Some say the role of a festival director is akin to the UN: but Edinburgh and Melbourne went in different directions when it came to Ken Loach, Israel and the Palestinian cultural boycott. Reading the below correspondence - which way would you turn?
Every festival director will have a film in their line-up that they’re particularly partial to and want to bang the drum for. With Marco Mueller for this year’s Venice, it’s Lebanon, an Israeli film based on the experiences of director Shmuel Maoz: in it, four men are claustrophobically stranded inside a tank in enemy territory during the first day of the Lebanon War in 1982.
Mueller’s enthusiasm chimes with the word on the street in Tel Aviv: “frighteningly convincing,” says someone who has seen it, adding that it follows the line of Waltz With Bashir and Beaufort – films which are angry, confused, rawly self-examining. Mueller will programme it at the end of Venice as Toronto opens, so confident is he that it will keep Venice alive in the media as North America kicks off.
Israel and state funding
It’s safe to say that as with many other countries, there wouldn’t be a film industry in Israel without state support. And, as has often happened, this state support can result in films which are angry and disturbed, bitterly self-reflexive and harshly self-critical, on a personal but also ultimately at a state level. This funding has helped make Bashir and Beaufort but also helped Palestinian films shot in Israel such as Cannes FIPRESCI winner Atash. Waltz With Bashir has grossed $8.2m, a notable $4.4m of that in France, so its point of view has been widely disseminated. The funding available through the Israeli Film Fund has been confirmed this year at Euros 12.5m (69m Shekels).
Israel, the cultural boycott, and Ken Loach
There are two sides to every story, however. Apart from part-funding the films themselves – and it is not easy to get a tough film like Lebanon made – Israel also has an international cultural programme which some people believe helps to normalise Israel in all sorts of ways, obscuring the seriousness of the occupation.
Observing the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott (see link below), Ken Loach has moved to use his film Looking For Eric as a weapon, announcing (rather suddenly) that he will not participate in events which accept funding from the Israeli state.
The sums and the involvement are small. With Edinburgh in June, it was a small grant to an Israeli student film-maker to travel to the festival – Edinburgh refunded the money and paid for her themselves. In Melbourne, however, the festival stood its ground over the Australian-Israeli co-production $9.99 and, again, travel for one of its producers, and Eric was not shown.
You can read the correspondence between Melbourne’s director Richard Moore , Loach, screenwriter Paul Laverty and producer Rebecca O’Brien in full below: Ken Loach is in pre-production and doesn’t want to talk about it any more (not that this is a tap you can easily turn off, however). He feels he has been misrepresented in the media, and that the correspondence as printed in full properly reflects his case.
Israeli film-makers, meanwhile, are angry. They believe that no matter what Loach says, they are the ones who will suffer. At home, they are treated by right-wing elements of society as subversives; this would stifle their voices overseas, even as they are trying to bring sense to the devastation they have been a part of. They say they feel a loss of the sense of community of the film world.
What would you do?
Cannes and Venice and Berlin – offering the film festival cutlery a director like Loach needs to secure his distribution deals - are financially secure enough not to need Israeli “support” in the form of a travel grant for film-makers, so he’s not really risking his film. But, on the other hand, he’s getting his voice heard and making a valid point.
Loach isn’t going to Venice, so the question is theoretical, but Mueller said a great part of being a festival director involves being a “mediator” in disputes such as this.
Read the correspondence below: how would you respond?
LETTER TO THE DIRECTOR OF MELBOURNE FILM FESTIVAL 2009
13th July 2009
Dear Richard Moore
Sadly, we learn that your festival is sponsored in part by the State of Israel.
As you are no doubt aware, many Palestinians, including artists and academics, have called for a boycott of events supported by Israel. There are many reasons for this; the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods, the massacres in Gaza, all are part of the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people.
We have no alternative but to respond to their appeal for help.
The Israeli poet, Aharon Shabtai, has said “I do not believe that a state that maintains an occupation, committing on a daily basis crimes against civilians, deserves to be invited to any kind of cultural event.”
This is not a boycott of independent Israeli films or filmmakers but of the Israeli state.
We hope you can reconsider accepting Israel as a sponsor. If not, then we feel obliged to withdraw our film, Looking For Eric, from the festival.
Ken Loach - Director
Paul Laverty - Writer
Rebecca O’Brien - Producer
REPLY FROM RICHARD MOORE
14th July 2009
Thank you for your letter and for informing me of your concerns.
I’m replying to inform you that the State of Israel has been a sponsor of the festival for a few years now, including last year when we played Mr Loach’s film ITS A FREE WORLD . Their sponsorship – like that of the British Council , the Goethe Institute , the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office , the Korean Ministry of Culture ,Sports and Tourism et al – is provided free of conditions and is , I believe , one of the many forms of cultural assistance they offer to Australian arts organisations – including the Adelaide film Festival , The Sydney Opera House et al , and indeed the Sydney Film Festival ( in past years) , which opened with LOOKING FOR ERIC this year .
As a festival we have a long tradition of programming films that present and examine various points of view on the Middle East including on the so called Israel Palestinian question.
This year such films include AMREEKA - a drama that outlines the difficulties that a contemporary Palestinian family faces adapting to life in mid west USA : YOUNG FREUD IN GAZA - the efforts of a young Palestinian psychiatrist to deal with psychological problems faced by Palestinians living under occupation and also forced to deal with internecine Palestinian power struggles.
In 2008 MIFF programmed a small programming stream called BORDER PATROL showing films that dealt with the Israel Palestinian question - Eran Riklis’s award winning THE LEMON TREE about a Palestinian woman’s fight for justice to stop the Israeli army destroying her lemon grove : THE SALT OF THE SEA - a Palestinian drama centred around a Palestinian’s attempts to reclaim their original home : WALTZ WITH BASHIR - a personal autobiographical account of an Israeli soldier and his involvement in one of Israel’s entries into Lebanon , ending with footage of the Shabra/ Shatilla massacres. and STRANGERS - a romantic liason between a Palestinian and an Israeli shot in and around the world cup finals in Germany .This small sample is illustrative of our wider concern to show films that deal with contemporary political issues and to allow audiences to judge these films on their own merits . We try to adhere to a policy of open dialogue in our dealings with all agencies ,embassies and cultural entities who offer to support our independent non profit organisation.
I understand that this issue is a particularly emotional one for people but we will not participate in a boycott against the State of Israel , just as we would not contemplate boycotting films from China or other nations involved in difficult long standing historical disputes.
I trust you will respect this decision.
58th MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
2nd LETTER/REPLY SENT TO RICHARD MOORE
14th July 2009
Thank for your email.
We understand that Israel is and has been a sponsor of many festivals, including some which have shown our films. However, situations change. It is the Palestinians themselves, writers, artists, academics, people from all walks of life who are calling for our support. We are forced to make a choice by those who are suffering such intolerable oppression.
The boycott of apartheid South Africa suffered similar criticisms to the ones you now make. But who would now say it was wrong?
Film festivals will reflect many points of view, which are often radical and progressive. It is also true that there are many brutal regimes and many governments, including our own, which have committed war crimes. But the cultural boycott called for by the Palestinians means that remaining sympathetic but detached observers is no longer an option. You either support the boycott or break it.
For us the choice is clear.