How a college in Israel is using film to promote understanding in Middle East

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The Independent Culture

In its promotional brochure, Sapir College calls itself "a lighthouse in the Negev". Despite being in the firing line of Hamas Qassam rockets hurled daily from Palestinian Gaza territories, the college holds the Cinema South Film Festival every year with a particular orientation towards the graduation films of its students and invited guests from around the world. Sapir is the largest public college in Israel and does its best to encourage the admission of Muslim students. This is the Israel you never hear much about.

Avner Fainguelernt runs the film department in Sapir and lives with his wife and three children near the college. A few years ago he made a remarkable documentary about a Palestinian fisherman. I met Fainguelernt in London last year and he impressed me with his commitment to the idea of a film festival that actually brings communities together. For a few months I did my best to act as an intermediary between his festival and various Iranian and Arab directors whom he was keen to invite. But the situation was impossible. Iranian film-makers would tell me in private that they wanted to attend - but dealing with Israel can mean imprisonment and possibly even death in Iran.

This year Fainguelernt invited me to be on the graduation film jury. The day before I left at the beginning of June there was a sudden deterioration in the situation in Gaza, after an Israeli artillery shell killed a family enjoying a day at the beach. By the time I arrive at the kibbutz at Nir-am by Sderot, there are more than 20 home-made Qassam rockets a day being fired into Israeli zones. In truth, these unguided projectiles have killed almost no one over the years, but their effect on the Israeli psyche is considerable.

I leave almost immediately for the city of Rahat - about 45 minutes from Sderot - one of the poorest cities in Israel. But the story of Sapir College's link with it is astonishing. With its Bedouin population, the city is almost entirely Muslim; the darker-skinned inhabitants are, I am told by Eyal Sivan, the descendants of slaves snatched from Africa. Sivan is the Paris-based Israeli dissident and documentary-maker who has helped put together the programme in Rahat with Fainguelernt.

Two years ago Sapir College sourced financing from the Goldfarb Fund for the purchase of cameras and an editing room solely for the use of people in Rahat. Local Muslims were encouraged to make their own short films. I have the extraordinary experience of sitting in a cinema in Israeli territory with about 60 women wearing hijabs and watching the film Paradise Now by Hany Abu-Assad, the Oscar-nominated drama about Palestinian suicide bombers.

Another film the festival is showing in Rahat is called Shadya - the true story of a 17-year-old Muslim girl from North Israel who becomes a karate champion in the Israeli national team, to the horror of her conservative brothers. At the beginning of the screening Fainguelernt makes an impassioned plea to the young Muslim audience to come and study at Sapir College - scholarships are liberally bestowed. "It's remarkable how the women students in particular have taken to making films as a way of stepping outside of their lives," Sivan tells me. "It's a safe way for them to express themselves."

As we leave Rahat, a full moon is rising in the sky and Fainguelernt drives us on to the Nabia Meeri promontory above the Beit Hanoun refugee camps in Palestine. Flares light up the landscape as the Israeli army scours the landscape for bombers. The Nabia Meeri site was originally planted with olive trees to commemorate the Druze (that is to say Islamic) colonel in the Israeli army from Galilee and was intended to be a place that celebrated peaceful co-existence between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Now it seems abandoned, the olive trees dusty and untended.

On Monday the situation deteriorates further - I actually hear my first Qassam rocket explode. Every time a Qassam is detected coming over the wall, an Israeli loud-hailer system blares the Hebrew words "red dawn" over and over again, which is possibly even worse than the attacks themselves. On the Israeli news, the wife of a former minister who lives in Sderot implores everyone to come to the film festival as an act of resistance. It's not quite the best advice. The festival itself is the opposite of an act of resistance to Palestine and I'm told that not even Israelis from Tel Aviv will come.

In the evening, security goes into overdrive when the Israeli arts minister pays a surprise (and some say unwelcome) visit and promises new funds for the cinema buildings. During his speech, an irritated Sivan conspicuously leaves his seat in the audience. "I had a fight with him before he went on stage," Sivan tells me later. Fainguelernt seems to be spending all his time taking calls from the Israeli media, incredulous he could be so foolish as to run a festival in these times.

During the week, I'm glad to discover the second cinema building is technically classified as a bunker, as on Tuesday the Israeli army attacks the house of a Qassam mastermind. Onstage, I talk with Samba Felix N'Diaye from Senegal, who has brought his documentary about the Rwandan genocide with him. It's very good. Where were Africa's writers, film-makers and intellectuals during the genocide? He has no answer and it clearly bothers him.

Before I leave, it's time for the closing ceremony. We give first prize to a very promising drama, For Rachel, Thy Younger Daughter by Efrat Corem. Second prize goes to an absurdist documentary about suburban Israeli hip-hop, Who's your Daddy by Rotem Malenky. Where are all the political films? Where are the Muslim films? There will be some next year, says Fainguelernt. It's a slow process, two years down the road of a three-year programme.

It's been a humbling experience. Film festivals can be such monuments to human triviality, and to find such an oasis in the midst of so much hatred and recrimination has forced me to reassess my view of Israel. Fainguelernt tells me: "I sincerely believe that 90 per cent of Muslims and 90 per cent of Israelis just want to live their lives and get on with each other." It's a good thought to go away with.