2 min

Keep showing Israeli films

How can the discussion flourish if the stories can't be told?

I was out of town last August when members of the local chapter of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) protested the inclusion of Israeli films in the Vancouver Queer Film Festival (VQFF).

I’m sorry I missed their pinkwashing protest, their hedgehog masks and their presentation at the post-film panel discussion. I applaud their determination to challenge the injustices they see around them.

I also applaud the film festival’s decision to keep telling the stories that QuAIA wants silenced.
QuAIA would like the VQFF to reject all Israeli-government-backed films. They say the films are an example of “pinkwashing,” a bid by the Israeli government to portray its state as a gay-friendly oasis while glossing over its human rights abuses.

As the VQFF shortlists its 2013 selections, QuAIA is once again planning to lobby for a boycott, as part of a broader movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israeli products.

When I hear “divestment,” I immediately think of South Africa, as is no doubt QuAIA’s goal: to equate the two situations. I can’t tell you if they’re comparable. In my university days I thought they were similar, albeit stemming from significantly different origins and therefore requiring different solutions. But I haven’t kept up with Middle Eastern politics sufficiently to claim an informed opinion now. Ironically, my only serious consideration of the plight of Palestinians in the last few years was inspired by an excellent Israeli film presented at the VQFF called The Bubble.

Shana Myara, VQFF’s new programming director, says she has no plans to comply with QuAIA’s request.

“They’re putting forward some excellent points and excellent discussion,” she says. But the film festival’s role is “to make sure that everyone in the community can come forward to discuss ideas together at the festival.”

“We continue to come back to our mandate,” she says, “which is to share queer stories and celebrate queer lives.”

It’s hard to share stories when the films telling them can’t be seen.

Ironically, QuAIA’s Toronto counterpart faces the same kind of censorship that the local group would now like to impose on the film festival.

Pride Toronto, squeamish about anyone publicly applying the word “apartheid” to Israel – and scared that a similarly squeamish city council would withdraw its funding – sparked enormous controversy in 2010 when it attempted to ban QuAIA from marching in the parade.

It eventually relented after furious community members pointed out the fallacy of censoring even unwelcome views in a parade founded on free expression. But the threat of funding cuts (and now funding “incentives”) still looms.

“This is about one thing: free speech. We don’t need to even talk about Israeli apartheid, because that’s not the point,” law professor Brenda Cossman said last month in reaction to Toronto City Council’s latest ploy to pressure Pride to ban QuAIA. “Free speech means sometimes hearing things you don’t like or are offended by.”

The answer is always more speech, one reader agreed, responding to our story about QuAIA’s protest against the VQFF last year. Other commenters supported QuAIA’s proposed boycott; still others debated the legitimacy of calling Israel an apartheid state. One person offered a long list of Israeli films whose portrayals of gay lives, both Israeli and Palestinian, have moved and informed him over the years.

I don’t want to look back to find that I inadvertently supported an apartheid regime. But I don’t think blocking discussion is the answer.

Assuming the Israeli government isn’t somehow circumventing the film selection process, I’m with the VQFF: better to keep sharing the stories – and holding the panel discussions immediately afterward.