Boycott the 26th Haifa International Film Festival

Occupied Ramallah, 8 September 2010

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) urges filmmakers and cultural workers to boycott the 26th Haifa International Film Festival (HIFF) running from September 23 to 30, 2010. PACBI believes that this festival, as with similar cultural initiatives supported by Israeli state institutions, is designed to whitewash the crimes of Israeli apartheid. The festival boasts on its website “the support of the City of Haifa, the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport – the Israeli Film Council, and the European Union.”[1]

As celebrities congregate in Haifa to enjoy “the activities of the festival, including the outdoor events, screenings, workshops and more,” a few kilometres away the Gaza Strip faces electricity cuts and a suffocating economic siege; the West Bank remains under military occupation and intensifying colonization; occupied Jerusalem as well as the Naqab (Negev) are facing gradual ethnic cleansing, and the construction of the illegal apartheid wall is near completion.

The policy of using culture to whitewash Israeli violations of international law was openly confirmed by the Israeli government with the launch of a global ‘Brand Israel’ campaign. According to an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson, the objective of this rebranding campaign, which “could include organizing film festivals,” is to convey the message that “a better image for Israel and a better performance of that image is part and parcel [of] Israel’s national security. Contrary to popular belief, national security is not just based on military power, it’s also a strong economy and a strong image.”[2] This language reveals – as did similar endeavours by the South African Apartheid regime – a cynical and systematic attempt at manipulating world opinion. It aims to obfuscate the real nature of Israel’s military occupation and apartheid and to divert attention from its ongoing war crimes by portraying it as a vibrant, cultural and artistic hub.

PACBI takes the opportunity to reiterate the call to filmmakers, artists and cultural workers for a boycott of all cultural initiatives that have sponsorship from Israeli state organs or institutions, whether the events take place in Israel or abroad.[3] The boycott also extends to any brand-Israel effort or organization because their aim is to help the state’s propaganda or “rebranding” efforts aimed at diluting, justifying, whitewashing or otherwise diverting attention from the Israeli occupation and other violations of Palestinian rights and international law.

There is precedent for a boycott of the Haifa International Film Festival, on August 1st 2006, when the administrative council of the Greek Cinematography Center (GCC) decided to withdraw all the Greek films from HIFF, arguing that “under the current circumstances the specific cultural event has lost its meaning”. Also, Ken Loach announced in 2006 that he would not take part in the “Haifa Film Festival or any other such occasions,” as an acknowledgment of the fact that “Palestinians are driven to call for this boycott after forty years of the occupation of their land, destruction of their homes and the kidnapping and murder of their civilians.”[4] Further, in 2002, Gaslight, the producers of the British documentary Sunday withdrew their film form HIFF. In their withdrawal letter to the festival, Gaslight wrote:

“… of the many lessons that flow from the story of Bloody Sunday, key among them is the ethical political and long-term military folly of governments attempting to impose military solutions on civil and human rights problems. We take this action in support of the Palestinian people and in solidarity with Palestinian artists and filmmakers. It is also done in solidarity with those within Israel (both Israelis and Arabs) who are speaking out and acting (e.g. refuseniks) against the government’s murderous policies against the Palestinian people.”[5]

PACBI contends that Israeli state institutions’ funding of international film festivals is a key aspect of the rebranding effort, an effort to cover up the escalating agenda of apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and violence against the Palestinian people, the last of which were the deadly assault on the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2008-2009 and the lethal attack on humanitarian aid workers aboard the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla in May 2010, which resulted in the murder of nine Turkish relief workers and human rights activists. Shunning film festivals by international filmmakers and artists with such sponsorship deprives Israel of the chance to use art and culture as a tool in beautifying its apartheid reality.

Lately, there have been cases of film festivals issuing last minute announcements of sponsorship from Israeli state institutions, denying participants who heed the boycott call a chance to withdraw their films (one such case occurred at the Melbourne International Film Festival with the film Son of Babylon).[6] This in many ways is due to the success of the cultural boycott in film festival circles; after a series of protests against Brand Israel at the Toronto, Edinburgh and Melbourne Film Festivals it is clear that accepting funding from Israeli state institutions does have repercussions and that the ”business as usual” attitude regarding Israel in the cultural community is coming to an end. Film festivals will try to avoid controversy by not boasting these sponsorships or announcing them late. This does mean that the BDS movement and artists concerned with upholding the call for the cultural boycott must be proactive in seeking information regarding Brand Israel at all international events.

With Israel’s continued disregard for international law and the basic rights of the Palestinian people, the kind of solidarity we expect from people of conscience around the world is to heed the Palestinian civil society call for a boycott of Israel and its complicit institutions, as they did in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

[1] http://www.haifaff.co.il/Info.php?id=doc_about
[2] http://www.thestar.com/News/GTA/article/346848
[3] http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=333
[4] http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article5615.shtml
[5] http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=99
[6] For the entire exchange between the film makers of Son of Babylon and the Melbourne International Film Festival see: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/cinetology/2010/07/30/leaked-filmmakers-demand-son-of-babylon-to-be-withdrawn-from-the-2010-miff-program/

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