‘Pinkwashing’ Israel: How Melbourne’s Queer Film Festival became the target of protest

There’s a proud history of protest in the gay rights movement, but this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival has found itself in the unusual and unwelcome position of being the target of a protest.

The festival has been accused of helping to “perpetrate institutional violence” against Palestinians by including an Israeli feature, The Swimmer, in its program. It has also been accused of not doing enough to represent the diversity of LGBTQI+ experiences in its broader programming, ignoring films and filmmakers from large parts of the world.

Omer Perelman Striks in The Swimmer.

The campaign was led by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions protesters – who seek to use cultural boycotts as a way of pressuring Israel to change its policies towards Palestinians – and it played out across social media, with promises to cancel tickets and boycott screenings. It played out in the real world too, where dozens of placard-waving protesters gathered outside the Jam Factory last weekend, and were eventually met by police. It played out within the program, with the makers of 10 shorts and one feature withdrawing their films in support of the BDS campaign (protesters plan to hold two “counter-screening” events showcasing these films early next month).

It even played out at board level, with two members of the festival’s governing committee resigning in the wake of the protests (this masthead understands, however, that one of those board members had never actually attended a meeting of the MQFF board).

For a festival that was meant to be a celebration of normal programming after two COVID-interrupted years, it has come as a rather rude awakening. But arguably, the organisers might have seen it coming.

In March, New York-based activist Muhib Nabulsi wrote to the festival, which has three staff and has been running for more than 30 years, to object to the “harmful programming” of Israeli director Eytan Fox’s film Sublet in an online-only mini-event that month.

“Fox’s films have been widely criticised for ‘pinkwashing’ – perpetuating an image of Israel as a queer-friendly safe-haven in order to conceal the immense injustices committed against the Palestinian people, especially queer Palestinians,” Nabulsi wrote.

“An essential component of pinkwashing – and the reason it is so fervently supported by the Israeli government – is its utility in propagating the notion that Israel is ‘the only liberal democracy in the Middle East’,” he continued.

“The absence of Palestinian films in your program – or those from anywhere else in the Arabic-speaking world – inevitably contributes to the further promulgation of this falsehood.”

The charge of “pinkwashing” has become a strategic tool in the campaign against Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, with activist group Pinkwatching Israel hailing the “global movement to promote queer-powered calls against pinkwashing and pushing the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment Campaign against Israel to the forefront of the global queer movement”.

Program director Spiro Economopoulos wrote back in defence of the festival’s commitment to diversity, citing films in recent years from Kenya and Nigeria and “the Arabic-speaking world”. However, he added that “in regards to focusing on queer African and Arab-speaking stories, we just didn’t have the quality or quantity of films available to us”.

In November, the issue flared up again over The Swimmer.

To be clear, it is not the content of the film that is at stake. “The issue is the mode of cultural production,” Sydney-based Palestinian activist Fahad Ali wrote of the issue last week that “where an artist in Israel who might otherwise be well-meaning is given a conditional grant that requires … adherence to content guidelines that prohibit a critical view of the State of Israel”.

The Swimmer received 800,000 shekels (roughly $A350,000) towards its budget from the Israel Film Fund (the fund claims feature budgets in the country typically range between $US500,000 to $US1 million). BDS activists claim that, in order to receive such funding, artists “must sign a contract that includes two clauses that declare: (1) I will not undermine the policies of the state of Israel, and (2) I will do my best to serve the policies of the state of Israel. This is state propaganda.”

The protesters’ view is that including a film from Israel that has received state funding is, therefore, tantamount to tacit approval of the state’s policies vis a vis Palestine – policies that they equate with apartheid and/or fascism. And on that basis, a festival that purports to support all LGBTQI+ communities can not in good conscience program such a film.

MQFF is not the only queer film festival to have been targeted in this way.

The Palestinian short film Borekas screens at MQFF 2021 in the Guy on Guy program of shorts.Credit:MQFF

“I understand the issues they’ve been raising are important ones, and that the issues faced by queer people in Palestine are real, and there isn’t a lot of space in our program for them,” says MQFF co-president David Micallef. “Where we disagree with the campaign is the idea that to redress that issue you cancel out other voices within the community.

“We provide a platform for stories to be told, and there are other ways we can raise up voices that don’t involve asking other communities not to be part of the festival.”

Micallef says Economopoulos reported that, in his six years programming the festival, only one short film from Palestine had crossed his desk (Borekas is screening in the Guy on Guy short program on Saturday night). “It is difficult to get content from queer Palestinians,” Micallef says.

But Fahad Ali insisted such content was there for anyone who looked hard enough. He sent this masthead a list of titles – six shorts, a couple of art videos, and two features, including Elia Suleiman’s 2019 film It Must Be Heaven, which received a Special Mention at Cannes – from queer Palestinian filmmakers. “This is very likely not an exhaustive list,” he added.

Difficult though this episode has been, Micallef says the festival has learnt from it.

“There’s work we have to do post this,” he says. “The protests have raised some interesting issues, and we’ve raised them with the board and with the government. There will definitely be some change for us.”

Part of it, he concedes, is generational, as the traditional gay and lesbian stakeholders of queer culture are being forced to make room for a broader conception of the constituency.

“We realise we need to make sure we are listening to the community and that the community continues to change and be aligned to community views,” he says. “Not specifically about the issue that the protesters have raised, but how we represent all sectors of the community.”

On the question of films from Israel, however, he is unyielding.

“We will not discriminate based on country or national identity,” he says. “If in the future a film were to come from Israel, it would be assessed on its merits.”

with Marta Pascual Juanola

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