The Rise of the Petty Gesture
“Oo-er,” titters the comely Loach.
A brouhaha is brewing at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and typically I only find out about it via the internet. Nosing around at David Hudson’s The Daily @ IFC.com, where he was kind enough to link to my review of GENUINE, I read his piece on the EIFF story, and followed the link to the Independant’s coverage of it, and thence to filmmaker Gary Sinyor’s letter.
Here’s a summary for slow readers or slow connections, to save you following the links. The Israeli embassy paid $300 to the EIFF to help filmmaker Tali Shalom-Ezer, a graduate from Tel Aviv, attend the festival along with the film SURROGATE. Socialist Unity, a Palestinian campaign group protested the grant. The festival’s managing director, Ginnie Atkinson rejected the protest, saying that it would be dangerous to “politicising a cultural and artistic mission” would set a dangerous precedent.
Enter Ken Loach, threatening a boycott of the festival if they didn’t refuse the grant. A boycott by whom? By him and his pals, as far as I can see.
Ginnie reacted: “Although the festival is considered wholly cultural and apolitical, we consider the opinions of the film industry as a whole and, as such, accept that one film-maker’s recent statement speaks on behalf of the film community, therefore we will be returning the funding issued by the Israeli embassy.”
I know and like Ginnie, but I would accept filmmaker Gary Sinyor’s characterisation of this as “caving in.” As Sinyor pointed out, Loach has not been elected by anybody to speak on behalf of the film community (a fairly disparate and fractious bunch), and any such community would presumably include himself and indeed Shalom-Ezer, who did not agree to this decision.
Proving himself not above the odd petty gesture himself, Sinyor then wrote an open letter to the EIFF, requesting them to strike his name from their records (he won an award there in 1992 for his no-budget feature LEON THE PIG FARMER), saying “If I could cut the award in half and send half back I would.” Which makes me wonder, why can’t he?
Over at The Scotsman newspaper you can find a depressing debate going on about who’s more awful, the Israeli government or Hamas, and who’s more awful, the EIFF or Ken Loach. I’m more interested in analysing the thinking behind the threatened boycott and the responses first, because it seems like that’s the issue at hand.
Loach has declined to answer Sinyor’s letter, because he apparently does not “respond to personal attacks.” This seems a shame, because he’s not being attacked personally. Sinyor has said he doesn’t agree of Loach’s stance, which sounds like a call for a debate. Since spending £300 of Israel’s money does not seem like that significant an act, I assumed that Loach was jumping on the issue in order to start a debate and raise awareness of the very real problems in the Middle East, but apparently no, he doesn’t want to talk about it.
Sinyor and Shalom-Ezer have accused the festival of racism, in typing all Israelis as warmongers along with their present government. But that strikes me as naive too. Loach started off by saying clearly that Shalom-Ezer was personally welcome at the festival (nice of him; but again, it’s not really his call) and this was an attack on the present Israeli government, not on all Israelis. And of course you CAN boycott an entire nation without being racist. The sports boycott of Apartheid South Africa wasn’t an attack on all South Africans, indeed it was for the benefit of black South Africans, although it was recognised that some would suffer unfairly because of it. But there can come a point when you have to say NO, we just can’t have any dealings with you until you sort this out.
The question is, can we make that case stick for Israel? Sinyor deftly points out all sorts of ways in which Britain is not morally superior to Israel, including our participation in the invasion of Iraq. This seems to me like a golden opportunity for Ken Loach to step up and make a case, but he declines to. The atrocities committed in Gaza by Israeli forces are under-reported in many parts of the world, and Ken could get a bit more discussion going.
Furthermore, Shalom-Ezer makes the point against Loach, “He has created a situation in which going to see SURROGATE means supporting the state of Israel. He has made this connection.” Since Shalom-Ezer does not support Israel’s militarism, this does seem a bit unfair. To justify that injustice, you would really have to use this £300 dispute to actually SAY something.
Both Loach and Sinyor are at least arguing from clear positions, however, but I’m not clear about the festival’s stance. In agreeing to return the money, they repeated their desire to stand apart from politics, but then they say that they’re giving it back because Ken Loach has spoken. That doesn’t seem a very principled stand, and I’d like to hear more of their thinking. What’s reported in the press just doesn’t make sense. One has to hope it’s as inaccurate as usual.