Israel at center of boycott row once again at Melbourne Film Festival

Filmmakers pull movie at Melbourne International Festival over Israeli government funding for coach plane ticket.

By Rik McKenzie

The Melbourne International Film Festival is a marquee event on the cultural calendar of Australia, in what some would call the world’s most livable and multicultural city. Once again, it was struck by controversy with independent film makers threatening legal action if their own movie was not revoked from the set-list. The row was sparked by funding for a return economy-class airfare for an Israeli director.

The makers of Son of Babylon, a film set in Iraq, wanted to withdraw their movie because the organizers of the festival received funding from the Israeli government. But the demand went unheard, and the film screened on July 26 and July 28 as scheduled.
“The festival was informed in enough time to stop the screening … therefore if you have knowingly disregarded our wishes and screened the film, we will of course be left with little alternative than to take appropriate action against the festival,” producer Isabelle Stead wrote to festival executive director Richard Moore last week in an email exchange leaked to crikey.com.au.

”You should not underestimate our resolve to ensure that our film is not associated with the state of Israel as long as it continues its illegal crimes against humanity,” she wrote.

This is not the first time a film has been revoked because of an Israeli influence. Ken Loach decided to withdraw his film Looking for Eric from last year’s festival on the same grounds. The veteran English filmmaker warned at the time that, ”if it did not reconsider the sponsorship, I would not allow the festival to screen my film”. Loach cited ”illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods” and ”the massacres in Gaza” as reasons for the boycott.

The festival’s executive director, Richard Moore, refused to give in to Loach’s demands and return the money to the Israeli government, saying that it would be ”like submitting to blackmail”. This refusal led to Moore being shunned by the Edinburgh Film Festival, which had bowed to Loach’s will. However, his stance led to the Melbourne festival being honored with the Liberty Victoria’s free speech award – the Voltaire award – given “in recognition of its refusal to buckle in the face of intense pressure from a left-wing extremist filmmaker last year.”

However, this year’s flare-up was a little different.

The director and co-producer of Son of Babylon, Mohammed Al-Daradji, requested that the festival cancel the two screenings of his film roughly 14 hours before the first scheduled screening.

Within two hours, Moore had replied. ”To request a withdrawal of the film on the day of the screening is simply not acceptable and shows a lack of respect for our organization,” he wrote. ”We are not able to replace the film at short notice and we will screen it today. I am prepared to consider other options for the second screening but I will also need to consider the financial ramifications.”

And as planned, the July 26 and 28 screening went ahead, prompting an angry email from Stead, who refused to comment openly about the issue.

“When we grant a festival permission to screen a film that took us years to make along with danger, blood, sweat and tears, we do so with trust,” she wrote. “I would have thought a festival would morally recognize the need to tell a Palestinian co-production that it was funded by the state of Israel.”

And this year, once again the film festival has been nominated and tipped as the front runner for the Liberty Victoria’s free speech award – the Voltaire award, for the same reason it won last year. “Its refusal to buckle in the face of intense pressure from a left-wing extremist filmmaker.”

I'm a teacher, writer, and activist based in Bangalore. I am dedicated to various issues including #BDS and Palestine, living Zero Waste, and reversing the effects of climate change.

Posted in Australian Organizing, BDS Success, Boycott, Cultural Boycott
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