In a small Israeli jail cell, a 17-year-old settler hears the air raid siren that signals the beginning of the Sabbath. From her pocket, she pulls out two travel-friendly candles. When the last of the matches in her small box breaks, her cellmate, a vegan left-wing activist who was on the other side of that morning’s protest, hands the young religious girl her lighter.
The settler hesitates for a moment; the lighter is emblazoned with the Palestinian national flag. Finally, she takes it and lights the Shabbat candles.
This only-in-the-movies moment is part of a student short, titled “Chaotic,” that will be shown at an event affiliated with this year’s Israel Film Festival, which began in Los Angeles on March 15. But what is perhaps most unusual about this and two other short films to be shown on March 25 in Beverly Hills is that they were made by students in a film and television program at Ariel University Center (AUC), the largest public college in the West Bank.
“Coming with films from Ariel is a little surprise, because of the traditional thinking of film and television as a left-wing industry,” said Eyal Boers, a documentary filmmaker who is the head of the nearly five-year-old television and film track at AUC’s School of Communication.
That the Israeli film industry leans left — and has a particular problem with Ariel, a city-sized settlement located deep in the West Bank — is more than just perception.
In 2010, when a group of 36 Israeli actors announced that they would boycott the Ariel Regional Center for the Performing Arts, which opened later that year, dozens of artists, including some of the best-known Israeli film directors, signed on to support them.
Ariel has been a flashpoint of contention since shortly after it was established in 1978, but the settlement’s size (population 20,000) and location (more than 10 miles east of the pre-1967 borders of Israel) have recently made it the focus of particular attention for those on the left and right.
So while Peter Beinart, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece urging Zionist Jews to boycott settlements, singled out Ariel as an obstacle to achieving a peaceful two-state solution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) became a patron of the Israel Film Festival this year for the express purpose of showcasing the work of AUC students in Los Angeles.
“Ariel is actually a consensus city in Judea and Samaria,” said Orit Arfa, executive director of the ZOA’s Western region, using the biblical terms for the West Bank preferred by those wishing to emphasize its Jewish roots. “I don’t believe any prime minister has ever put Ariel on the table as an area to be ceded in any peace negotiation.”
ZOA and American Friends of Ariel, an organization that supports the development of Ariel and is also a patron of this year’s Israel Film Festival, are screening the three films by students in the AUC’s film and television track at a midday event they are calling “The Ariel Breakfast Club.”
After watching nine of the best films from the program’s students, “We chose these three films because they have the same theme,” Arfa said, “young people of different backgrounds coming together and working out their differences.”
To an extent, anyway. While one of the shorts — a romantic comedy that pairs a spoiled rich boy from Tel Aviv with a young, studious and feisty Ethiopian immigrant — ends as happily as any film coming out of Hollywood, the protagonists of the other films are left with more questions than answers.
Yael Gruber, who wrote and directed “Chaotic,” said she was interested in how young people on the political fringes in Israel live out their ideologies in parallel, albeit opposing ways.
“It was amazing to see how someone from the far-left fringe of the political map and someone from its rightmost edge speak about almost the same things,” Gruber wrote in an e-mail. “The establishment, the country — they sometimes even use the same phrases.”
Gruber, 27, is a religious mother of two who grew up and lives in a settlement near Ariel, and she describes herself as on the right politically, but Boers said that students in the AUC’s film and television track are a diverse bunch. The film and television track now even has a few Arab students, Boers said, and is drawing students from around the country.
“Application specifications become more and more difficult every year, and that’s in our interest,” he said.
Attracting faculty to work in Ariel is another matter, though.
“One of the main difficulties I face is attracting teachers, lecturers, directors to become a part of the track or collaborate with us,” Boers said. Of those he approaches about the possibility of coming to teach his students, three out of four turn Boers down right away.
Avi Zimmerman, executive director of American Friends of Ariel, would prefer to focus on those individuals and groups who have come to Ariel, despite the unwillingness of some in the theater community and film industry to perform or work there.
“All of the leading theaters in Israel perform in Ariel consistently,” Zimmerman wrote in an e-mail, noting that pop star Eyal Golan, who will be performing in Los Angeles in April, waived his fee when he played the opening concert at Ariel’s new cultural center.
Boers is expected to travel to Los Angeles for the March 25 screening of the AUC students’ shorts, and he said he hopes people who come to see them also pay attention to the films as films.
“I hope it’s not going to be too political,” Boers said. “But I’m an Israeli — I’m very realistic.