Film fight: how an Israeli festival in Dublin is causing controversy

Thu, Nov 24, 2011, 00:00

A row over Filmbase’s hosting of an Israeli film festival, funded by the Israeli state, highlights how the Middle Eastern conflict is increasingly being played out in the cultural as well as political sphere, writes MICK HEANEY

READING SOME reports recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that Dublin had become a seething hotbed of intimidation and sabotage at the prospect of Israeli filmmakers and musician arriving in the city.

According to an account published last week on Israeli news website, the auditorium of Filmbase – the Dublin venue staging a concert by Jerusalem-born singer Izhar Ashdot – was vandalised by “anti-Israel elements” in advance of his appearance at the Israeli Film Days festival, an event that was similarly being primed for “disruption”.

The story was dramatic enough to spread across the blogosphere, quickly turning up in the Wikipedia entry for “Ireland-Israel relations”.

The reality was more prosaic.

Alan Fitzpatrick, the managing director of Filmbase, says the vandalism amounted to “some very minor damage” to a door on the building; more pertinently, Fitzpatrick “would in no way attribute” the offending act to his venue’s hosting of the Israeli Film Days festival, which opens today. “We’re in the middle of Temple Bar; there are a lot of pubs and clubs nearby, so we occasionally get things like graffiti on our walls. There’s absolutely nothing to say we were targeted.”

This kerfuffle shows how even the smallest incident can get blown out of all proportions when viewed through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the web report that started it also characterised Ireland as the European country “most hostile” towards Israel.

Nonetheless, Israeli Film Days has proved a highly contentious event.

The festival, which is organised by the Israeli embassy, has attracted protests from pro-Palestinian supporters, which in turn have prompted a diplomatic response from the Israeli ambassador. That a four-day free cinema event can cause such a reaction illustrates how the cultural sphere has become another front in the struggle between Israel and Palestine.

In terms of content, the festival seems largely unobjectionable. It features a selection of light comedies, coming-of-age dramas, sitcom episodes, Holocaust documentaries and a concert by Ashdot, a veteran rock star who has recently incorporated Irish influences into his music.

According to Israel’s ambassador to Ireland, Boaz Modai, the festival aims to prove “that there is more to Israel than the Palestinian conflict. It is not political; we are trying to show the different faces of Israel. But we have found it quite a challenge to present this.”

Composer Raymond Deane, cultural boycott officer with the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), calls the event a “whitewashing exercise” funded by an Israeli state seeking to deflect attention from its actions in the occupied territories and its violations of international law. “It’s a bit like saying during the apartheid era that people should see the real South Africa,” he says. “But the Israeli propaganda machine is more powerful than the South African one was.”

To date the IPSC’s protest against the festival has focused on Filmbase, which did not organise the event but was hired out as a venue. Following an email campaign that attempted – and failed – to persuade Filmbase to cancel the event, the IPSC now plans to demonstrate and leaflet outside the festival.

“At this point we want to make our feelings publicly known about this event, which is a breach of the boycott called for by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel,” says Deane. “We want to create some kind of deterrent effect for any cultural institutions who plan on taking money from the Israeli government for these kind of events.”

The online campaign may not have succeeded in its aim, but it appears to have rattled the Israeli embassy. “In many cases we would attract protests,” says an embassy spokesperson, “but we were quite shocked that [the IPSC] escalated their attempt to get the event cancelled and for it not to take place in Filmbase.”

After recent publicity surrounding Israel’s detention of Irish activists taking part in a flotilla bound for Gaza, and a Dublin street demonstration portraying the intimidation of Palestinians by Israeli forces, the campaign against the festival prompted Modai to meet with the Department of Foreign Affairs to raise the issue.

“It became a problem for the Government of Ireland, one about the freedom of speech,” the ambassador says. “We have protests outside the embassy every week, but not to allow Israel to stage a non-political event takes things to another stage. It became more just an Israeli problem. It was important to show this phenomenon is not to be accepted.”

Making these concerns known seems to have worked: in a show of support for the festival, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore is to attend tonight’s opening.

The whole affair highlights how the Middle Eastern conflict has in recent years spilled into the cultural arena, with Palestinians and their supporters seeking to isolate Israel internationally. Most obviously, this has taken the form of calls for artists and performers to boycott Israel in protest at actions such as the 2009 invasion of Gaza and the continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This approach has yielded some headline-grabbing cancellations from international artists: Elvis Costello, Santana and the late Gil Scott-Heron all pulled out of gigs in the country in 2010.

Last year also saw 150 Irish artists – including singers Christy Moore and Damien Dempsey, actor Sinéad Cusack and painters Robert Ballagh and Felim Egan – sign an IPSC pledge not to perform or exhibit in Israel, hailed as the first such nationwide cultural gesture in support of Palestinian rights. (The number has since increased to 214, with actor Stephen Rea and singer Liam Ó Maonlaí among the new signatories.) Meanwhile, Irish performers who do not comply with the boycott call have attracted protests: earlier this year, the Dublin run of Riverdance was accompanied by demonstrations against the show’s September tour of Israel.

As to the reverse process, Deane says he is not against Irish cultural organisations bringing over Israeli figures, citing the example of the Irish Film Institute and the (now defunct) Dún Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures both returning the Israeli embassy’s sponsorship money in 2006. “But if an Israeli artist comes here with state backing, that person is an agent of the Israeli government,” says Deane.

The strategy draws its inspiration from the cultural embargo against apartheid-era South Africa, which saw artists and performers shun the regime: according to conventional wisdom, this led to a sense of international isolation that compounded the effects of economic measures taken against the state. But while supporters of the boycott compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid, the case for a similar approach has not been greeted by Irish artists with the same level of consensus as the South African example. Last year’s RTÉ Arts Lives documentary on Gilbert O’Sullivan followed the Waterford-born singer as he played in Tel Aviv, where his biggest worry appeared to be that his performance be up to scratch.

More conspicuously, in 2007, two anti-Israel motions prompted fierce argument at the general assembly of Aosdána, the state-funded Irish artists’ group. A resolution calling for non-co-operation with Israel was put forward by Deane, an Aosdána member, but was defeated, with figures such as artist Samuel Walsh and writer Mannix Flynn opposing it; a second resolution was passed, calling on Irish artists and cultural bodies “to reflect deeply” before engaging with Israel.

It is hard to say if the gesture had its intended effect, but the heated exchanges on the matter made Aosdána the object of ridicule in certain sections of the press. However, the affair did not lessen Deane’s commitment.

“There was a lot of intimidation surrounding that meeting,” says Deane, “but it is always polarising when you bring politics into culture.”

For all the furore surrounding the protests against the Dublin film festival, the Israeli state itself is not averse to action if it detects hostile political elements in cultural events. In 2009 police in east Jerusalem shut down a theatre hosting a Palestinian literature festival, claiming it was a political event.

As for Palestinian-themed cultural events in Ireland, they have not drawn much in the way of protest, but there are far fewer of them.

“It is very difficult to organise such cultural events because you don’t know if the artists are going to be allowed out of the occupied territories,” says Deane. “Even for those who live outside, in countries like Jordan, Palestinian organisations don’t have the resources to pay for such trips. But anyway, it is not a question of countering Israeli cultural events with Palestinian ones.”

Much like the wider conflict itself, the Israeli-Palestinian cultural divide looks as intractable as ever. Both sides talk at cross purposes, seeing the same things in very different ways. The embassy spokesperson says “99 per cent” of the state’s filmmakers are left-wing. “They don’t try to whitewash the country.”

Deane, on the other hand, says that the notion that most Israeli artists or academics are rooting for the Palestinians is false. “Most of them know which side their bread is buttered on, and in that I would say they are not that different from artists anywhere else.”

In one way, the IPSC has made its point: it has succeeded in politicising an ostensibly cultural event. But whatever about the hard reality of the violence, security crackdowns and economic attrition in the Palestinian territories, the arguments over the Dublin festival boil down to profound differences in perception. Those who view the films on show may feel they can learn more about Israel; those protesting outside will say the real story is being ignored.

Israeli Film Days opens at Filmbase today and runs until Sunday