Palestinian directors refused to show their films at the Jerusalem Film Festival last week in protest at Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Is it the right approach?

The Jerusalem Film Festival unfolded last week against the backdrop of one of the bloodiest escalations in the Middle East conflict in five years.

By the time the 10-day festival closed on Sunday, more than 500 Palestinians had died in Israeli air strikes and ground offensives on the Gaza Strip while Hamas had fired more than 1,700 rockets at Israel, killing two Israeli citizens.

In a less obvious sign of the deepening chasm between the two sides, there were no Palestinian feature-length films or documentaries on the festival programme this year due to a boycott by Palestinian filmmakers, in place long before the current flare-up in violence.

When I lived in Jerusalem from 2003 to 2005, the festival and its home the Jerusalem Cinematheque regularly showed Palestinian films, many of which hit a raw nerve with local audiences for their depiction of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.

In the backdrop, some parts of the Israeli and Palestinian film communities also continued to work together. This is now rare too. 

Cinematheque and festival founder Lia van Leer was and is adamant that Palestinian filmmakers and audiences should be welcome whatever the prevailing political climate. 

A decade ago

At the 2003 edition, I interviewed filmmaker Hanna Elias about his feature The Olive Harvest, which followed Palestinian villagers battling to save an olive grove from destruction by Israeli settlers; and watched Hany Abu-Assad’s early documentary Ford Transit, a wry snapshot of Palestinian life through a “sherut” taxi rattling about the West Bank.

At a screening of French journalist Charles Enderlin’s documentary Shattered Dreams of Peace: The Road From Oslo, exploring the failure of the 1993 Oslo Accords, I was surprised to see Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and his Israeli counterpart Gilad Sher, sitting side-by-side, like old friends, comparing mobile phones, when the lights went up.

A few months later at the Haifa Film Festival, unfolding just days after a Palestinian woman blew herself up in a local restaurant killing 20 people, I sat through Palestinian Michel Khleifi and Israeli Eyal Sivan’s four-and-a-halfhour Route 181 – Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel, a contemporary journey along the 1947 partition line - which was followed by a heated public debate involving people from both sides of the conflict.

Ten years on

A decade on, times have changed.

Against a backdrop of a stalled peace process, a rising Israeli settler population in the West Bank and Jerusalem and restricted mobility for Palestinians, most Palestinians filmmakers have turned their backs on the Israeli festival scene even though they are regularly invited to attend.

“I’m against cultural boycotts. We invite filmmakers to present their films from all over. We invite them to come here to express their worldviews. We believe in dialogue,” explained the Jerusalem Film Festival’s artistic director Elad Samorzik a few days into the event.

“I wanted to screen Palestinian films,” he continued. “Without mentioning names, there were three or four Palestinian films we invited to the festival. One agreed but then cancelled. The bottom line is that we couldn’t get Palestinians to show their films at the festival.”

An installation linked to the German-produced 24h Jerusalem – capturing the city over a 24-hour period – was also pulled three weeks prior to the festival after Palestinian participants said they did not want it to show at the festival.

Prior to the festival, I emailed Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir, whose recent credits include When I Saw You and Salt Of This Sea, about the boycott, adding that I thought it was better to engage and explaining what I had witnessed a decade ago.

“I do understand very much what you are saying about those days but I also feel we have to find new ways to protest,” she writes. “I speak for myself only as an artist who believes boycott is a non-violent tactic to speak out against a violent occupation.”

Added to this, Jacir notes that she does not want to show her film in a venue that is out of bounds to most Palestinians.

“Anyone with an West Bank or Gaza ID is not allowed to go to Jerusalem, whether they are in a town 10 minutes away, like Bethlehem, or from Nablus, Ramallah or anywhere else. This is the policy of the Israeli government, the same government which supports the Jerusalem Film Festival. How can I show my film in a place which my own family is forbidden to visit?”

“I’ve had every single film I’ve ever made invited to the Haifa, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv festivals. I have always said to them that until they can take a stand that all people should be allowed to come to the film no matter what their religious or ethnic background, than I cannot participate. Taking a stand means taking real action and not just talking about peace from the comfort of your own life around a dinner table. I’m still waiting for that day when those so-called “leftist” festivals take that stand,” she concluded.

Ramallah-based Pomegranates and Myrrh director Najwa Najjar, who is currently finishing post-production on the Nablus-set Eyes of a Thief, concurs with Jacir’s sentiments, also explaining via email: “Boycotting is not out of hatred, but more a questioning of how there can be a cultural cooperation showing the world (and Israel) that all is fine at a cultural event when our daily life is filled with injustice inflicted on us by the same hosts of those events,” she said.  

Israeli Response

On the Israeli side, many filmmakers and producers and even festival staff privately sympathise with the Palestinian boycott although they regret the fact they can no longer work together.

During the Jerusalem Film Festival, a group of Israeli directors, comprising Keren Yedaya, Tali Shalom Ezer, Nadav Lapid, Efrat Corem, Shira Geffen, Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz, made an emotional public plea for a ceasefire and read out the names of the children who had been killed in Gaza up until July 14.

Lapid said: “I hope it’s a beginning and first step for Israeli filmmakers to become more active and influential as one body in Israeli political life.”

In recent years, however, many Israeli directors appear to have disengaged from the conflict completely in terms of the subject matter of their films, focusing instead on uniquely Israeli stories and issues.

Few of the features or documentaries in this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival programme tackled the conflict head on, bar Eran Riklis’ Dancing Arabs and Shira Geffen’s Self Made about Israeli and Palestinian women who swap identities.

Is Art Above Politics?

Some Palestinians, meanwhile, mainly those living within Israel’s 1948 borders and administratively considered Israeli citizens, do continue to screen their films at Israeli institutions and work with Israelis.

Nazareth-based Hany Abu-Assad showed his Oscar-nominated Omar – about a young Palestinian and his relationship with an Israeli secret services agent – in cinemathques across Israel at the beginning of 2014 although he admitted to local newspaper Haaretz that he felt “conflicted” about doing an Israeli publicity tour for the film. 

Producer Tony Copti, who is based in the Arab port town of Jaffa bordering Tel Aviv, works with both Israelis and Palestinians through his company Fresco Films.

He is currently developing American-Israeli Nina Menkes’ Minotaur, examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through an update of a Greek legend, as well as Nazareth-based Palestinian director Maha Assal’s Personal Affairs, intermingling several contemporary stories around one central character. 

“In the past, Israelis and Palestinians only could only go to Israeli producers. I’m doing the opposite, both Israelis and Palestinians directors can come to me, a Palestinian producer,” says Copti. “For me it is about art, as long as the project doesn’t damage my people, I will look at it.”

But for Ramallah-based Najjar, it is impossible to separate culture and politics in the current climate.

“Can we turn a blind eye because culture is supposed to be above politics when Palestinian children, women and men are being killed, burnt alive, arrested, stopped and searched at checkpoints, not allowed to move, bury their dead, have proper schooling… This is just our small way to say, ‘No, it’s not okay.’”