The devastating October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and the ensuing war, along with the contradictory and perplexing media accounts of the clash, underscore the necessity for a nuanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One way is through film, says literary and film critic Meital Orr, who teaches a class at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization that looks at the Middle East conflict through the lens of both Israeli and Palestinian literature and cinema. “Films can view the situation from the perspective of those who live it,” she says, “capturing complex truths in a short time in a way that makes us feel vicariously part of the conflict. This brings more clarity and immediacy to issues that otherwise may feel very removed from our lives or are too complicated to understand.”
Here are seven films that Orr has recommended and where to watch them.
Beyond the Walls (Israeli, 1984, directed by Uri Barbash)
Amazon, Apple TV
This gritty prison drama tackles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head-on. Consumed by hatred toward one another, Israeli and Palestinian prisoners are trapped in a reality where nothing matters except their honor. Characters with mixed allegiances and periodic acts of kindness represent both despair and glimmers of hope in a landscape of hatred. At a shared concert for inmates, peaceful coexistence almost seems within reach, but when a news broadcast blares, chaos erupts and violence ensues. However, both groups of prisoners realize that they are being manipulated by the prison director, and when Israeli and Palestinian cell bosses Uri and Issan experience the exploitation personally, they resolve to join forces. Virtually unknown today, this pioneering Israeli film reveals salient truths that remain as relevant today as they were in 1984: the relative superficiality of national identity when fates are shared and recognition of the mutual injustices that can unify those affected. The question, of course, is: What would it take to enable cooperation “beyond the walls”?
Cup Final (Israeli, 1991, Eran Riklis)
Israel Film Center
In one of his first films, celebrated Israeli director Eran Riklis chillingly foreshadows the October 7 attack and capture of Israeli hostages by Hamas. In the film, Israeli soldiers Cohen and Galili are taken hostage by a Palestinian group during the 1982 Lebanon War. Over their week together, as the FIFA World Cup championship takes place in Europe, each side learns much about the other, including the ironic fact that they are both rooting for the same team (Italy). The Palestinian group is motivated by the desire to trade hostages, but en route to Beirut the group experiences setbacks, exacting a toll on the captives, who don’t know whether they will live or die at any given moment. What each Palestinian or Israeli finds at the end of their journey changes them. With sensitivity and artistry, Riklis weaves a memorable montage of the reality of war, non-wartime reality and the bitter irony of the conflict, which strips human beings of their humanity.
For My Father (German-Israeli co-production, 2008, Dror Zahavi)
Nominated for seven Ophir awards (the “Israeli Oscars”), Zahavi’s film (whose Hebrew title translates as A Weekend in Tel Aviv) charts the friendship and burgeoning romance between a young Jewish-Israeli woman named Keren—who has left her Orthodox community for a secular lifestyle—and a Palestinian suicide bomber, Tarek. On a mission to avenge his father’s dishonor due to collaboration with Israelis, Tarek intends to blow himself up at the Tel Aviv outdoor market but is delayed by a failed electrical switch. This allows him time to become acquainted with Israelis while the switch is being repaired by an elderly Jewish electrician named Katz. Over the weekend, Tarek and Keren become friends and Terek spends time with Katz and his wife, who have lost their son to the conflict. The implication is that Tarek’s growing affection for Keren and his humane treatment by Katz and his wife make him rethink his mission. In this subtle, somewhat surreal scenario, Zahavi examines the theme of personal contact with the “other” as the only true antidote to dehumanization, hatred and violence.
Lemon Tree (Israeli, 2008, Eran Riklis)
Another masterpiece from Eran Riklis, this film, which is based on a true story, offers a feminist perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Set in the West Bank on the border with Israel, the story is told from the point of view of Palestinian widow Salma, who confronts Israeli authorities intent on destroying her lemon orchard in order to “protect” her new neighbor, the recently appointed Israeli defense minister. Meanwhile, Mira, the minister’s wife, uncomfortable in her new position, pained by her husband’s affair with his assistant and sensitive to the suffering of her neighbor, tries to help. Both women, however, are trapped—physically in their homes and legally by political systems too powerful to overcome. Yet they also possess agency in surprising ways. By probing the second-class place in society women are forced to occupy, the film exposes the silencing of precisely those people who see the truth: that within the conflict there is no communication, no understanding, no empathy, no justice and no hope for peace. At the same time, this feminist take offers a new path forward, one forged from identification with the suffering of the “other.”
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (International coproduction, 2011, Thierry Binisti)
Based on Valérie Zenatti’s 2005 young adult novel of the same name, Binisti’s film probes the interactions of two youths on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When French-Israeli high schooler Tal, having just witnessed a suicide bombing, releases a bottle into the Mediterranean Sea with a note asking why Palestinians from Gaza bomb Israeli cafes, she is surprised to receive an email response from the Palestinian youth, Naim, who finds it. Thus begins a tentative correspondence between the two, united in their love for the French language and their dreams of visiting Paris someday. While the initial emotions of curiosity, loneliness and pain bring them together, the teens also share the dream of exiting the nightmare of war and enjoying a “normal” life. As Naim writes to Tal: “Nothing is easy between us, but everything is possible. Maybe in Paris we’ll have coffee, you and me. Inshallah.” As if in answer to today’s conflict, this balanced and understated film posits that violence only breeds hatred and more violence. Most important, it asserts that change begins with the individual. Binisti’s film at first seems wishful and naive, but ends up resonating with the two societies’ innermost fears and aspirations.
The Other Son (French, 2012, Lorraine Lévy)
Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play, Tubi
Inspired by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella Return to Haifa, Lévy’s film probes the life-altering results for two families—one Israeli, one Palestinian—when, unbeknownst to them, their newborns are accidentally switched at birth. While the sons, Joseph and Yacine, are raised by their families as their own, a blood test administered when Joseph is in high school brings his parentage into question. A follow-up DNA test reveals his true genetic identity, which is then confirmed by the hospital and disclosed to Yacine’s family. When the two families meet, emotions erupt as each member attempts to transcend prejudices and come to terms with the truth. The film addresses questions still relevant today: Does nature or nurture define an individual’s identity? Is identity itself fluid? Is nationality part of who one is intrinsically, or does something more fundamental—such as humanity—transcend it? Most of all, the film probes the impossibility of moving forward without recognizing the two nations’ shared fate and responsibility. As Yacine says to Joseph: “You have my life, don’t mess it up.”
A Borrowed Identity (Israeli, 2014, Eran Riklis)
Amazon, Vudu, Apple TV, Google Play
Loosely based on Palestinian author Sayed Kashua’s 2002 novel Dancing Arabs, the film has been considered director Riklis’s consummate achievement. The story follows the life path of a gifted Israeli-Arab boy, Eyad, who is admitted to the most prestigious high school for academically advanced youth in Israel. There, he meets Yonatan, an Israeli Jew whose medical condition, and subsequent ostracization, bond them together as outsiders who are discriminated against. As time passes, they find true connection and friendship. Eyad assimilates into Israeli culture while still retaining his identity as he sells Arab foods to his classmates. When he falls in love with Jewish Naomi, his life seems complete. As graduation nears, however, both his friendship with Yonatan and love for Naomi are severely tested. As Eyad supports a deteriorating Yonatan, the theme of shared identity that emerges raises key questions about the entwined fates of the Israelis and Palestinians. The closeness between the two youths exemplifies how much each nation depends on the other for survival. Viewed against the backdrop of today’s current events, the film’s message becomes too urgent to be ignored. For both sides, existence itself depends upon mutual recognition.
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