Monday, November 09, 2009

Other Israel ’09: Telling Strings

Kamilya Jubran’s music is very definitely a product of her heritage. However, she admits to feeling somewhat alien when returning to her homeland, the village of Rameh in northern Israel. Hailing from a family with deep musical roots, her homecoming raises many issues of tradition and legitimacy in Anne-Marie Haller’s Telling Strings, which screens as part of the 2009 Other Israel Film Festival, presented by the Israel Film Center at the JCC of Manhattan.

The instrument of choice for the Jubrans is unquestionably the oud. Building an international following as a vocalist in Paris, Jamilya Jubran still dramatically accompanies herself with the ancient fretless descendant of the lute. Yet the family connection to the oud is best exemplified by their patriarch, Elias Jubran, a master luthier with a reputation for crafting instruments with a distinctive personal sound.

The Jubrans inhabit an interesting crossroads. They live in Rameh, an Arab town where anti-Israeli sentiment runs high. However, it is also a majority Christian enclave. Though the entire family shares their father’s love of Arab classical musical forms, he frequently wonders whether there will still be a demand for his instruments in the future. He takes some heart from his sons, who have integrated the classical oud into more modern musical styles.

While the Jubrans all certainly seem to share their community’s militancy for the Palestinian cause, particularly the Jubran sons, music competes with politics as a healthier passion for the entire family. Indeed, Strings might not offer many fresh insights on contemporary Israeli political controversies, but it features some great music. Jamilya Jubran has a powerful yet personal style, delivering some riveting performances throughout the film. There is also plenty of virtuoso oud playing from the entire Jubran family, in a variety of interesting contexts.

Perhaps the most effective scenes though, involve the family patriarch at work molding and stringing his signature ouds. By their nature, musical instruments are distinctly personal objects, destined for close, almost intimate contact with their future owners. Like the artisans at the Steinway factory seen in Note By Note, Jubran lovingly assembles his instruments, investing each with its own unique musical personality.

At roughly an hour running time, Strings never overstays its welcome. It features some stirring music that might blend diverse styles, but is always played with deep feeling. Though not terribly insightful politically, it is an interesting example of the Other Israel Festival’s programming efforts to promote greater Jewish-Palestinian understanding. Recommended for the ouds, it screens Friday (11/13) at Cinema Village and Sunday (11/5) at the JCC in Manhattan.