I saw Mohammed Bakri’s documentary film “Zahara” the last night of the Other Israel Film Festival. Bakri is a well-known Israeli Palestinian actor on both stage and screen. This, his fourth film, produced by Carol Zabar, is beautifully shot by his son Ziad. It is a personal telling of the life of his 78 year old aunt Zahara, from the times of pre-state Palestine to the present. Zahara was among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled the fighting during Israel’s war of independence, a period which Palestinians now call the Naqba, the “catastrophe.”
Zahara, unlike many Palestinians, did not end up in a refugee camp in Lebanon; instead, she made her way back to her town after the war. Later, Zahara becomes a young widow with four children whom she raised by tirelessly working in the fields. One of her sons, educated in Moscow, became a doctor; all become professionals. At the end of the film we see a portrait of a flourishing family, with Zahara at its center. Bakri clearly loves and respects his aunt; she emerges as a formidable woman.
For me, Bakri’s evocation of Palestinian Arab life through his main character, Aunt Zahara works. In the Q & A, I said that Zahara had a filmic resonance to Garcia Marquez’ “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” But, I asked, why did you put the sequence of the shepherd wielding a heavy stick running after pack of dogs attacking a pig into the film?
The shepherd whacks the dogs; he is trying to save the squeaking pig. Finally, the shepherd succeeds in wrenching the pig from the bloody jaws of the dogs. He looks at the bleeding pig, sees its dying eyes and throws it into a nearby creek.
This follows a sequence of Bakri, in a car, retracing the steps that his family, (Zahara included) took going (and perhaps coming) to/from Lebanon during the 1947/48 war.
At first, Bakri did not want to answer my question; then he said he would answer it in a Jewish way, which I took to mean in a complicated fashion. His son was filming the passing hills from the car and his camera picked up this scene as it unfolded. It was destiny, Bakri said, repeating it several times. Now I understand what destiny means to a filmmaker; it is part of magical thinking, and one feels a particular attachment to such footage, but I was more interested in Bakri’s process of deciding to put this sequence here, and what it meant to him. Of course, I was also aware that in some Arab propaganda outlets they refer to Jews as dogs and pigs (and in some Jewish circles, Arabs are referred to similarly). Bakri, of course, is into the world of complexity and said, “Who is the pig, who are the dogs? In this story. it is hard to know.”
Following the film, there was a reception. People were involved in heated discussions. Good I thought, this is what film festivals are supposed to do, especially one so avant guard as Other Israel, which screens films made by Palestinian-Arab Israelis– now more than twenty percent of the population.
In conclusion, Zahara is a film well worth seeing. It reminds us that there are at least two narratives in the creation of Israel. Bakri lives with paradox. And when we realize that we live in this same paradox, perhaps the world will be a better place.
It has taken me more than a week to write this up, mainly because I could not finalize it. I wrote to the woman who sat next to me during the screening, a most reputable academic professional and asked her what her reaction was:
The way I remember the heated discussion is that it was about the pig. Your question started it off. Until that point, people were praising the movie, saying it was also about Hasan and not just Zahara, talking about the humanity of Zahara, etc. The pig issue got people riled up. Some were OK with it meaning different things to different people. Some were not (me included). Context matters. Since the view of the events of 1948 in this film was Arab-centric, it is hard for me to see the pig scene as anything other than Bakri showing Israelis attacking and overpowering innocent Arabs/Palestinians. The irony for me is that Israel was so outnumbered by Arabs in 1948 that one cannot really see the dogs as the Israelis. Bakri dropped the Holocaust remark much later in the Q&A, as I remember it. To my mind, that was even worse than including the pig.
I found him engaging, talented, but not totally honest with the audience. The objection to the pig scene was not just how vicious the dogs were and so it would be hard for women to watch. That was what the Arab women were reacting to. Israeli women, had they been consulted, and men too, would have said that, within the context of the movie, the brutal dogs were clearly meant to symbolize Israeli aggression against Palestinians. I think Bakri forgets facts that he does not wish to remember.
I agree with you that filmmakers have a right to put on screen what they wish. But an audience cannot be fooled. It would be interesting to hear what people who are neither Israeli nor Jewish nor Palestinian nor Arab nor Muslim make of this film.