The recent spate of cultural boycotts across the festival circuit may start with good intentions but it’s that film-makers the ultimately feel the impact.
Festival directors are no strangers to politics, programming political films that - at their best - bring ideas to the screen that some regimes would prefer were not heard.
“The industry as a whole should be careful that a cultural boycott does not lead to film-makers being silenced”
But recently another kind of politics has entered the festival circuit - cultural boycotts. The argument has moved from debate about the political message on screen, to whether some films should appear at all - and the role of state investment in both films and festivals.
In the run up to Toronto this year it was this kind of politics that grabbed headlines, after local Toronto film-maker John Greyson pulled his short film, Covered, from the event in protest at Tiff’s decision to run a sidebar on Tel Aviv film-making supported by the Israeli government.
Greyson was at pains to point out that his action was not in protest at the films themselves but at the Israeli government’s attempt to use the sidebar to promote its Brand Israel campaign - a campaign he and other critics claim is simply propaganda masking the realities of the Israeli state.
Greyson’s stance was endorsed by around 50 film-makers in a letter of support signed by Alice Walker, John Berger, Ken Loach and Danny Glover.
Loach has also mounted his own boycott on this issue; threatening to pull Looking For Eric from both the Edinburgh and Melbourne film festivals because the organisers were accepting funding from the Israeli government to fly film-makers to the event. Melbourne stood its ground and Loach’s film was never shown, while Edinburgh returned the Israeli money and paid for the flight itself.
Reading through the correspondence around both the Tiff and Loach boycotts it is clear that all involved are acting with good intentions. Film-makers do not pull lightly their own movies.
But the direction of this boycott is confused and contradictory - the emphasis seems to be on the Israeli government rather than Israeli film-makers, but it’s the film-makers who are feeling the impact.
Greyson’s concerns at Tiff could have been made known without withdrawing his film. Arab film-makers, as a result of Greyson’s action, came under pressure from Arab media to pull their films too - rightly, they resisted.
But once you venture down the path of pulling films as acts of political protest, it’s only a short and worrying step to demanding that certain films cannot be shown because they have Israeli-state funding, regardless of their message.
Festival directors should certainly be mindful of who they take money from and what those sponsors want in return, but the industry as a whole should be careful that a cultural boycott does not lead to film-makers being silenced.
It is the debate films encourage that should be at the heart of the industry’s response to political issues in the Middle East, not misguided boycotts.