orange lost its importance from a Zionist public relations perspective. Israeli politicians saw more economic potential for the production of military armament exports. By the 1990s, the orange orchards had been uprooted.

Sivan lives part of the year in Europe and the other in his home country where his documentaries have generated controversy. He says the Jaffa's Arabs are facing a new displacement in the form of real estate takeovers by rich Israelis.

One shudders to think what it must be like to show critical work in Israel today. But Sivan says that his background as an Israeli Jew gives him the political and cultural freedom that non-Jews do not always have in his country. "We are the nice image of the state when Israel needs to show that it is a democracy. They are using us the film-makers, the artists to show that we are a democracy."

Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based writer.


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