Identity, place, and subversion in contemporary Mizrahi cinema

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Shemer, Yaron

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This study explores the construction of Mizrahi (Oriental-Jewish) ethnic identity in contemporary Israeli films and its inscription by power imbalances and by the positionality of the Mizrahi in Israeli society. Against the widespread dismissal of ethnic divisions informed by the precept of societal pastiche, this work articulates the modalities through which Mizrahi films (made by Mizrahi filmmakers and others) employ narratives, characters, and space to cull ethnic differences in the depiction of this ethnic group. Accordingly, this study of Mizrahi cinema reveals how even when the filmic text is seemingly foregrounding dilemmas pertaining to class and gender, the ethnic issue lurks underneath and threatens to burst forth. For decades after the establishment of the State, Israeli films mostly acquiesced with Zionism’s dominant discourse, whereby the Mizrahi was deemed an inferior other whose “Levantine” culture was believed to pose a threat to the Western-oriented Zionist enterprise. This study proposes that the attested commonalities between Mizrahi and Arab cultures of recent Mizrahi films are meant precisely to offer an alternative to the hegemonic ethno-national narrative, and to remedy the social and cultural marginalization of the Mizrahi group that this discourse has allowed to persist. But this work also attends to the problematics involved in the attempts by second-generation Mizrahi filmmakers to reclaim their parents’ Arab culture. The barrier of language and the impossibility for most of them of going back to their parents’ countries of origin necessitate a construction of the past that is highly mediated and tortuous. Beyond its analysis of the pro-filmic materials, this study inquires about the role cultural policies and institutional power in Israel have recently played in shaping Mizrahi cinema. Identity, Place, and Subversion in Contemporary Mizrahi Cinema in Israel examines how fund allocations and television programming have created the Mizrahi niche in cinema—a space that defines and contains contesting voices more than it nourishes them.