Swedish filmmaker Bo Persson is in a battle with Sweden’s national public TV broadcaster after it refused to screen his latest documentary, Watching the Moon at Night, about antisemitism and terrorism.
The documentary began as a co-production with regional Swedish film fund Kino Koszyk HB, Film i Väst and Swedish Television (SVT), but the latter pulled out of the agreement and has refused to purchase and broadcast the film. Persson, who made the documentary together with Joanna Helander, has no doubt that the decision was made because four Israeli citizens feature in the documentary.
These include Arnold Roth, whose daughter was murdered in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem, and Dan Alon, one of the surviving Israeli athletes from the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.
The hour-and-a-half-long documentary also incorporates personal experiences of terrorism victims from Algeria, Spain, France, Moscow, Israel, the US, Colombia, Germany, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
Filmed in six countries, it juxtaposes contemporary terrorism, antisemitism and the experiences of their victims with the analysis and views of noted experts in these fields.
The primary funder of the film was the Swedish Film Institute, and film director and screenwriter Marianne Ahrne, who approved the funding, has spoken out against SVT’s decision not to screen it.
“I approved the funding of their film while working as a commissioner at the Swedish Film Institute,” she wrote last month in an op-ed for Israel National News. “Since then, I have followed its destiny, seeing it praised at festivals and by several of the foremost global experts in the fields that it tackles – terrorism and antisemitism. But [SVT], our country’s national public TV broadcaster, has, for some obscure reason and despite the fact it originally signed on to co-produce it, refused to screen it. And continues to refuse.
“With the passage of time and after having followed all the ups and downs, I have come to believe that SVT’s refusal to show the film is, sadly, connected to the fact that among the Spanish, British, Irish, Swedish and Algerian victims of terrorism sympathetically interviewed in the film, there are also a couple of Israelis,” Ahrne wrote.
The documentary was shown last year in the European Parliament and the Swedish legislature, where it premiered, as well as at many international film festivals and in front of audiences in the United States and Europe.
On Wednesday night it was screened at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque with a Q&A session with Persson, and on Monday night the same is scheduled for Jerusalem’s Cinematheque as well as discussion with the Israeli terrorism victims who appear in the film.
Persson has launched a petition against the SVT’s decision, in the form of an open letter to the management of the channel. More than 1,400 people have signed the letter, including members of the Swedish Academy, which awards Nobel Prizes, and the president and many members of the Swedish Association for Holocaust Survivors.
“In these fraught and dangerous times, terrorism and antisemitism threaten the institutions of democracy everywhere. Attempting to hide this reality and distorting the public debate is the worst way to confront these threats when we should instead stand up for human rights and European values,” the letter reads. “We call on the management of Swedish Television to reverse its gagging of this important film, and to immediately schedule it for the widest possible television exposure in Sweden.”
In the Q&A session in Tel Aviv, Persson related the moment he believes was the turning point for SVT. A director from the TV channel read the synopsis of the film, he recalled, and then said, “Don’t forget to show that the US and Israel are the real aggressors.”
“That is breaking the rules of his own company,” Persson said. “It’s very disturbing because it’s a threat to freedom of speech.”
“It’s clear that Israel is an issue for them,” he said, noting that the same channel had no qualm in airing a four-hour program featuring the views of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “It’s a farce,” Persson lamented.
Axel Arnö of the Documentary Film Department of SVT has denied Persson’s claims that the film is not being aired due to political reasons, telling Swedish newspaper Dagen that it was purely a quality assessment.
Swedish Ambassador-designate to Israel Magnus Hellgren attended the screening in Tel Aviv, where he watched the film for the first time. He told The Jerusalem Post
he found it to be a “very powerful and important movie that I hope many get to see and discuss.”
Hellgren stressed that the SVT’s decision had no connection to the government, highlighting that “the government does not and cannot in any way interfere in the individual editorial decisions of any media editors.”
He also emphasized that the film had been financed by the Swedish Film Institute, and has been widely screened in Sweden, though not yet on TV due to Persson’s battle with SVT.
He also noted to Persson that other national Swedish TV channels would be keen to broadcast the film, but the director responded that it was a matter of principle and he was “defending the laws of Swedish public television.”
Swedish Television also has the largest audience of all the channels.
“They chose the wrong guy to try to shut up,” Persson said.