The Remains of the War: Boycotts, Problems and Statements By Barbara Lorey

in 22nd Haifa International Film Festival

by Barbara Lorey

“My films were and still are part of the effort to open the eyes of those who refuse to see the political realities in Israel. (…). I learned, in the hard way, that in order to learn the lessons of history, nations do not go to the movies; they go to war. (Judd Ne’eman, in his acceptance speech while receiving the Award for Special Contribution to Israeli Cinema , Haifa Film festival 2006).

Haifa, pleasantly located on hills, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and its huge industrial port is a charming and bustling cosmopolitan city, famous for the peaceful coexistence of its Jewish and Arab inhabitants. It’s the home of famous writers, intellectuals and filmmakers practicing Jewish Arab coexistence — among them the renowned Arab Israeli author Emile Habibi who created the emblematic Arab language newspaper “Al Itihad”, Iraqui-born writer Sami Michael, former communist activist and acclaimed author of “Trumped in the Wadi” and director Amos Gitai for whom his hometown represents the Mediterranean city par excellence nourished by the mixture of origins and faiths. This city hosts the Haifa International Film Festival committed to these values of mutual understanding.

Created in 1983, the festival takes place each year during the Succoth holiday (7-14 October) and has become over the years one of the biggest film events in Israel. This year’s screenings in five different venues were packed from morning until late into the evening and attracted over 60,000 spectators without counting the huge crowd filling the place in front of the theaters every evening with free concerts, food stalls and beer stands conveniently run by the main sponsor, a famous beer company. The rich but uneven program presented more than 150 international films: gala screenings of prestige Hollywood movies such as Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Allan Coulter’s Hollywoodland, a ‘best of Cannes, Berlin and Venice selection’ in the Mediterranean Film competition (with Bruno Dumont’s Flanders winning the Golden Anchor Award), the new directors/FIPRESCI competition, Sam Peckinpah and Roberto Rossellini retrospectives and a selection of 67 new Israeli shorts, fictions, TV dramas and documentaries.

While fighting one’s way through the dense and joyful crowd gathering every evening in the adjacent streets until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, it was hard to believe that only two months ago the city was a war zone. Without the dozens of heavily armed military and police standing out of the place in the peaceful and lush park behind the Cinematek for daily briefing, the police cars, parked alongside of the main festival venue with their engines running, and the overall presence of security guards thoroughly controlling every single entry, you could have felt like you in any Mediterranean city.

However, even though obvious signs of damage left of the barrage of rockets that had hit the city by surprise are no longer visible the famous Katiushas are still very much present in the mind of everybody who had lived in the city this past summer. Since the end of the war in Lebanon, Haifa’s spirit of coexistence is suffering, suspicion seems to be creeping into the mixed neighborhoods. I learned from discussions with people in the festival crowd that the trauma has apparently also erased the slightest expression of compassion for the death and the massive destruction that took place less than 100 kms away in the north, on the other side of the Lebanese border.

Obviously, the war had cast its shadows on the festival. “Preparing the festival during the war was a terrible problem” explained festival director Pnina Blayer. “We had Katiushas falling right behind the Cinematek, our communication system was interrupted, we held our meetings in bomb shelters, and sometimes, when I spoke over the cell phone with my staff I heard the rockets falling around them as they went to work. And of course sending out invitations in the middle of the war when we didn’t even know where the thing was leading us was impossible.” This explains why the festival, which over the last years has welcomed some of the biggest names in the film world, obviously lacked the presence of foreign guests whether they are filmmakers, actors or journalists. Brian De Palma, for example, who was supposed to premiere his film The Black Dahlia, or Bruce Beresford, to name just a few of them, cancelled their visits.

But it was not only the fear of renewed fighting which stopped international guests from attending the festival. Against the background of the war in Lebanon and the ongoing military operations in the territories, a Palestinian petition sent around in August called for a boycott of Israeli cultural institutions, including several film festivals. Among the internationally renowned figures who heeded the call were British filmmaker Ken Loach who won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival with The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Loach turned down his invitation, a decision which had been extensively trumpeted through international print and online media.

Ironically enough the side effect of the absence of foreign attendance and subsequently the lack of discussions and exchange of necessarily divergent positions made people feel unjustly ostracized. This was translated by the Israeli press into reactions like “the show won’t just go on, it’ll flourish”, and “the lack of foreign talent on the opening night stage mattered less than ever. The Haifa International Film Festival will no doubt prove it can now generate excitement on its own.” On the other hand, the few non Hebrew speaking guests were clearly at loss because no translation was proved not even at the prize ceremony.

But while Loach boycotted Haifa, the festival did not boycott Loach, keeping his Film in the program — a decision that earned Blayer harsh criticism from the local media. Yet it also gave the award for special contribution to Israeli Cinema, to Judd Ne’eman. He is a distinguished filmmaker, university teacher, producer, and writer known for his anti-war films and uncompromising left wing positions. A retrospective of his work included two new films, Nuzhat Al-Fuad and Sheherazade’s Tears, a documentary about a dancer from the Ukraine who has created a Jewish-Arab dance company in Israel.

There could have been no better response to the counter-productive calls for a boycott of the Haifa festival than the speech Ne’eman delivered publicly during the opening session.

“We all know that in accepting a tribute one also gives consent to cooperate with the body that accords the honors. I do, of course, respect the Haifa Film Festival that promotes values of human rights in the cinema, values in which I believe. However, as is the case with other public institutions, the Haifa festival also has a partner — the Israeli government. As a filmmaker, I have never shaken hands with the government, and now, upon accepting this tribute, my hand is somewhat unsteady …”

Calling on stage for dialogue with Hamas, Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran, Ne’eman is of course aware that such a call will be rejected, but “in a democracy it is customary not to harm the opponents of the official policies. The way to neutralize them is much more sophisticated. They are told: we will not harm you or your property; you will just not be ‘one of us’.” Ne’eman concluded: “I feel great satisfaction that in all of my films I have managed to avoid being ‘one of us’. And yet, in spite of that, you’ve decided to honor me today. And for that I thank you.”

Interestingly enough, just a couple of days ago, after the end of the Haifa Film Festival, one of the most acclaimed Palestinian filmmakers, Elia Suleiman, withdrew his support for the famous Palestinian petition for a boycott of all cultural activities participated in and sponsored by the state of Israel..