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Vancouver Queer Film Festival tightens ad policy after Israeli ad

New policy prohibits overtly nationalist, ‘demeaning’ or ‘derogatory’ ads

The organizers of Vancouver’s annual Queer Film Festival have revised their sponsorship and advertising policy in response to controversy surrounding last year’s acceptance of advertising from a pro-Israel group, Yad b’Yad LGBTQ, in the festival guide.

The festival’s revised policy prohibits ads that feature “overt expressions of nationalism,” such as flags or wording that promotes the superiority of a nation, and says it will no longer accept funding from foreign governments, consulates or embassies, except for filmmakers’ travel expenses.  

“The issue that is of paramount importance to some members of our community is the Festival’s stance on Israel,” reads an open letter to the community from Out on Screen, dated April 23. “There has been incredible and polarized debate regarding our choices when we’ve presented queer Israeli film, or when we’ve published advertising from a local group that presents the Israeli flag alongside a Pride flag.”

After several years of opposition to the festival’s screening of Israeli films, three filmmakers pulled their films from the lineup and two queer organizations withdrew as community partners as a result of the Yad b’Yad ad in 2014, which they said was part of a “pinkwashing” campaign to distract public attention from Israel’s treatment of Palestinian people to focus instead on its gay rights record.

Among other things, the protesters called on the festival organizers to apologize for the ad, develop a pinkwashing policy, join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and educate themselves about Palestinian human rights.

Out on Screen says it won’t join the BDS movement, preferring instead to follow its own anti-oppression framework to determine its advertising/sponsorship policies and film curation.

“Our strong consensus is that our role as curators is stronger as we remain focussed on convening around films that have the power to inspire change and celebration — while remaining true to our analysis that acknowledges and rejects pinkwashing,” the organization states in its letter.

“We will continue to stand strong as allies against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and the manipulation of any religion’s tenets as supposed justifications for violence,” the letter adds.

In addition to prohibiting ads that feature “overt expressions of nationalism,” the new policy also rejects ads that promote hate speech and “demeaning and derogatory portrayals of individuals or groups,” and messages that convey “a negative religious message that might be deemed prejudicial to religious groups.”

Ads that promote the production, distribution or sale of weapons and life-threatening products won’t be accepted, either.

Asked who will decide what constitutes “demeaning and derogatory portrayals” or a “negative religious message,” festival programmer Shana Myara says, “it’s difficult to curate or bring people together around a theme to talk about” advertising.

“That’s what we do best with film,” she says. “With advertising we revised our policy so we no longer include national symbols.”

She did not specify what might constitute a life-threatening product in this context.

“Part of what moved us to change our advertising policy was reaffirming what our mission is: which is celebrating and advancing queer lives through film, education and dialogue. Advertising sales are meant to support this work,” she says. “Hopefully, by limiting symbols from nation states, we can return to letting a diverse, global line-up of films lead the discussion in any given festival year.”

Asked how much funding the festival has received in the past from foreign governments, Myara says it’s only received “very minimal” funding from consular sources. “In the last few years, the only consular funding Out on Screen has received is from the German consulate here in Vancouver,” she says. “They have provided financial support (under $1000) of our German film screenings.”

Fatima Jaffer facilitates the queer South Asian group Trikone Vancouver, which withdrew as a community partner last year. Although she is pleased with Out on Screen’s recognition of the “Israeli occupation’s systemization of control, dispossession and violence,” she says the new policy doesn’t go far enough.

“I appreciate the effort. I’m glad they’ve taken this seriously to some extent, but of course there are too many words that mean very little or can mean many things,” Jaffer says. “Pretty much all five statements beg the question: who decides what is going to be discriminatory, or life threatening, or who decides what negative religious messages are, or what’s demeaning, derogatory?”

“The main point is: how do they define anti-oppression and what are the proactive measures they will take around anti-oppression?” Jaffer continues. “That’s what we’re looking forward to seeing. Rather than just focusing on Israel, it would have been good if they also took proactive steps to look at the situation here in Canada.”

Myara says the three-month process of developing the revised policy gave organizers an opportunity to reflect on and clarify how they can make the festival a safer space for everyone, particularly those who are often marginalized or erased from the mainstream.

“As curators, the artists and the stories we have always worked so hard to source and highlight are by queers of colour, indigenous and trans community activists — this is the legacy we have shaped, with great intention, over 27 years,” she says.

“Last year, our Spotlight Director was Sydney Freeland,” she notes. “She’s a Navajo trans woman filmmaker standing up to incredible forces that, until now, have left her community nearly voiceless in American film. She was one of the many women directors who made up 50 percent of our lineup.”

Jaffer maintains the festival’s decision to not participate in the BDS campaign is inconsistent with anti-oppressive principles.

“That’s a position — despite all the words about being anti-oppressive — they have chosen not to join what is a call from Palestinian people in Palestine for support, which is to someone like me tantamount to saying ‘we don’t support the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.’ Hopefully this is a step toward this but at this point it’s hard to tell.”

Yad b’Yad co-chair Jonathan Lerner says the revised policy does little to promote diversity and understanding and is contrary to the values expressed by LGBT communities in Canada and abroad.

“Barring ethnic, religious or national symbols at the festival and in its materials is tantamount to censorship and is based on an inherently biased agenda, misinformation and a lack of understanding about a complex conflict in the Middle East,” he says.

“While the immediate target of Out on Screen’s policies may unfairly be Israel, and those of us in the LGBTQ community who support her, every group will be subject to limits on their freedom of expression at the festival as a result,” he says. “Just as Jews will no longer be able to use the Star of David alongside the Pride flag, First Nations too will also be unable to proudly display their symbols next to the Pride flag; no maple leaves are permitted; stars and stripes are out of the question.”  

“Out on Screen and the Vancouver Queer Film Festival’s supporters and attendees should consider whether — through this decision — the organization has truly remained an inclusive organization which is open to all,” Lerner says.