“77 Steps,” a documentary by Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana, is a selection at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. The subject of the film is Mara’ana herself, who moves from her Arab-Muslim village to Tel Aviv. She includes a conversation between herself and a landlord who agrees to show her an apartment until he realizes she’s Arab. “Sometimes,” she tells the audience, “I had to shorten my name.”
After securing an apartment, Ibtisam throws herself into living life in Tel Aviv. “I want to belong to this place,” she says. At a roof top party, she meets Jonathan, her Jewish-Canadian emigre neighbor who’s been in Israel for 6 years. The rest of the film documents their relationship amid MP Avigdor Lieberman’s calls for loyalty oaths from Israeli Arabs, conflict with families, and Ibitsam’s resignation from the Meretz party in the face of the Gaza war (which the party will not renounce).
It’s Jonathan’s grandfather’s visit from Canada to Kibbutz Ein Dor, which he left in 1948, that’s perhaps the turning point for the couple’s relationship. Jonathan’s grandfather regrets leaving the kibbutz, and feels that his grandson’s aliyah makes up for this. He says, “At the time, Israel represented the best of morality. “Not anymore?” Itbisam asks. “No,” he replies.
At the kibbutz, Itbisam questions a staff member if she ever tells people that the kibbutz was built on Arab land. The conversation deteriorates when the staff member says that she believes Arabs should go live in a Palestinian state, and that although it was an injustice that Arabs were displaced, the Holocaust was “a greater injustice.” Jonathan chastizes Itbisam for being “aggressive” in the exchange. “I’ve lived here my whole life,” she says. “I know how I feel.”
Following a series of conversations that illumine “the limits of our relationship,” Jonathan moves out of the apartment building that neighbors Itbisam’s. The end of the affair isn’t melodramatic or angry; instead, it seems like an evolution. For Itbisam, it’s part of what she came to Tel Aviv to do, to stretch beyond the limitations of her previous life in her family’s village and to become more of herself. She counted the steps of the house she grew up in every day she lived there, all 77 of them, until the day she left. Of Tel Aviv, she says, “I found a place where I can get some rest.”
After the film, a conversation and q/a with Itbisam herself and the executive director of the film festival, Isaac Zablocki, took place at the Speakeasy Cafe. Zablocki remarked that the importance of the film for a North American Jewish audience lies in the fact that in it, “Israel is not what the tourists see. It’s a different perspective.”
Ultimately, Itbisam believes that the end of her relationship with Jonathan was due to a difference in culture. “We loved each other for two years, “she said. “I don’t have shame about my story…I’m not asking people what they think about my work. I just work.” While one of her sisters has seen the film, but it has not been shown in Arab communities. “I”m dealing with taboos. It’s too early for Arabs and Palestinians to deal with this film.”
“The film is about finding identity,” said Itbisam. “I’m lucky that I have a lot of identities. I’m deep in all of them-female, Palestinian, Arab. It’s not hate or love, I have a lot of identities, I’m proud of all of them.”
Last night’s screening of “77 Steps” was co sponsored by the New Israel Fund. The Other Israel Film Festival is running in Manhattan through November 17th. Visit http://www.otherisrael.org/ for a list of films and to buy tickets.