MIFF and boycotts

by tobybee

Last year Ken Loach pulled his film Looking for Eric from the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). And the director of the festival, Richard Moore, seemingly proudly, proclaimed this years festival a “ken loach free zone”. (to read more about Moore, MIFF, the boycott last year, and the awarding to MIFF of the Voltaire award for supporting free speech by Liberty Victoria, go here.)

But while Loach may be absent, the issues which he raised are not. Once again, it seems, MIFF has knowingly used Israeli Government funding to bring an Israeli director to the festival as a guest. And this led to the director and producer of Son of Babylon, a film set in Iraq, to request that their film not be shown as part of the festival. They no longer wanted to be associated with MIFF. Did MIFF comply? No, it turns out.

From The Age:

The Melbourne International Film Festival has been threatened with legal action for refusing to withdraw a film at the request of its makers, who objected to the festival receiving funding from Israel.

The Iraqi-set feature film Son of Babylon screened on July 26 and July 28, as scheduled, despite demands it be withdrawn in protest at the fact that the festival receives funding from the Israeli government. That funding amounted to a return economy-class air fare for an Israeli director, just as it did at last year’s festival.

“The festival was informed in enough time to stop the screening … therefore if you have knowingly disregarded our wishes and screened the film, we will of course be left with little alternative than to take appropriate action against the festival,” producer Isabelle Stead wrote to MIFF executive director Richard Moore last week.

“We would of course be very reluctant to do this, but you should not underestimate our resolve to ensure that our film is not associated with the state of Israel as long as it continues its illegal crimes against humanity,” she added.

There is in the filmmakers’ stance a distinct echo of Ken Loach’s decision to withdraw his film Looking For Eric from last year’s festival on the same grounds.

On July 18 last year, The Age broke the story that the veteran English filmmaker had said “if it did not reconsider the sponsorship, he would not allow the festival to screen his film”.

In a letter to Mr Moore, Mr Loach cited “illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods” and “the massacres in Gaza” as reasons for the boycott.

In refusing to return the Israeli government sponsorship, Mr Moore said acceding to Mr Loach’s demand would be “like submitting to blackmail”.

[…]

This year’s flare-up is a little more complicated, however.

Mohamed Al-Daradji, the director and co-producer of Son of Babylon, wrote to the festival about 14 hours before his film was due to have the first of its two festival screenings last Monday, requesting that the festival cancel it and the second scheduled screening on Wednesday July 28.

Within two hours, Mr Moore had replied. “To request a withdrawal of the film on the day of the screening is simply not acceptable and shows a lack of respect for our organisation,” he wrote. “We are not able to replace the film at short notice and we will screen it today. I am prepared to consider other options for the second screening but I will also need to consider the financial ramifications to our organisation.”

In a separate email, Mr Moore suggested the festival could cancel the sold-out July 28 screening in return for a payment of $4450. The filmmakers offered to reimburse the festival for some of the costs associated with the screening on the assumption that it had been cancelled. They also offered to help the festival find alternative sponsors.

However, the July 28 screening went ahead, prompting an angry email from Ms Stead.

“When we grant a festival permission to screen a film that took us years to make along with danger, blood, sweat and tears we do so with trust. I would have thought a festival would morally recognise the need to tell a Palestinian co-production that it was funded by the state of Israel,” Ms Stead wrote.

“I will again reiterate that any permissions granted to Melbourne IFF to screen Son Of Babylon have been revoked.”

The website for Human Film and Iraq Al-Rafidain, which made Son of Babylon, claims the production company is “continually working to breakdown cultural divides through film” and “do[es] not apply any language, cultural, political, religious, or any other barriers to our film making practice”.

Sigh.

Last night I saw Black Bus, a film about two women in Israel who escaped from the ultra-orthodox communities in which they had grown up and the physical and mental hurt which they had lived through. As the film began, and something came onto the screen about how the Israeli Government had provided financial support for the film, my brother and I turned to each other, in mutual recognition that, by seeing the film, we were breaking the boycott. And I felt a little sick. But I watched the film (which, while flawed, was deeply revealing and provocative – I’ll write something about it later today hopefully), and I’m glad I did. I wonder at how to implement the boycott in Melbourne in ways which are useful (and I wonder what ‘useful’ means here). It’s a question of tactics, I guess: is it more useful that I don’t go to the individual films that have been supported by the Israeli Government, or ‘should’ I be avoiding MIFF in totality because it has received the support it has? Or should I be seeing the films, and then speaking about them, because the critique they provide of the Jewishness of the Israeli State, of some of the Jewishness of the Jews who live in the State, is vitally important. I don’t know.

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