Trading identity for compassion in the Middle East

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Filmmaker Lorraine Lévy likes to tread lightly wherever she goes. Her aversion to intrusiveness affects the way she looks at the world, and defines her approach to filmmaking. It’s certainly a significant part of “Le Fils de l’Autre (The Other Son),” Lévy’s latest film (and arguably her most successful), which won both best director and the Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year.

“I felt very fortunate,” Lévy tells The Japan Times. “And I was more than a little surprised, because the story has no Japanese components, and politically there’s nothing that the Japanese will identify with. But I got the feeling that the Japanese are like that: They have a very deep compassion for others.”

“Le Fils de l’Autre,” released in Japan as “Mo Hitori no Musuko,” is a tale of two babies, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who were accidentally switched at birth during a Gulf War bombing. Eighteen years later, the respective parents in Tel Aviv and the West Bank discover what happened. And instead of giving way to tension, grudges and historical antagonism, they and their boys — Joseph (Jules Sitruk) in Israel and Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi) on the West Bank — decide to come together, gradually but with genuine warmth.

In a movie that addresses the Israeli-Palestinian issue head-on, Lévy manages to shift politics onto the back burner to tell an intimate, personal story of two boys and their families.

“The fact that I’m Jewish was an issue of course,” says Lévy. “That’s part of my heritage, and a big part of myself. I can’t get away from the fact that my family lost many of its members in the H’olocaust. At the same time, I’m an atheist and not an Israelite. So religion doesn’t figure into the schematics of this movie very much. Rather, I wanted to draw two families, and their reaction to such an event as this.”

“Le Fils de l’Autre” focuses on the families, but it’s also a window into the differences and the similarities between their lives, divided as the two families are by tight border checks, military police patrols and miles upon miles of barbed wire.

“I did extensive research into the lifestyles of Tel Aviv and the West Bank,” the director explains. “First of all, Tel Aviv is a very prosperous city. It’s a bubble within Israel, completely different from Jerusalem. People are less religious, young people have much more freedom, there’s the beach where Israelites and Arabs alike lie on the sand, tanning themselves. So it stands to reason that a household like Joseph’s would be very comfortably off. But Yacine’s family on the West Bank would be less so.

“Still, I didn’t want to stress the inequality. On the contrary, I wanted to reveal that not everyone on the West Bank is destitute and plotting suicide bombings. You’ll notice that Yacine’s house isn’t rich but it’s nicely decorated and furnished. The mother, Leïla (Areen Omari), cooks good meals for her family, and her husband Saïd (Khalifa Natour) loves and plays music. It’s an aspect of West Bank living that few people in the West are aware of.”

Still, the religious and political elements cannot be ignored, and despite the best efforts of the characters, these issues bob to the surface and bare their teeth with the menace of a shark. Interestingly, it is the two mothers who are fearless about confronting the dangers, while the two fathers initially bury their heads in the sand. (“This discussion is over” and “I have nothing more to say” are the two most common lines from the men when they first discover that the sons they raised are not their biological offspring.)

“I have the feeling that women in general are much better equipped to deal with things like this,” ponders Lévy. “As mothers, they deal daily with difficult human-relationship problems and are much more attuned to emotions. And they can act on their instincts. They know straightaway what the most important things are, and they will choose to deal with those things.

“Men, on the other hand, aren’t used to relationships and emotions; they move in a world of tradition and business and politics. They can’t look at a situation like this one and act with the swiftness of their wives. But in their own ways, (the men in the film) make the effort to put egotism and resentment aside, and think about what’s best for their sons.”

Lévy admits that the film could be seen as idealistic, but argues that such an approach was necessary to avoid it becoming too earnest.

“Of course, a story like this one could have been gloomier, full of ups and downs, maybe with some violence in the end and a moral message,” she says. “But that would not be my movie. I wanted my characters to laugh together, to argue and weep and do all the things that normal people do in a more peaceful environment.

“And remember that this is not a sociopolitical commentary. I’m interested in families as a societal microcosm: I want to see how family members act, rebel or become independent in a family situation. Because no matter who you are, and what your beliefs add up to, you can’t get past the issue of family. For better or worse, that bond is there. That’s what makes it so interesting for me.”

As for Lévy’s own family, it’s a movie in itself. “My parents have been together for 53 years but they’re still crazy about each other. When my dad is away for three days, he still calls my mom everyday and shows up with flowers when he returns. I know they’re an exceptional couple, but having watched them my entire life, I’ve become aware that I have certain standards about family that I myself find it hard to live up to.”

With a big smile, she sums it up: “Thanks to them, I’ll never stop being fascinated by family — my own and everyone else’s!”