Samar, left, and Linor like each other from their first conversation. (photo from R2R)
If only adults could be as brave as children sometimes. The Israeli documentary Almost Friends screens as part of Reel 2 Real’s International Film Festival for Youth April 8-15. It shows just how insidious fear and racism can be, and how much a parent or grandparent can influence a child, for better and worse.
Bat mitzvah-age girls from two Israeli schools – a religious Jewish school in Tlamim and a mixed secular school in Lod – were brought together in a pen-pal program. For most, if not all, of the religious girls, this is their first exchange with non-Jews.
The success of the written exchanges leads to the Lod girls being bused to Tlamim to meet their pen pals. The teachers take the students through a couple of trust-building exercises and then give them time to interact. It is on this day that Arab-Israeli Samar and Jewish-Israeli Linor meet and become friends. They continue to write each other afterward, but the influence of Linor’s grandmother and mother overwhelms Linor and she stops writing. Samar’s concern for Linor’s safety, lest there be a terrorist attack if Linor visited her, consoles Samar over the loss of the friendship.
The most interesting development is Linor’s change of perspective. Initially, her mother is supportive of the pen-pal program and assures a then-worried Linor that there is nothing to fear from Arabs. Her grandmother is close-minded from the beginning, warning Linor that there will always be “a sting” in the Israeli-Arab relationship. Once Linor bonds with Samar, the ingrained distrust, racism, fear and insularity of Linor’s family presents itself. Their words sway Linor who, before the letter exchange, was calming her friends’ concerns about Arabs. After the negative reactions from her mom and grandmother, she is the one telling her friends how dangerous Arabs are, while one of her friends tries to convince her, “We’re alike. We’re brothers.”
There are many things powerful about this documentary. One is the reminder of how separate from each other most Arabs and Jews live in Israel. Another is how people who are kind and loving in so many ways can also be hateful and hurtful. But the documentary also reveals cause for hope – in both the religious girls’ reactions to their Lod peers and the friendships that do exist among Jews, Arabs and Christians in the Lod school.
Almost Friends is recommended for ages 13+. The hour-long film will be followed by a discussion with R2R artist-in-residence filmmaker Jessica Bradford and an R2R board member. It screens Wednesday, April 13, at noon, at Vancity Theatre. Tickets are $9 ($6 child/youth/senior, $5 each for groups of 10+) from 2016.r2rfestival.org or 604-224-6162.