The Other Son
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The Other Son

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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How does a filmmaker tackle the Arab-Palestinian conflict?

Israelis have been struggling with this for decades. The earliest films, like the 1961 classic “They Were Ten,” were similar to the classic romantic Westerns that were popular at the time. They showed how enemies can live next to each other, side by side, in peace. Just as the white man and the “Indian” came together in such American Westerns as “Broken Arrow” to smoke a peace pipe, this film had Jew and Arab each take a puff from a hookah and then seem to live happily ever after. The conclusions of these films laid out a hope that both sides could somehow live in peace.

But in the intervening years much has happened in the Middle East. In trying to broach the differences, Israeli filmmakers made a series of films tackling the conflict through the realm of forbidden love. Some historians observed that this made it easier for the Israeli audience to encounter the conflict, whose roots otherwise were too complex and often painful. In the post-1982 Lebanon War period, films like Daniel Wachmann’s 1982 “Hamsin,” which showed the unraveling of long-held friendships between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs in the Galilee, and Nissim Dayan’s 1985 “On a Narrow Bridge,” about the relationship between a male Israeli reserve officer and Palestinian Christian woman in the west bank, tried to push the notion that each side might somehow come together. These films began to draw the attention of Israeli moviegoers and several other Israeli films of this genre followed.

Could love somehow prevail and bring about a peace?

Now, French writer and director Lorraine Lévy enters the fray with “The Other Son.” She, too, draws on the question of love – though it is a different form of love – to draw us in to continue to examine the current situation between Israel and the Palestinians. She enters a controversial sphere of filmmaking, which is riddled with hidden minefields. European and American filmmakers already have entered this terrain, attempting to give their interpretation of events and provide a perspective on a potential coming together of Israelis and Palestinians. But, by and large, moviemakers – even the most talented among them, like Costa-Gavras (1983’s “Hanna K) and Steven Spielberg (2005’s “Munich”) – were slammed, either for not telling the right story or for relating one that was not fair enough to one side or the other.

Could Lévy do the subject justice?

She draws on a familiar literary motif, that of two babies who accidentally are switched at birth and then grow up and live in what should have been the other’s domain. One is an Israeli Jew, the other a Palestinian Muslim.

Just what is it in their DNA that makes them different and what are the repercussions when their true identities are uncovered? Can the parents continue to love their sons, and what are the consequences of such love?

The filmmaker uses this plotline to tackle the current tense situation effectively, with a sensitivity and tastefulness that does not attempt to make you squirm, but rather allows you to sit upright and pay close attention. She provides a unique perspective as we are able to observe the various reactions of mothers, fathers and siblings on both sides of the border. As the filmmaker told me, “In fiction you can say so much more.”

She did acknowledge, however, that her film would not change anything. All she wants is for her movie to encourage dialogue. When I quizzed her about why she made this film, she talked about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France. She referred to the violence wreaked by people in France “who do not really know what Jews do and who Jews really are.” She wanted to raise the subject of identity and the question of what it is like to be “the other,” issues that have been central throughout Jewish history. “My film falls into this present context,” she said. “You sometimes need to fight against prejudice.” Lévy mediates fairly between both sides.

“The Other Son” was filmed in Israel and in the west bank. The very making of the film was an exercise in cooperation and conflict resolution. The film crew was made up of French, Israeli, and Palestinian artists and technicians, who complemented each other and worked well together. When there was an issue with Israeli security, the Israelis on the crew dealt with it. When Palestinian teenagers threw stones, the problem was resolved quickly when the Palestinian crew members met with the residents. Oh, if it all could be so easy!

Emmanuelle Davos as Orit, the French-born Israeli mother, and Alon Silbers as her macho Israeli husband do a fine job, as do Khalifa Natour and Areen Omari as the Arab couple. Both the actors who play the 18-year-old youths, Jules Sitruk and Medhi Dehbi, are quite believable. This is the third film that Lorraine Lévy has directed; in it, she brings us a sensitive portrait of a difficult situation at a demanding time in Israel.

The film opens today in New York City, Westchester, and Montclair.

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