They say that film transcends borders and countries, this might be true about the films, but not about the politics that go into presenting these films. Film festivals are often put in the line of fire due to their politics. Despite viewers expectations, films are not always accepted to festivals because they are better than or even as good as others, but often, they are chosen based on which country they are coming from and the film's representations of a certain conflict in that region.
In the last few weeks, a few film festivals have made news due to political controversies surrounding Israel. Suha Arraf, a Palestinian-Israeli who has written many celebrated Israeli films, produced and directed a feature film titled Villa Touma about three respectable christian sisters living in Ramallah, who seem to be stuck in the illusion of a distinguished past. The film was supported by Israeli film funds, but was submitted and accepted to the Venice Film Festival as a Palestinian film. This led to an uproar in some parties of the Israeli government, going as far as demanding Arraf return the funding she received.
At the same time, another Palestinian-Israeli director, Ibtisam Mara'ana-Menuhin, made a documentary film about the life of Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, titled Write Down... I'm an Arab, and applied to the Beirut film festival, noting the country of origin as Israel, and was rejected due to this factor. I asked, why she did not submit it as a Palestinian; she responded, "My film's identity is Israeli/Palestinian and it's my identity too. I won't ignore one of them." Beirut International Film Festival is a progressive film festival that pushes the envelope in many fields but is limited when including films from Israel, even one about a Palestinian figure who spent many years in Beirut. The film itself was not a problem, it was the country of origin that kept it out.
In both of these cases, filmmakers should not be accepted or rejected to festivals based on their nationality, but rather based on the merit of the film. When we choose or reject a film based in part on its country of origin, we are giving that film a passport and taking away from its freedom of identity. Films do not have citizenship, even if filmmakers do. Festivals and government support should celebrate the freedom of artistic expression whether they agree or disagree with the politics of the country of origin.
Ultimately, film festivals should want films that challenge the audience. I often recommend to see the films that are not in their comfort zones. Push your limits by seeing the film that comes from the perspective that you don't agree with. Often, audiences like to see films with the opinions they already agree with, but festivals should not be afraid to challenge this tendency and expose audiences to a larger spectrum of views.
During this film festival chaos about the Israeli/Palestinian films, two other festivals made news. The UK Jewish Film Festival was kicked out of its theater as part of the theater owner's protest of Israel's position in Gaza. The festival is of course not Israeli, but received some support from the Israeli Consulate. This is a festival that is pretty progressive and often shows films that challenge the Jewish community in England and its preconceptions of Palestinians. Still, the Tricycle Theatre refused to be the festival's host unless it returned the money it had received from the consulate -- the festival, of course, refused.
And now in Australia the Israeli film festival was going to be protested by pro-palestinian activists, if it wasn't for a supreme court ruling. The opening night film that was going to be protested, was Shira Geffen's Self Made, which tells the story of an Israeli and a Palestinian woman who switch places. Geffen has been criticized in Israel for voicing her pro-Palestinian sentiments.
Films humanize, and take the stories out of headlines, and share images, fiction or non, that give a reflection of reality. The Other Israel Film Festival in New York is dedicated to taking Israel beyond the headline news and diving deep into the realities of Arab society outside of the politics. This provides a platform for people to interact and truly engage with the realities of Israel.
The films and these festivals open doors to communication and understanding between individuals. By limiting the showing or the production of such events, we are creating a narrower view of our world and of the situation in Israel. Films provide visions from around the world and an opportunity to show how similar our humanity is and how much we share, not remind us of our physical and emotional borders.