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PACBI-Festival in Oslo Rejects Film by Roy Zafrani, Citing Cultural Boycott of Israel

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John Anderson | New York Times | 18 August 2015

Festival in Oslo Rejects Film by Roy Zafrani, Citing Cultural Boycott of Israel

Israeli-Norwegian relations have hardly been a flash point in the troubled history of the Middle East. But a programming decision last week by a film festival in Oslo to reject a film simply for its Israeli-ness may have opened a new chapter in the boycott movement against Israel.

In an apologetic email received on Aug. 10, a filmmaker in Tel Aviv, Roy Zafrani, learned that his short documentary, “The Other Dreamers,” had been rejected by the Human Rights Human Wrongs festival, which focuses on political documentaries.

“We support the academic and cultural boycott of Israel,” wrote Ketil Magnussen, founder of the festival’s parent organization, the Oslo Documentary Cinema. He added that unless Mr. Zafrani’s films were about the “illegal occupation,” the blockade of Gaza, or discrimination against Palestinians, they would not be shown.

“I’m sorry,” he wrote. “Please let me know if you have documentary films that are dealing directly with the occupation.”

Mr. Zafrani, whose film has played dozens of festivals in the United States and abroad and deals with the lives of disabled children at a center near Tel Aviv, said he put news of the rejection, and its reasoning, on his Facebook page without identifying the festival or Mr. Magnussen.

“Many people wrote me saying, 'Let’s send emails, let’s shame him,’ ” he said in an interview. “But I don’t want to hurt anyone, and I don’t think it’s just this guy. I think the larger issue is that there is a boycott — which I can understand and not understand; I’m not political. But I think we should suspend it for some things. Arts. And sports: I just saw an Israeli guy who competed in the disabled Olympics against an Iranian guy, and they were hugging. You don’t see this in any other place.”

Mr. Magnussen did not respond to phone messages and emails, but over the weekend he said on Facebook that he signed a petition supporting the boycott three years ago; is opposed to Israeli policies toward Palestinians; and that although his decision was not about an individual filmmaker or film, the aims of the boycott are sound.

Yet he may have slightly misinterpreted the boycott’s mission: According to Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian activist and a founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (or, B.D.S.) movement, the cultural and academic part of the campaign calls for “boycotts against Israeli institutions that are complicit in Israel’s violations of international law, not against individuals.”

Mr. Barghouti said by email that although he wasn’t familiar with Mr. Magnussen’s reasoning, the cultural boycott guidelines “unambiguously” state that “mere affiliation of Israeli cultural workers to an Israeli cultural institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott.” He added, “If, however, an individual is representing the State of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution, or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to 'rebrand’ itself, then her/his activities are subject to the institutional boycott the B.D.S. movement is calling for.”

Mr. Zafrani said he paid for his film himself and enlisted volunteer labor, some from the parents of his subjects.

The boycott movement seems both erratic and widespread: The Times of Israel reported on Sunday that the ex-Hasidic rapper Matisyahu was dropped by a Spanish music festival for refusing to sign an endorsement of a Palestinian state, prompting protests from Jewish groups. Among film festivals, particularly documentary festivals like Human Rights Human Wrongs, policies vary.

“For me, it’s out of the question to boycott Israeli films,” said Ally Derks, director of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, which as far back as 1992 was programming dual Israeli-Palestinian retrospectives. (At the Toronto International Film Festival last year, controversy arose after inclusion of Suha Arraf’s “Villa Touma,” which she designated as “Palestinian” despite having received financial support from Israel.)

Before Mr. Zafrani revealed which festival had rejected his film, some people had assumed it was the Tromso International Film Festival in Norway, said its director, Martha Otte, and “an Israeli citizen posted something very rude and threatening on our website,” now removed.

Ms. Otte, though, said her festival supported the boycott and “has screened films by Israeli filmmakers when they are not financially supported by the Israeli government.”

The B.D.S. movement, which began in 2005 and seeks an end to what it deems “apartheid” Israeli policies, has manifested itself in boycotts of Sabra hummus and of SodaStream home carbonation systems manufactured in the occupied West Bank. The cultural/academic campaign, though, sometimes puts potential supporters in conflict because it seems directed against natural allies.

The Oslo case “clearly shows why the academic/cultural boycott of Israel is so misguided,” said Maurice Samuels, a professor of French at Yale and director of the university’s Program for the Study of Antisemitism. “It targets the very people who are most likely to oppose Israel’s policies on the West Bank. This filmmaker is being singled out because of the actions of his government, not because of any view he holds or action he personally has taken. Imagine the consequences if all Americans were held responsible for the bad things our government does.”

Mr. Barghouti said that even though individuals like Mr. Zafrani were not boycott targets, Israeli cultural institutions were “part and parcel of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation.”

“In apartheid South Africa as well as in most situations of severe injustice, art and culture have been used to cover up or whitewash gross violations of human rights,” he added. “The claim that cultural institutions that engage in such propaganda should be 'exempt’ from accountability measures simply because of the abstract assumption that 'art and culture are above politics’ is absurd.”

Posted on 18-08-2015

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