5 min

Vancouver Queer Film Festival wise to resist Israeli boycott

A closer look at the festival’s open letter and a snapshot of Israeli opinions

The Vancouver Queer Film Festival’s interim executive director Metha Brown gets a warm and appreciative welcome from the audience on opening night Aug 13, 2015. Credit: Angelina Cantada

From the sustained, heartfelt standing ovation handed to outgoing executive director Drew Dennis, to the warmth that greeted the current stewards of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival as they launched their 27th season Aug 13 at the Playhouse, you might never have noticed the elephant in the room.

Or maybe there was no elephant.

Maybe the tension surrounding last year’s festival — as three filmmakers and two community partners pulled out to protest the festival’s inclusion of a pro-Israel ad in its program and its ongoing refusal to boycott Israeli films — has dissipated.

Maybe a majority of those audience members committed to boycotting Israel in pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian solution were satisfied with the festival’s soul-searching open letter to the community in April.

Despite my earlier anti-boycott stance supporting the festival, I felt poorly equipped to sort through the letter’s layered points and evaluate its position when I first read the five-page missive. Or maybe I just felt intimidated.

It’s without a doubt a daunting topic, fraught with decades of injustice on all sides, layers of prejudice, oppression, violence and retribution that seem too distant and complicated to untangle from here, certainly without years of careful study.

Then I went to Israel. Which is not to suggest for a second that a week of intense immersion in the politics of gay Pride in Tel Aviv — paradise to some, pinkwashing to others — suddenly qualifies me for any intelligent discourse on the subject. But at least I felt motivated to try.

As far as I can now tell, the festival’s honest, intelligent and well-reasoned open letter can be distilled down to eight key points:

“Out On Screen supports a just and peaceful solution for both Israeli and Palestinian peoples,” the letter says, though it acknowledges that the conflict “is an asymmetrical one: we recognize and agree with international law which recognizes the Israeli occupation’s systemization of control, dispossession and violence.”

“Out On Screen does not support anti-Semitism in any form. We recognize the difficult fact that anti-Semitism takes many shapes and is often hidden within many critiques of the state of Israel; however, we also strongly believe that criticism of the state of Israel is healthy, even necessary, as it is for any state.”

Out On Screen describes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and the call for a boycott of Israeli cultural products, as “a non-violent movement with a broad base of support in Palestinian civil society.”

But rather than join the BDS movement, the festival will use its own “anti-oppression framework” to guide its advertising/sponsorship processes and its film curation.

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

“We aim to convene critical, open dialogues around films that reflect our values of intersectionality, anti-oppression and social justice,” the letter says, adding that the festival will work with filmmakers from both Israel and Palestine who are “interested in critical dialogues” about the conflict and the occupation.

“We are committed to the power of art to hold complexity and paradox, to surprise and cast issues in a new light, to enlighten, add nuance — and, importantly — to spark critical thought, action and engagement.”

And finally, the festival tightened its ad policy to reject overt symbols of nationalism and hate speech. (As programming director Shana Myara told Daily Xtra in May: “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. 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.”)

To me, the real crux of the letter is powerfully reiterated in its conclusion:

“We wish to underscore our deep commitment to creating spaces that continue to inspire discussion, investigation and critique — and celebration. Yes, the fusion of art, queerness and social change can make for charged environments. This is the discomfort that comes with pluralism and healthy discourse.”

That line makes me smile every time. I haven’t wavered in my earlier anti-censorship position. I still believe that sharing — not silencing — our stories is the only way to learn, to question and, potentially, to grow.

Not unlike the reason I accepted the trip to Israel in the first place: to see for myself, to listen to people’s stories, to ask questions and learn first-hand from their direct experiences.

I asked many of the people I interviewed for my article on Tel Aviv Pride what they think of the boycott too. Not surprisingly, everyone I asked had a different perspective: one in favour, two opposed, and three more qualified looks at the pros and cons, and which types of boycotts may be more or less beneficial to whom.

Yair Hochner, artistic director of Tel Aviv’s annual LGBT film festival and a filmmaker in his own right, is adamant in his opposition to the boycott.

Hochner is critical of his government’s policies and believes that showing Israeli films is a key tool to challenge people’s ideas and to spark policy change.

Boycotting those films will only further empower the oppressive status quo, he says. “When people can’t talk with each other, they will never find peace.”

He thinks the answer is more collaboration, more cultural sharing, not less.

“This is the only way to change minds,” he says. “I really think that culture is important for that.”

In contrast, Israeli lesbian activist Tal Jarus-Hakak thinks a boycott may be the most effective way to change Israeli policy. Without international pressure, she says, the government won’t budge.

“I think it’s a move that is beneficial for Israel because it may force Israel to move,” she says.

“Most of our friends and family will be very, very annoyed by that [statement],” notes her partner Avital.

Israeli lesbian activist Hadar Namir is more qualified in her response. She supports a boycott of Israeli products, particularly those produced in the occupied territories. “Justified pressure,” she calls it.

“If you cannot pressure the state through political means, let’s pressure it through economic means,” she says.

But an academic or cultural boycott?

“I am more sceptical,” she says. “Ideas are not government. Ideas are not earning from the occupation. Products are physically made there.”

Ideas can be varied, she notes. “A lot of academic people may speak against the occupation — how can you know?”

Samira Saraya, an openly gay Palestinian woman, activist and actress living in Tel Aviv, also takes a qualified stance on the boycott.

“It’s complicated,” she says. The boycott is a good, non-violent tool that people can use, but like all tools it needs to be evaluated in each situation to assess its possible gains and losses.

The potential gain: “If bigger companies and countries stop supporting Israel, maybe it will reconsider its policy toward the Palestinian occupation,” Saraya says.

But, she asks, if an individual like herself boycotts a panel at a university and refuses to speak on that panel, what is really gained? The students are prevented from hearing a Palestinian point of view, she says. “I’m not sure how I gain from it.”

Personally, I would much rather hear Saraya’s take on any question than miss an opportunity to hear her voice.

I applaud the film festival for finding its own path forward to keep celebrating queer lives and inspiring healthy (and at times uncomfortable) debate through sharing, not censorship.

As for its opening film at the Playhouse, I personally found it too arty, self-indulgent and mildly anti-Mexican for my taste but my colleague Jeremy loved it. Good thing nobody censored the film on my account.