An open letter to Ken Loach.

hannah brown 88 (photo credit: )
hannah brown 88
(photo credit: )
Dear Mr. Loach, When you first announced your intention to boycott the Haifa International Film Festival as part of the call by some Palestinians to boycott Israeli cultural institutions, my first impulse was to ignore it. It seemed to me that the only way to answer such a wrongheaded stance was not to address it - to boycott your call for a boycott. But then I realized that ignoring something one doesn't approve of is counterproductive. So here's my thinking about your decision. Over the past 25 years, there has been no forum in Israel, the Middle East, or, for that matter, in the entire world, that has consistently provided a more enthusiastic or public platform for the Palestinians to air their grievances than the Haifa International Film Festival. In fact, all the film festivals in Israel, particularly the Jerusalem Film Festival, have consistently presented the work of Palestinian filmmakers, as well as movies from all over the Arab world and Iran. Some of these films may have arrived in Israel via a circuitous route - European distribution companies - because the filmmakers feared a backlash from their governments if they openly allowed their films to be shown in Israel. But these filmmakers must have known, as you apparently don't, that they would find an interested and receptive audience. In fact, last year's Haifa Film Festival included a Palestinian Film Day, which showcased the work of Palestinian filmmakers and was sold out. Among the films shown was Paradise Now by Hany Abu-Assad, the story of two would-be suicide bombers. Abu-Assad, its director, is a Nazareth-born Israeli Arab who lives in Europe, but he did not protest the fact that his film was shown at the Haifa Film Festival (and was later shown dozens of times at cinematheques in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Nazareth). I assume that he knew there was no better way to influence the hearts and minds of the Israeli public than to invite them to see his take on what motivates suicide bombers, and present them as flawed but sympathetic human beings. Other films shown at last year's Palestinian Film Day included the latest movie by Muhammad Bakri, Since You Left. Bakri, an Israeli Arab who has acted in many Israeli films, made headlines when his first film, Jenin Jenin, was banned by the Israeli government. It was pressure by Bakri and the Israeli artistic community, particularly the cinematheques, that led the government to rescind the ban, and the film was shown throughout Israel. Another filmmaker whose film, Arafat, Mon Frere, was shown at Haifa last year, Rashid Masharawi, was born in Gaza. I was first introduced to his work at the Jerusalem Cinematheque about 15 years ago, at a special evening dedicated to his short films - the only movies he had made at that point. His latest film, Waiting, was shown last summer at the Jerusalem Film Festival. You may dismiss these examples of the openness of Israeli culture as meaningless. Maybe they are - to you. After all, you can see the work of directors such as Abu-Assad and Masharawi at Cannes. For me, and for much of the Israeli filmgoing public, these screenings are valuable opportunities to hear Palestinians tell their stories. In the end, it is the Israeli public, not the UN or the US, that will determine what actions Israel takes. It seems only common sense to acknowledge that the more Israelis are exposed to the Palestinian point of view, the more likely they are to take that view into account. But you think it would be better for the Palestinians if they were deprived of what has been their best forum for making their case before Israelis. When you say you are heeding the Palestinian call to boycott Israel, please understand that there are other Palestinians who have chosen a different path. I'm sure it has not always been easy for them to defend the decision to allow their films to be shown here to those who call on them to turn their backs on the Israeli film world. The debate in Israel has been greatly enriched by their courageous choice. As the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, who has made a long list of critically acclaimed films, you have great influence. I wish you would use it to encourage debate here rather than to stifle it.