Culture, Israel

Mohammad Bakri: The Fate of Oedipus

Mohammad Bakri in "Laila's Birthday", showing at the Other Israel Film Festival, photo courtesy of NY Times
Isaac Zablocki is the director of The Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan and Executive Director of The Other Israel Film Festival
When we at the Other Israel Film Festival announced the screening of Mohammed Bakri’s latest documentary Zahara (trailer), I was surprised to receive extreme responses from some members of the community. I believe this misled outcry is precisely the problem the Other Israel Film Festival is aiming to fix. Our primary goal is, through film, to open dialogue and promote understanding. The misconception some have of Arab citizens of Israel and particularly of M. Bakri is at the heart of our festival.
I first saw Mr. Bakri in the flesh when I was in high-school. He played in a revolutionary production of Oedipus the King at the Jerusalem Theater. He stood as symbol of co-existence between Arabs and Jews and the ultimate image of Arab citizens of Israel. He was a household name in Israel and beyond, best known for his role in Beyond the Walls which was nominated for an Oscar. Bakri was a brilliant Oedipus, a master at his craft. The production was of Brechtian form and sought to remind the audience of relevant messages that stand behind the play.
Bakri’s artistic performances transcend stereotypical Arab-Israeli politics. He is not foremost a Palestinian actor, but rather an actor first and foremost. Still, he connects art and social change and walks a fine line between these passions. It was clear he wanted to be recognized as an actor first and not as an Arab. And he achieved that.
But then came the downfall. Like Oedipus, he went from being king to an enemy of the state. Was this a fate he could of avoided? As a passionate political activist, in a moment of frustration, he filmed the “notorious” documentary Jenin Jenin which became the foundation of his downfall. Bakri was not a filmmaker. He was an actor who understood the power of film. He saw the frustrations of the people of Jenin living under siege, and felt that their voices needed to be heard. He believed this film was going to be embraced by Israel. But after false claims were made that Israel committed a horrible massacre in Jenin, the Israeli public was extra sensitive on this topic. Bakri’s film was screened a total of twice in Israel. In the film, Bakri captures Jenin residents’ claiming of a genocide. For the first time in Israeli history a film of this kind was banned and Bakri became the symbol of distrust.
The legend of the film became much greater than the reality. Few had actually seen the film, but even when the ban was overturned, Bakri remained a name synonymous with suspicion. Perhaps it was Bakri’s standing behind his art and claiming that his film was true, even after it was clear that no massacre occurred. Even though history has proven this to not true, Bakri believes that they believe it. Bakri believed that he presented the true frustrations and voices of the people of Jenin and that they truly believed they were victims of horrors. Bakri was soon sued by soldiers who served in Jenin. He was ousted by some sectors of Israeli society, while others embraced his fight for freedom of artistic expression.
The next time I saw Bakri in person was a few years ago here in NY in conjunction with The Other Israel Film Festival. A relationship developed beyond the festival leading to a deep partnership. Bakri continues to work both on Israeli and international films, though his fall from grace has clearly hurt his career. But greater than his fall is the legend that has grown of his anti-Israel/anti-Semitic and blasphemous persona. Seven years after Jenin Jenin, dozens of staring roles in Israeli films later and a multitude of pro-Israel statements and interviews by Bakri, and yet, when announced that he is appearing at The Other Israel Film Festival with a new film about his aunt, the outrage from the Jewish community was unprecedented.
When I am approached by some of the “Bakri Bashers,” I ask if they have ever met him or seen him speak. I then ask if they have actually seen Jenin Jenin. The answer to all of the above is always “no,” yet most have very established and passionate opinions on the topic. I do not think seeing Jenin Jenin will change these opinions. However, the vilification of Bakri and the film is far beyond the reality.
The Other Israel Film Festival exists precisely to overcome these barriers of misconceptions. Arabs in Israel are not just the images we see on the news. They are 20% of Israel’s population. Like it or not, Israel is a democracy and has a responsibility to all of its citizens. We sometimes need to speak to those with whom we disagree. We need to recognize other perspectives and allow for their expression. When we embrace a culture of silence and silencing – we face a fate much worse than that of Oedipus.
Mohammad Bakri will be speaking alongside veteran Israeli journalist Haim Yavin at a New Generations Shabbat Dinner on Friday, November 13. Also check the Other Israel Film Festival listings for his performance in Laila’s Birthday and his own documentary Zahara.

2 thoughts on “Mohammad Bakri: The Fate of Oedipus

  1. The man slandered, and continues to slander IDF troops. He knowingly perpetuates blatant, inciteful lies, to this day, hiding behind “Palestinian self-expression”.
    Jenin Jenin is not dead. It is a favorite alternate reality for those who choose to believe it, continues to be maliciously referenced by Palestinian activists as accurate, and has won international awards, including Best Film at the Carthage International Film Festival and International Prize for Mediterranean Documentary Filmmaking & Reporting. Bakri should be shouted down, disparaged and disgraced everywhere his sullied name appears. There is no forgiveness without repentance, and the man has not repented.
    Your poignant apologia to rehabilitate this liar notwithstanding, we do not need to recognize the perspectives of liars and frauds, and that is what Bakri represents. He has earned his infamy; Let him have it.

  2. You feel sorry for him, why don’t you feel sorry for the soldiers he slandered, and for the grave harm he caused to Israel.. He gave Israel haters the food they craved for, even if it was all lies. They are so many of them already, please take the side of the real victims of this movie and that’s not him. He never admitted that the stories in his movie were lies even when confronted with the truth. Please check this link by Dr. David Zangen, chief medical officer for the IDF in Jenin during the operation and Head of Pediatric Endocrinology at Hadassah: Dr. Zangen was not allowed to finish his speech at the screening at the Jerusalem cinematheque. Are you going to do the same at anti Israel movies screenings at JCC, shut people down who disagree with that kind of hateful propaganda? I’ve seen Bakri recently playing in Zindeeq, 2009, the role of a palestinian film maker as arrogant and as angry as he is in real life fixated about the ‘Naqba’. Sorry your friend is no friend of the Jews and he’ll never be.

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