Your money is no good here

The foreign ministry find its attempts at cultural exchange rejected by European film festivals.

By BEN BAGINSKY
September 5, 2006 11:03
walk on water film 88 298

walk on water film 88 29. (photo credit: Israel Film Festival)

 
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Israeli embassies across Europe have faced a new challenge over the last two months, with cultural festivals in Scotland, Ireland and Switzerland rejecting official Israeli sponsorship of the country's artists and a documentary festival in France cancelling the Israeli portion of its programming entirely. It's customary at such festivals for each country to fund its own artists' travel and lodging, but when protestors threatened violence and boycotts unless Israeli embassy funds were withdrawn at these particular events, the embassies were put in the unusual situation of being asked to hold back their money. A combination of individuals and groups opposed to Israel's policies in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon were responsible for the demands, and Israel's embassies, in the case of three of the festivals, complied by cancelling their official participation in the events. Though officials at Israel's embassies in France, Ireland, the UK and Switzerland insist they've maintained positive relations with festival organizers, they are challenged, they say, by the demands of protestors and festival planners' willingness to go along with them. If a festival refuses official Israeli sponsorship, say Uri Rothman and Tami Israeli, Israel's cultural attaches in Switzerland and the UK, there is little the foreign ministry can do. Rothman and Israeli said they never considered asking Israeli filmmakers to pull out of festivals where their presence was being protested, with Israeli explaining that "it is better that a film is there somehow than not at all. People need to understand that Israeli films are not propaganda ... [Israeli culture] is a complex thing, an interesting thing, pluralistic and not one-sided." Rothman echoed Israeli's comments, saying that "the films show different perspectives and faces of Israel" during screenings abroad. Asked if protests and demands for the cancellation of Israeli sponsorship at several festivals indicates the emergence of a worrying trend, foreign ministry officials said they don't see the issue as a long-term problem. Yariv Ovadia, a deputy spokesperson at the ministry, said, "We don't usually face problems [with Israeli artists traveling overseas]. Israelis are respected in all fields - cinema, dance, sports." A second ministry spokesperson pointed to upcoming appearances by writer Amos Oz at literary festivals in Moscow and Azerbaijan as evidence that Israelis are still embraced at international arts events. Ovadia said the foreign ministry views the recent boycotts as "discrimination" and "sad acts of ignorance," but added that "we won't let it stop our work." He said recent events, which have included threats of violence at Israeli-sponsored events, aren't viewed by the ministry as a cause for "major concern." Israeli, speaking in London, shared a similar view. "Of course it's very sad," she said, "but we hope it won't happen again." Anti-Israel sentiment at film festivals this summer didn't lead in every case to the exclusion of Israeli participants, and in some instances resulted in unexpected sources of support for Israeli artists. At Switzerland's Locarno International Film Festival last month, five student films from Israel were entered in the Leopards of Tomorrow competition for young filmmakers. The theme of this year's contest was "East of the Mediterannean: Routes from the Balkans to the Middle East," but as they had at film festivals in France and Scotland, demonstrators threatened to picket the festival unless Israel withdrew its money. Following negotiations between festival organizers and the Israeli embassy in Switzerland, the festival agreed to fund every single artist in the section, including the Israeli competitors. Rothman, Israel's cultural attache in Switzerland, described the outcome as mixed but concluded that "we managed to prevent a worse situation." At about the same time, two cultural exchanges in Ireland were hampered by similar protests against the war in Lebanon. The Irish Film Institute turned down Israeli funding for director Eytan Fox to attend the screening of his 2004 film Walk on Water at the Dublin Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, while the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures demanded Israel do the same with its sponsorship of singer Avshalom Farjun. In Scotland, Israeli documentary maker Yoav Shamir's participation at the Edinburgh International Film Festival came into question when members of the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign demanded the cancellation of Israeli sponsorship for Shamir's screenings, threatening demonstrations and even physical attacks against Shamir if the event went forward as planned. Israel's embassy in London withdrew funding for the event, and Shamir attended two screenings of his film without incident. The list of similar episodes goes on, with both Jewish and Arab filmmakers from Israel penalized at a documentary festival in in August in Lussas, France, where organizers cancelled a program devoted to Israeli films and replaced them with Lebanese- and Palestinian-produced documentaries. (A group of prominent French directors and producers subsequently sent a letter to festival organizers criticizing the move.) More recently, a cultural festival in Denmark sparked controversy by featuring a Saudi-sponsored anthology of Middle Eastern literature that conspicuously omitted Israeli authors. The picture, however, is not entirely bleak, says David Fisher, director-general of Israel's New Foundation for Cinema and TV. "After six or seven intense years of promoting Israeli films, we are very welcome. The important festivals don't reject us," he said, citing screenings of six Israeli films at next month's Hamburg International Film Festival as examples. Fisher said his organization and Israeli filmmakers in general have benefited from warm relations with festivals in Venice, Berlin, Cannes, Rome and London, and that this summer's troubles for Israeli filmmakers aren't necessarily a cause for alarm. The foreign ministry, meanwhile, views screenings of Israeli films at international festivals as a form of advocacy for Israel. Private organizations like the New Foundation for Cinema and TV play an important role in supporting Israeli artists overseas, Fisher said, promoting Israeli artists and culture in ways the foreign ministry cannot. He said he sees this summer's events as isolated and a source of only limited worry because they took place at relatively low profile events. In general, he went on, Israeli films are welcomed these days at festivals across Europe, and actions against Israeli artists ultimately do more damage to the festivals than to Israel itself. Ovadia, speaking in Jerusalem, noted what he said was a contradiction in protestors' efforts to prevent Israeli participation at foreign film festivals. "Israeli filmmaking is very liberal, and mostly pro-peace," he said. "Israel even funds Palestinian films."

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