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Middle East crisis in spotlight at Toronto film festival

TORONTO: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has taken a backseat to the Arab Spring recently, but at the Toronto International Film Festival an unusually high number of films shine fresh light on the decadeslong conflict.

Dramas like “The Attack” and “Out in the Dark” explore the human side of the strife, while documentaries such as “State 194” and “The Gatekeepers” offer insight into the politics behind the conflict through interviews with top political and security players.

Considered one of the world’s top festivals, Toronto helps kick off the Hollywood awards season, though films on the Middle East could prove too politically sensitive for mainstream audiences.

In “The Attack,” Palestinian actor Ali Suliman plays Amin, a prominent Arab surgeon living a comfortable life in Tel Aviv. Amin’s cozy existence is shattered when he learns his wife is responsible for a suicide bombing that killed 17 people.

As his Israeli friends and colleagues turn their backs on him, Amin tries to understand why his wife – well-educated, liberal and Christian – would have committed such an act.

Based on the book by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul), “The Attack” plays on the human aspects of acts of betrayal, while offering insight into how precarious life can be for Arabs living in Israel.

“Even if you live in that bubble – trying to pretend that the conflict is far away – eventually the conflict seeps back in,” said Ziad Doueiri, the film’s Lebanese director. “We can get along as much as we can, but when push comes to shove, you’re again an Arab and I’m an Israeli.”

Another drama putting a fresh spin on the Israel-Palestine divide is “Out in the Dark,” a love story by first-time director Michael Mayer that centers on a gay lawyer, Roy, who falls for a Palestinian graduate student, Nimr.

The budding relationship is complicated when Nimr’s visa is suddenly revoked and he faces deportation.

The film offers a rare glimpse into the risky lives of gay Palestinians living on the fringe in Tel Aviv, while grim shots of the towering West Bank fence aim to bring home the message of a lack of freedom for Palestinians.

Israel has imposed a network of checkpoints and built a broad separation barrier across the West Bank after a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000.

Over 1,000 Israelis and several thousand Palestinians died in the violence that petered out midway through the decade.

Israel maintains its wall and checkpoints are needed to protect it from attack. Effectively it prevents most West Bankers from entering Israel and reaching other parts of Palestine.

“When the politics enter the personal, people get up and fight for it,” said Mayer of his approach to the film. “It feels more compelling to me when it’s told through a personal story.”

Dror Moreh’s documentary “The Gatekeepers” is a riveting inside account of Israel’s intelligence gathering through interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency.

Tracing the annals of the agency and how its security tactics have changed in past decades, former security chiefs recall incidents such as the “Bus 300 Affair” in which two Arab bus hijackers were executed in custody.

The documentary, which has attracted possible awards buzz for its unusual access to the security chiefs, also offers insight into assassinated leader Yitzhak Rabin and the dangers in Israel’s religious political right.

“I don’t take politicians seriously anymore,” one of the chiefs says in the film, suggesting it is political leaders more than violence that acts as a barrier to peace. In the end, most chiefs profess that peace talks, not military action, is the only way forward, and point to a bleak future.

The future is slightly brighter in Dan Setton’s documentary “State 194,” which follows Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad on his two-year journey to have the nation recognized by the U.N. as an independent state.

Featuring interviews with Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and numerous activists on both sides, “State 194” pushes a two-state solution to end the conflict.

Settn said: “The Israelis want quiet, peace. But the Palestinians want freedom. They want to end the occupation. It’s not like they are on the same level.”

Numerous other films at this year’s festival focus on the regions and surrounding areas, including Anais Barbeau-Lavalette’s “Inch’Allah” and Annemarie Jacir’s “When I Saw You.” Eran Riklis’ “Zaytoun” examines Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

“Rafea: Solar Mama” follows one illiterate Bedouin woman’s struggle to move out of poverty in Jordan. Director Mona Eldaief called Rafea “a very unique, strong character,” and an inspiration for women fighting for rights across the region.

Even some of the year’s bigger films jostling for Oscar attention tackle regional politics. “Argo,” recalls the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, while Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” shows a Pakistani Wall Street analyst whose experience with capitalism and the Sept. 11 attacks propels him toward Islamic fundamentalism.

“We’ve had some trepidation about how it would be received in America,” producer Lydia Dean Pilcher said.

The broad range of films offer little hope for a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but numerous directors spoke of changing perspectives on the ground.

“On the big thing, it’s hopeless,” said Doueiri. “But I think the fact that I managed to make the film, with Israeli actors and with Palestinian actors ... maybe that is a little glimpse of hope, the fact that we could work together.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 14, 2012, on page 16.

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