June 27, 2006

Just who is promoting understanding in the Middle East?

I saw this article when it first appeared in the Independent a few days ago. It's about a film festival at an Israeli college and I didn't bother posting anything on it because I thought it amounted to yet another puff piece for the racist war criminals of the State of Israel. Take the opening paragraph:
In its promotional brochure, Sapir College calls itself "a lighthouse in the Negev". Despite being in the firing line of Hamas Qassam rockets hurled daily from Palestinian Gaza territories, the college holds the Cinema South Film Festival every year with a particular orientation towards the graduation films of its students and invited guests from around the world. Sapir is the largest public college in Israel and does its best to encourage the admission of Muslim students. This is the Israel you never hear much about.
The article was posted to the Engage site on the day that it appeared. It has only attracted three comments, the second of which was this one from Linda Grant:
Clarke writes: 'It's been a humbling experience. Film festivals can be such monuments to human triviality, and to find such an oasis in the midst of so much hatred and recrimination has forced me to reassess my view of Israel. Fainguelernt tells me: "I sincerely believe that 90 per cent of Muslims and 90 per cent of Israelis just want to live their lives and get on with each other." It's a good thought to go away with.'

This is what terrifies the cultural boycotters and why they hate such meetings coming about and try to prevent people from attending them. Reality always trumps propaganda.
So there we have it. Cultural boycotters don't have any integrity or true beliefs, just a fear of people seeing reality. And this from Linda Grant.

Thankfully, Richard Kuper of the Just Peace list (and I think Jews for Justice for Palestinians) was aware that a prospective juror, Haim Bresheeth, had dropped out of the festival, and not because he was terrrified of people seeing "reality" but rather it seems out of fear that people might fail to see the reality of Israel's brutality to the Palestinians.

Here is Richard Kuper's comment:
Roger Clarke's description of Sapri College and its Cinema South Film Festival as 'the Israel you never hear much about' is not as unproblematic as would appear from his Independent article. It is odd indeed that this article does not even refer to Haim Bresheeth's agonised decision, after much reflexion, NOT to participate in the festival or to act as chair of the Jury.
So here's Haim Bresheeth's letter:
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mr. Avner Faingulert
Director, Cinema South Film Festival
Sderot, Israel

Dear Avner,

I am really sorry for the delay in relaying to you my decision about partaking in this year's Cinema South Film Festival, and chairing the Jury; this was a difficult decision to make, one of the most difficult I ever had to take. I have decided to set out my reasons in a clear and open manner, and would ask that you share this letter with my colleagues (alas...) on the Jury, Roger Clark and Jean Peret, both of whom I respect enormously, and who I am sad that I will not be able to join. Please apologise to them in my name. I suggest that you also might share this letter with the filmmakers at the festival.

Firstly, this festival is obviously not alien to me. I have set up the Cinematheque in Sderot after many years of work, and the Cinema South plan was hatched some years ago, before my departure from Israel, and the Cinematheque. My connection to Sapir and Sderot is a deep one, as you well know, and my admiration of the excellent job you have done in following up on those ideas is known to you too. I would like nothing more than the chance to see it all working so well, believe me. This success story is one I feel some responsibility for in a small way, and would have loved to take part in its continued existence, and meet my many friends and colleagues, not to mention see the films and meet the filmmakers who made them.

Secondly, I would love to see the vast and long overdue retrospective of Jad Neeman's films, and to meet with him again; Jad is one of the most astute and principled of all Israeli filmmakers, with a long commitment to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has courageously produced some of the most innovative and daring films in Israel. When one adds to this his central and crucial role in setting up and leading the first and most successful academic film school in Israel - a task to which he has devoted his whole career - I would dearly love to take part in this important event, when Jad is honoured by the festival.

I would also like to meet again with my friends and colleagues Nizar Hassan and Eyal Sivan, two important and courageous filmmakers, whose films have many times plunged them into political difficulties, but who have stuck to their guns (I mean, their cameras...) and said what they felt they must say, in their own particular and inventive ways. I mention here just two of your many colleagues, as they are ones who always deal with the conflict in their films, whatever the subject and the format they choose.
For all those reasons, I have accepted your kind invitation, by which I am honoured. I have agonised much about this for some weeks, have spoken to friends and colleagues here and in Israel and Palestine, and found it very difficult to make up my mind. The reasons for my difficulties were the following:

• Hardly any Palestinian filmmaker has agreed for their films to be included, in this, the 38th year of the Israeli occupation. Indeed, the festival starts a couple of days after the anniversary of the 1967 war. In all those years there were difficult periods and easier ones, naturally; but never before have the Palestinians faced a more brutal assault on their rights, aspirations and existence than in the last few years, with the building of the Apartheid wall, and the continued rejection of any real withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, from all the territories, as demanded by various UN and Security Council resolutions on many occasions. As I write those lines, mass starvation of the Palestinian population is instigated by Israel and the USA. The Palestinian filmmakers are part and parcel of their communities, and feel that those of us who believe in their rights and equality, should stand with them in their hour of need.

• Hardly any Arab filmmaker has agreed to partake in this festival. I do not blame you or your colleagues for this lack - I know full well how hard you have tried, for many months. Some Israelis may say, probably, that this proves that Israel has no one to speak to. They will just be proving that the only dialogue they prefer is one with themselves. To conduct a dialogue there ought to exist some equality and some basic agreement on the rules of the game. Most Arabs do not feel that Israel, as state and as a society, is really at the point of dialogue with its Arab neighbours, and I tend to agree with their reservations. Israel sees itself as part of the west, rather than the Middle East, and has continued to represent political and cultural discourses and policies which are alien and offensive to most Arabs, including the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. As I am writing this, the Israeli Supreme Court has passed what many consider a racist ruling, one which will plague society for many years to come. It is the Israeli polis, not just the army and the state, which is offensive to many if not most Arabs in the Middle East, by its obtuse and consistent disregard to the human rights of Arabs and Palestinians. Future, lasting peace, will only be built on understanding and sharing, not on force and military might. This festival should become an important vehicle of developing and sharing such sentiments, and I am sure that under your leadership it may well do so. This year, it cannot be seen to be doing that, not yet.

I feel that the refusal to partake in this festival on the part of the Arab and Palestinian colleagues and friends, is a way of relaying a subtle message to Israel and its cultural elite: "you can rule us, you can brutalise us, you can occupy us with the massive might of an army supported by the strongest power on earth, but you cannot make us speak to you, as long as you do all that". Only when this message is fully internalised, can change towards a future of coexistence emerge, and that is not forthcoming in contemporary Israel. When I agreed to chair the jury, many months ago, I had some reasonable hopes for the future, which have been shattered by events, making it just about impossible for me to accept your invitation. HI very much regret having to take this decision. - this pains me especially due to my long friendship with you as a filmmaker, a teacher and a close friend, whose friendship I especially value.

I apologise for not being able to join you, and am sure that the festival will be a lively and successful event in many ways, if not in some of the ways I describe above, which are, of course, the most crucial and urgent tasks it can achieve, and hope that one day it will. I am genuinely sorry if my refusal causes any difficulties, but am sure those could be overcome.

Yours, with friendship,

Haim
It's a step forward that Richard Kuper's comment was allowed through but then perhaps Engage were hoping that Alf Green would come and agree with Linda Grant like "he" agrees with other Engage contributors.

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