A new Israeli film, THE OTHER STORY, opens at the Living Room Theaters in Portland on Sept. 6. The film is the latest from acclaimed filmmaker Avi Nesher.
THE OTHER STORY tells a suspenseful, poignant, and humorous story through the eyes of two rebellious young women from two troubled families that tangle in the most unexpected ways in Jerusalem. As the characters’ warring personal convictions and intimate anxieties clash, the secular and religious world views they hold dear also come to embody the struggle for identity reflecting present-day Israel.
THE OTHER STORY has played at festivals around the world (Nesher won the Best Director Award at the Israeli Film Critic Association 2018) including the Toronto International Film Festival 2018, Chicago International Film Festival 2018, Miami Jewish Film Festival 2019, Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and Seattle Jewish Film Festival 2019. It has already been released theatrically in New York City, Los Angeles and multiple other U.S. cities.
See the Trailer here.
For more information on Portland screenings, visit here.
FILMMAKER AVI NESHER shares his thoughts on the film.
In the old joke, a drunkard asks a sidewalk passerby for directions to the other side of the street.
The passerby points across the street. “Funny,” says the drunkard, “I was just there and they said it was here!”
The question of ‘the other’ – how to regard those outside one’s own tribe – is both timeless and acutely timely. Addressing it arouses competing impulses. On one hand, an impulse for inclusion and justice, embodied in the Golden Rule, compels us to want to share fairly the bounty of this life, to make room around the table for everyone. On the other exists our deep desire to define ourselves, and our turf, with clarity and to protect our own. Definition requires setting boundaries. And boundaries always leave someone out, on the other side.
The question of ‘truth’ presents another, related paradox. Truth telling is widely considered a virtue. We value truthfulness in our friends. We teach our children to tell the truth. We believe that our God, and our politics for that matter, is Truth. Yet uttered unfiltered without regard for context or an eye for kindness, truth telling can serve as an alibi for cruelty, a cover for selfishness, and even a moral trap. Would you not lie to protect your child? Moreover, those who feel they possess ‘The Truth’ are empowered by their conviction yet they are also inevitably blinded by it. They may thus assign ‘the other’ status to those who have doubts – even if doing so marginalizes inquiry and curiosity, which are, ironically, the tools of truth finding. An airtight position leaves no room for breathing.
“The Other Story” emerged from a desire to interrogate these matters using the language of cinema, which has the advantage of offering note merely and argument, but also, chiefly, a resonant experience.
“The Other Story” is situated in the city of Jerusalem, which literally translates to ‘city of peace’ but for which peace has been eternally elusive. Jerusalem is also known as ‘city of truth, yet competing truths have been wrestling for hegemony and peaceful coexistence inside its walls forever with murky results. This effortlessly cinematic city therefore serves as apt backdrop for an exploration of the themes of identity and truth.
As subverting one sided truisms was one of the film’s objectives, it seemed appropriate to tell the story through the quests of two young women, thus subverting the common tendency, in history and cinema, to place male agency at the center of the narrative.
On one side is Anat Abadi, an intense young woman who has recently found God, to the horror of her secular tribe. On the other is Sari Alter, a married mother who, having escaped her cloistered religious upbringing for the promise of secular freedom, is chafing under the constraints of her humdrum marriage, feeling she had traded one cage for another.
Both women must confront the tension between self-assertion and tribal affiliation as they negotiate dueling fundamental human desires: to be, and to belong. Along their intersecting journeys, they and the characters in their orbit traverse uneasily the landscape of competing faiths, ambitions, and viewpoints. By the end, it is the power of the human encounter that will change profoundly the way each of them regards both truth and ‘the other’.
“Like it or not, the word “Israel” today connotes conflict and war,” says Dr. Noam Shpancer, coscreenwriter of The Other. “In the News, Israel is mentioned most often in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, just as crucial to Israel’s future and character, if less well known, is Israel’s war with itself – the volatile internal conflict between secular and religious Judaism.”
Currently, the secular ethos and institutions of Israel’s early history are being challenged by the fervent forces of religious Judaism, which have taken over large swaths of Israeli population, politics, culture and real estate. Will theocracy replace democracy? Will biblical law become the law of the land? This conflict is embodied well in the phenomenon of ‘hazara betshuva’ (returning to the faith), where young secular Jews become religiously devout. Starting in the late ’60s, several forces have combined to give rise to the trend. First, Israel has by that time become a powerful and relatively prosperous nation, thus freeing its young people to contemplate questions of meaning rather than mere survival. Moreover, Israel’s shockingly swift and decisive victory in the Six Days War of 1967 was seen by many as a miracle, a work of providence, thus pushing to the surface previously dormant religious passions in the populace. By that time too, the religious community in Israel has grown in size nad political influence, and religious institutions became actively involved in organized efforts to bring secular Israelis closer to the faith.
“Since those early days, ‘hazara betshuva’ has become a familiar, albeit emotionally charged, feature of Israeli life and culture.
Hazara Betshuva is a complex phenomenon. The (mostly) young people who decide to leave their secular lives behind and take on the severe practices and values of Orthodox Judaism do not share a similar psychological profile. Their stories are diverse and their reasons multiple.
Some fall under the spell of a charismatic rabbi or romantic partner. Some are attracted to the intellectual heft of Torah study, with its interminable multilayered debate. Others seek a meaningful alternative to a secular world they experience as chaotic, shallow, morally corrupt, or frightening. Some may find refuge from internal turmoil, from trauma, or from their own destructive impulses in the strict behavioral discipline and tight communal rules that comprise an Orthodox religious life. Some may crave the certainty, order, and stability provided by ancient wisdom and tribal rituals. Their paths to faith may also differ. Some change gradually over time, perhaps years, in a process known as ‘hitchazkut’ (becoming stronger), while for others the shift is abrupt, completed over several weeks or months.
Whatever their motives, one thing those who cross over from secularism to Orthodox Judaism have in common is the effect on their families of origin, which is almost always experienced as a crisis. When the son or daughter of a secular family becomes religiously devout, family bonds are invariably tested and family boundaries must be re-drawn.
Expectations for the future alter, as do routine interactions such as during meals, weekends, visits, and holidays. The family contract must be renegotiated: What can be worn, or purchased, or cooked, or eaten, or watched, or spoken; who can be touched, or looked at, or invited over, or loved – all these considerations and habits will change.
The secular parents often find that their parental love, their wish for their child to find happiness, ad their secular values of tolerance and individual freedom conflict harshly with their shock over the child’s renouncement of parental values and worldview. Parents may also be plagued by a sense of failure, blaming themselves for their child’s disenchantment with the secular life they have modeled and championed. A fear of losing contact with the child altogether is also common. To keep in contact, parents often restructure cherished old ways and habits to accommodate the myriad restrictions that accompany the Orthodox lifestyle. The situation is complicated further by the fact that the Orthodox political parties possess outsize power in Israel’s electoral system, and use it regularly to expand their control and influence over the culture at large. Thus, a child who becomes Orthodox de facto joins a political agenda that the secular parents may consider oppressive and hostile.
The newly devout son or daughter also faces multiple challenges, including reconciling their love for their parents with their new view of them as fundamentally misguided, and absorbing the parents’ anger and hurt. They also must establish a whole new identity – new routines, new language, new rules, new friends, new wardrobe – as well as face the persistent prejudice within the Orthodox community against newcomers to the faith.
In some families, the change may result in continuous arguments and futile persuasion efforts.
Bitterness and disappointment may lead to a complete breakdown and the severing of relations between the parents and the child. Other times, family members figure out ways to accommodate each other, maintain contact, and find peace, mutual respect and a modicum of acceptance. Nothing, however, will again be as it was before.