September 12, 2008 / 7:11 PM / in 9 years

Palestinian, Israeli films look beyond conflict

<p>Actor Mohamed Bakri appears in a scene from "Laila's Birthday," which debuted at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. REUTERS/Sweetwater Pictures/Handout</p>

TORONTO (Reuters) - Israeli and Palestinian directors at the Toronto International Film Festival are looking past the tanks, checkpoints and bombings to find humanity in everyday people caught up in the violence.

In “Laila’s Birthday,” Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi explores life in an occupied territory as seen through the eyes of a judge-turned-taxi-driver named Abu Laila, and the lawlessness and chaos that surrounds him and his daughter.

The prim and proper Abu Laila sports a fastidious thin mustache and won’t let people smoke or bring their AK-47s in his taxi.

But he finally unravels and grabs a bullhorn from a police officer to plead with his disrespectful neighbors and with the Israeli helicopters hovering unseen overhead.

“I want to deal with the situation but I don’t want to tell again the same story that I think everybody knows or should know,” Masharawi, a self-taught filmmaker who was born and raised in a Gaza refugee camp, told Reuters in an interview.

“So I decided not to touch what people are used to seeing, checkpoints and tanks and ambulances and bombings and shootings. I said I don’t want to deal with this now. I want to go deeper and try to tell personal stories about us.”

Masharawi, whose first feature film “Curfew” won the UNESCO award at Cannes in 1993, says the Israeli presence and conflict remains visible.

“You don’t have to see them. They influence the way of the dialogue, they influence the view ... because we are occupied not only with a gun or with a tank. Sometimes it’s here, sometimes it’s here,” he said, tapping his head and his heart.

<p>Actor Mohamed Bakri (R) appears in a scene from "Laila's Birthday," which debuted at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. REUTERS/Sweetwater Pictures/Handout</p>

HOPE AND DESPAIR

Palestinians and Israelis are thriving in the movie industry. They’re winning awards at international festivals and Oscar nominations for films such as “Paradise Now,” about two Palestinians preparing for a suicide attack in Israel, and “Beaufort,” which looks at Israeli soldiers stationed in a Lebanon outpost before Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2000.

This year’s Israeli animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir” also features Lebanon. Ari Folman’s film has won critical praise in Cannes and Toronto for its unflinching look at the horrors that followed Israel’s 1982 invasion to clear out Palestinian fighters who had attacked its northern border settlements.

But many filmmakers have distanced themselves from overt politics, focusing instead on stories of hope and despair.

“The Heart of Jenin,” from American-Israeli co-director Lior Geller, looks at the true story of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was killed by Israeli soldiers while playing with a plastic gun in the West Bank.

The film follows the boy’s father, Ismael Khatib, who agrees to donate his son’s organs to Israeli children.

“I don’t think it’s pro-Palestinian or anti-Palestinian or pro-Israeli or anti-Israeli. To me, it’s a humanist story. It’s pro-humanistic,” said Geller, who started shooting the film on the day he read about the story.

Geller, 29, made the short film “Roads,” also influenced by Khatib’s story, that received an Oscar nomination last year.

“We need occasionally to hear these stories and if one person in the cinema hears the story and says ‘oh, not all Palestinians are terrorists and promote terrorism and some of them really promote tolerance,’ then that is a very positive thing,” he said.

Editing by Janet Guttsman and Xavier Briand

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