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When film can’t be business as usual

The disturbing experience of attending a film festival in a conflict zone; and how filmmakers can get their voices heard politically.

A few days ago, I sat at the Jerusalem Cinematheque watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s powerful and disturbing Timbuktu.

The fiftysomething local woman sitting next to me was shielding her eyes when there was a scene of a gazelle being hunted down. I, too, hated seeing that gazelle on the way to its death, but I also started to wonder, was this woman sitting next to me as horrified watching children in Gaza dying on the nightly news? Were people crying at home about the conflict in Israel before crying in the cinema about other people’s stories?

It was certainly a new experience for me attending a film festival in a country experiencing such violence. Whether or not we call what’s happening in Israel this week a war or not, it certainly does feel like a war zone at times.

There have been air-raid sirens that have interrupted festival events (such as Park Chan Wook’s masterclass).  At a dinner in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, I saw and heard Hamas rockets (intercepted by the Iron Dome system) – I’ll freely admit that seeing them was pretty terrifying and not an experience I ever want to repeat. I wasn’t necessarily fearful for my own personal safety, but here was un-ignorable evidence that a war was going on over my head.

As tensions escalated here, and Prime Minister Netanyahu ignored UN calls for a cease fire, I saw horrific scenes on international news channels. I became more and more uneasy about even being in the country, much less trying to cover a film festival as ‘business as usual.’ It just felt all wrong.

So many questions swirled through my worried mind: Could I really sit back and watch charming international films and schmooze with film industry professionals over a glass of wine while innocent children were dying 70 kilometers away? The festival’s partners include government bodies and the catalogue has a welcome letter from Prime Minister Nethanyahu by simply attending the festival was I somehow condoning his military actions? Did Arab filmmakers avoid the festival for political reasons or not feel welcome? If a dozen international filmmakers had cancelled their visits, what the heck was I still doing here?

Yet I agreed with the festival’s decision to carry on as best as it could under the circumstances – cancelling culture and art can be a mistake in times of conflict. But I guess I was looking for more signs of unease from the people around me., ‘business as usual’ no longer seemed good enough and I was wondering if everyone else had their blinders on?

Today I learned they didn’t, when the Israeli filmmakers at the festival spoke about the conflict [full story here]; how they had struggled to decide whether or not to screen their films at a time like this; and how they wanted to use their voices to make a stand to call for a cease fire and for more balanced media portrayal of the situation in Gaza. They called for the media covering the festival to not just look at the films, but to look at the situation too.

I know it’s politically harder for the festival administration itself to make such statements; but by giving these filmmakers a platform, they’ve made the world of Israeli film feel more relevant on the world political stage. And they’ve made this festival feel like it’s not just in some weird bubble.

Keren Yedaya, one of the filmmakers, had tears in her eyes as she read out a list of children killed in Gaza in the past week. In a group statement, the filmmakers wrote: “In these terrible days, we as artists and creators expect from ourselves, the festival’s administration, the spectators and the media to use this event to issue a clear, loud cry for change.”

I hope the other attendees of the Jerusalem Film Festival, and supporters abroad, hear that cry.

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