VIDEO - Of the three Israeli films that won awards this past weekend at the 32nd annual Cinemed Film Festival in Montpellier, France, it was the winner in the documentary category, Noa Ben-Hagai's controversial 'Blood Relation,' which found itself at the center of attention.
Aya Somech's 'Eva is Leaving' took the first place in the Short Film Category, and Elite Zexer's 'Tasnim' won the Cinecourts Award.
'Blood Relation,' which competed against films from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt for the Ulysses Award for Documentary Filmmaking, grabbed the interest of the French media. Interviews with the director were published in the culture sections of Le Figaro and Liberation, where the exceptional story of her family was extensively mulled over. At the center of the saga stands Ben-Hagai's great aunt Pnina, who disappeared in 1943, at the age of 14, to be found 24 years later living in a refugee camp near Nablus, married to a Muslim man and a mother to eight children.
Ben-Hagai discovered the family secret when she found a hidden box of letters after her grandmother's death. The sequnce of events, set off by the disocovery and the rekindling of an unlikely relationship, unravels in front of the camera.
The judges in the festival said they chose Ben-Hagai's film for its uncompromising investigation of a family torn between belonging to the Israeli and Palestinian societies.
Family torn between Israeli, Palestinian ties (Photo: Reuven Porat)
'French made face at us'
It was only months ago that Ben-Hagai took first place at the Shanghai International Film Festival, but she claims that she did not expect to win in Montpellier. "In Shanghai they loved us, the Israelis," she told Ynet. "The feeling was that they think we're all Einstein. The applause was overwhelming, and so the win there did not surprise me. In France, it's a different story. Even at cocktail parties they had to tell me how awful we are and how much they dislike Israel, and the whole time they made a face."
Ben-Hagai said that a group of activists stood at the entrance to her film's screening at the festival and asked the audience to stay out and boycott Israel. Eventually, the activists came into the theater to participate in the question and answer segment.
"They asked me if I received money from the government to make the movie, if I support the boycott and whether I think that Israel is a democracy," she said. "All in all, I am a leftist who strives for goodness and has a negative opinion of the occupation, but somehow in France I didn't feel like giving them what they wanted. Racism is not less widespread in France, and in this sense, I understood that self awareness is not their strong suite."
A snapshot from 'Blood Relation'
Ben-Hagai did not define her film as leftist in essence, but rather as an account of a leftist family that discovers it has relatives in the territories. She believes that what eventually spoke to the French audience was the universality of the familial story.
A picture from Ben-Hagai's family album
"My uncle, one of the heroes in the film, is an army officer who doesn't apologize for anything, not even for helping his Palestinian cousin," she said. "It is a character that creates sympathy. When you're a French person who does not like Israel, mildly speaking, and you find yourself sympathizing with an army officer – it's unsettling. I felt the exclamation marks dissipating in front of the screen and turning into question marks. Even the activists in attendance came out confused. It was very powerful."
'First they crucified me, then hugged me'
Winning the award, Ben-Hagai said, is a confusing experience especially because of the suspicion and hostility that greeted her in the beginning of her visit to Montpellier. "When they called me to the stage, I didn't understand anything in this la-la-land," she said. "First they crucified me, and then suddenly they hugged me. It was weird, just like the dissonance between racism in France on one hand, and the overwhelming presence of Arabs that live and work there on the other."
'Blood Relation' was the official selection at the Magnolia International Documentary Awards and won the Amnesty International Human Rights Award at the Ljubljana Documentary Film Festival, among several other awards. It is set to be screened at the Jewish Film Festival in London, the RIDM Festival in Montreal and in the Other Israel Festival in New York over the month of November.
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