Muslim Quarter split in half in new documentary

Nothing is pleasant about watching two men bicker over how often one says hello to the other. It can, however, provide a sobering look at how strained relations can get between Arabs and Jews in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Nissim Mossek’s latest documentary, “Shalom Abu Bassem,” which will be screening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, sponsored by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, presents a very human portrait of Jews and Arabs who like the idea of peace but are unable to get past radically different points of view.

The film begins in 1986, in the context of a murder on Khalidieh Street, not far from the Western Wall. A young yeshiva student was stabbed to death while walking near the homes of Abu Bassem, a middle-aged Palestinian who has lived in the Muslim Quarter all his life, and Danny Robbins, a Jewish immigrant from New York.

The killing, Robbins says, happened “because he was a Jew, walking in the Muslim Quarter — ” He pauses, then continues, “The so-called Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem.”

Filmed over 20 years, “Shalom Abu Bassem” follows Robbins and Bassem through decades of conflict in the Muslim Quarter over who should own and occupy the homes in the area.

In the early 20th century, the majority of the residents were Jews, and Khalidieh Street was called Hebron Street. But by the 1930s, most of the Jews had been driven out by riots, ushering in a new era of Muslim occupancy.

Now comes the tricky part: The Jews want to reclaim what was once theirs, but in their quest to do so they are trying to make trespassers out of people who have lived in the homes for more than 50 years.

It becomes clear immediately that the conflict is representative of the larger one between Israel and Palestine and the issues are virtually the same:

Who was the original occupant? And how far back should we look for the answer?

When Jewish “settlers,” as they are called, begin forcing the issue, the streets of the Muslim Quarter become deeply divided, a reflection of the power struggles for territory on a larger scale. In an obvious political statement, Ariel Sharon decides to become a settler himself, buying a house in the area.

“Shalom Abu Bassem’s” format of interviews and interactions on the street (as opposed to talking heads in quiet rooms) gives life to the conflicts in Israel, and makes vividly clear the realities of the tensions in the Muslim Quarter. It shows people at their most contentious and their most endearing moments.

But it’s impossible not to question some of director Mossek’s editing decisions.

Jews are depicted in more than one scene as trying to do nice things in front of the camera but not acting the same off-camera.

Also, there is never much of an investigation into the events in 1936 that drove the Jews out of their homes in the Muslim Quarter, though there is ample recent footage of Jews parading through the streets “trying to display their dominance,” Mossek says in the film’s narration.

Most of the movie presents a balanced picture, but it’s hard not to ask yourself why the director chose to include certain scenes or why he chose to inject his own voice as much as he did.

Like Michael Moore, he spends a good amount of time in front of the camera and doesn’t tend to hold back his opinions, forcing viewers to question whether there is some sort of hidden agenda.

More frustrating than trying to distinguish a bias, however, is the nonstop bickering between Jewish and Arab neighbors.

Mundane arguments and disagreements give the film a sobering, realistic picture of life in Khalidieh Street, but they become tedious when they sink to Bassem complaining about how often Robbins says hello.

“Shalom Abu Bassem” probably will not change many people’s minds, but it might at least allow them to see themselves in another person’s shoes for an hour. Unfortunately, the director’s choices make this more likely for Jews imagining the Arab point of view than the reverse.

The film is frustrating, and there is little resolve, but in that lies its realism.

“Shalom Abu Bassem” will screen 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St. (at Third Street), S.F. Tickets: $6-$8. Information: www.ybca.org.