Now in its 28th year, the Stony Brook Film Festival has become known as a showcase for foreign films carefully curated from art house distributors. Many of the titles are unlikely to see a theatrical release in America, especially as streaming becomes an easier and less labor intensive option for distribution. As always, the10-day festival—which runs July 20-29 at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts—is probably the only way you’ll see these mostly overseas titles on a big screen. Don’t let YES REPEAT NO (Thursday, July 27, at 9:30) get away before in goes to Poland. This is a powerful, engaging and unusual plunge into Israel and Palestine and more.
In Michael Moshe Dahan’s slice of cinematic meta-theater, a director brings together three actors hoping to play the late Juliano Mer-Khamis, a Palestinian-Jewish activist and performer. What starts as a highly unorthodox audition soon turns into a fiery debate about identity and the Arab-Israel conundrum. With Mousa Hussein Kraish, Adam Meirand Karim Saleh.
I could not take my eyes off of the characters, as they were so well portrayed and compelling. Not that this was easy to watch but it drew me in. It was very much like watching a powerful play and leaving, having been presented with old ideas presented in a new, thought provoking way.
Sharing the artist statement of Michael Moshe Dahan is helpful in understanding the importance of this film. “What does it mean to identify as Israeli? What does it mean to identify as Palestinian? As Christian, Jew or Muslim? And how do those attachments blind us to the nuances that inhabit our real lived existence? How do Manichean binaries and the identities they engender eliminate possible positions of compromise and comity between self and other?I am interested in interrogating questions around identity, the way we attach ourselves to certain social/political/ cultural markers of identity, and how we perform identity. Yes Repeat No is an exploration of identity as viewed through a trifecta of portrayals of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a man who proudly identified as “100% Palestinian and 100% Jewish.”
Mer-Khamis believed that his very existence challenged these notions of identity—and hoped that his life and work could help to bring peace to his homeland. By examining the world through the lens of his life –and also his death—this film explores the intersections of Jewish, Muslim and Christian identities in Palestine, Israel, and the world at large. Yes Repeat No was intended to challenge polarizing binaries and identitarian politics that breed hardened distinctions such as “us” and “them” or “Israel” and “Palestine”. It organically emerged that the film should be shot in black and white to emphasize the tendency to believe one’s political or religious position was clearly the right one against the opposing position as the wrong one—i.e., “it’s black and white, I’m right and they are wrong.” In this algorithm, it is always grey that functions as the mediating position between black and white—though the middle positionis itself often hardened into a polarizing position. I chose to address this through an examination of three messianic religious traditions:Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the film, I establish stand-ins for these messianic traditions through the figure of Mer-Khamis, who was by birth associated with all three. His mother was a Jewish Zionist, and his father was a Christian Palestinian—though his Palestinian progeny finds association with Islam, as many of his students in Jenin were Muslim. How, then, to challenge entrenched attachments to political and religious identities that—to each side—seem so black and white? My approach was to trouble these very attachments in order to reveal the constructed and performed nature of identity itself.
Moreover, even in the casting of the roles, it was important to represent these particular identities, with actors who had a personal connection to the region. As such, we cast one Muslim Palestinian actor (Mousa Hussein Kraish), one Jewish Israeli actor(Adam Meir), an actor of Lebanese decent (Karim Saleh), and a British-Iranian actress (Salome Azizi). I was born and raised in Jerusalem to French-Moroccan parents who immigrated to Israel in the late 1960’s. My maternal grandfather was a rabbi and a religious poet, and I was Bar-Mitzvah’d at the Western Wall. If you know anything about Israelis, it is that they are brutally honest with each other. And thus, for our relationship to continue, I am compelled to be that honest with Israel. In my mind there is no question about the legitimacy or sovereignty of Israel as a nation; that is simply not up for debate.
Israelis a sovereign and legitimate nation. I am not making this film from a position of moral superiority. I am making it from a place of love and concern. But though I have a strong connection to Israel—I was born from her, she is my mother—it is difficult for me to reconcile the history of occupation and the ongoing—and increasingly alarming—extremist political environment. Yes Repeat No is not only told by the filmmakers, it is embodied and lived by us. It is my hope that this project will encourage viewers to examine the lens through which they understand Palestine and Israel—and how the intersection of our identities impacts our understanding of history and how it shapes our future as a people who must learn to live together—to quote Juilano’s mother Arna Mer-Khamis—”not in co-existence, but in existence.”
And it is further noted that: after auditioning individually, the actors return together to a rehearsal in which they contend for the “role” of JULIANO MER-KHAMIS. All three must grapple with what it means to embody the role of a man who they know will die pursuing a peace we’ve still not found. Are we cast into our role? Or born into it? Does one man’s identity not only embody conflicts that are older than history, but perhaps, in some version of the future, also help resolve them? Are we simply doomed to endless repetition? Yes Repeat No asks whether it is remembering our past–or, instead,forgetting it—that allows us to break cycles of identity and confrontation.
Photos are courtesy of Yes Repeat No