THE BLOG

Boycotting the Messenger

08/15/2013 01:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2013
  • Isaac Zablocki Director of Film Programs, JCC Manhattan, ReelAbilities Film Festival, Israel Film Center

Moshen Makhmalbaf's film The Gardner opened in New York this weekend. Makhmalbaf is a living cinematic legend. His films revolutionized Iranian cinema and he became world-renowned as a master. Makhmalbaf is not a run-of-the-mill filmmaker, he is profound and subtle and believes deeply in the art of cinema as a vehicle to change culture.

I had the great honor of meeting Makhmalbaf at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer where The Gardener premiered to sold-out crowds. He shot the film in the glorious Bahai gardens in Haifa, Israel. As an Iranian director who speaks out for change, coming to the Jerusalem Film Festival did not come without criticism. A group calling for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel sent Makhmalbaf an open letter asking him to boycott the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Makhmalbaf was not the only filmmaker connected to the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer subjected to the call for boycott. Ziad Doueiri's film The Attack, which was released to great fanfare in the U.S. this summer was banned in all the Arab countries surrounding Israel. The film had its Middle-Eastern premiere in Jerusalem, which to date is the only place in the Middle East that has shown the film. The Attack tells the story of an Israeli-Palestinian doctor whose wife carries out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The film is a human story that ultimately presents the Palestinian struggle as a national struggle and not a religious one. It is highly critical of Israeli society, but somewhat critical of Palestinian society as well. But since the film was made in Israel and Palestine, and with the participations of Israeli actors, a boycott was called on Doueiri and the film.

The BDS movement fights against the normalization of the occupation of the State of Israel and pushes to exclude Israel from any international program as long as it is violating the human rights of Palestinians. Beyond products and business, it specifically calls for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Boycotting has been a non-violent form of protest for centuries, deriving its name from Captain Charles Boycott, an Irish landowner who was subject to such a protest in the 1880s, and most famously was used to fight the apartheid in South Africa.

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nonviolence is a welcome form of protest for the region. However, the protest of art, culture and education brings up dangers in the realm of freedom and evolution of thought. Artists and educators have an important impact on changing society. Their diversity of opinions plant seeds of thought and help minds grow. Often artists and professors push the envelope of the mainstream and challenge the constructs. In many ways, filmmakers can be seen as the prophets of today -- they bring visions to the people and try to change what is wrong with our society. When we start to boycott art and limit the reach of great minds and talent to places, we are limiting potential of change.

Furthermore, it is important to separate the message from the messenger. Some messages can positively impact our world, and should not be thrown out because of a blanket boycott. Israel needs to see films made by Palestinians. Palestinians need to see films by Israelis. Otherwise, both sides will remain with only their own narrative and never truly see the humanity of the other side. There are enough walls between people put up by politicians. Let's not let politics close off our minds as well. We need to build understanding between both sides and for that we need to hear artists and educators and taste the other's culture. Once we recognize the other, our society can start to create change. But if the voices of reason are hidden from the public because of where they are coming from or where they are going, there will never be understanding. Israel is resistant to these voices and should not be limited to accessing them.

The Jerusalem Film Festival is brave to present films like The Attack and to bring voices like Makhmalbaf's to the Israeli public. Not enough Israelis are seeing these films. Makhmalbaf said he traveled to Israel as "an ambassador of peace." He believes that art can unite people and that cinema should have no borders. If the borders are ever to be taken down, the people of Israel need to hear this man's voice. Would you call Dr. Martin Luther King to boycott Israel? These are the people making a change in our society and no one more than Israel needs to hear these voices. These are messengers of peace.

The Other Israel Film Festival brings films about Palestinians in Israel to the New York community. Both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, call to boycott this festival. From the Palestinian side, they do not want to support a festival with the name Israel in its title and mission. And from the Israeli/Jewish side, they do not want to support a festival that presents the Palestinian narrative. This festival is attempting to bring the voices and stories that we do not hear to the public and engage with them through conversations. This is not about politics as much as it is about hearing sides and perceptions -- even if they put the viewer out of their comfort zone. Filmmakers attempting to come to the Other Israel Film Festival have been asked to boycott the festival. Thankfully, most have denied the request.

The BDS movement needs to be more understanding of the voices that are trying to unite and create change. The American and Israeli public especially, needs to hear other narratives beyond the headlines in the news and the slogans. Films give a deeper understanding of a culture and I am proud to present films that challenge our preconceptions.

This post has been revised by the blogger since it's original publication. It previously included a line referring to the importance of BDS.