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 @, 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.

13 Responses to “The Rise of the Petty Gesture”

  1. Christopher Says:

    ban israel and palestine and the politically correct to their rooms until they learn how to behave..

  2. This made me think of Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir”, which is an Israeli film criticising Israel’s invasion of Lebanon back in the 80s and, besides, it’s presented in a rather innovative film format (an animated documentary).

  3. My theory about documentary is that it’s essentially a mode of perception: if the audience thinks the film it’s watching is a documentary, or rather, if it’s led to believe it is, then it is. It might or might not be true, but it’s a documentary. No actuality footage need be present for it to be a truthful documentary.

    I think having a debate would be nice, even if it were around the non-issue of the £300. But Loach doesn’t seem interested in debate.

    I think we should all be shouting about Israel’s atrocities. But the discussion needs to make sense, and here, Sinyor has the edge. He’s at least consistent.

  4. Ella Taylor Says:

    Sane and excellent piece by David Cairns. I would only add that while we’re “shouting about Israel’s atrocities,” shouldn’t we also have a little scream about Hamas’s, up to and including their efforts to park women back in the Dark Ages?

  5. Well yes, but there are a lot of people doing that already, aren’t there? Most people, thankfully, aren’t keen on terrorism and suicide bombing. Unfortunately, most people still seem to have a lot of time for official military action. They don’t like the idea of soldiers deliberately targeting kids, but as long as its kept out of the news they can sleep fine.

    Dishonourable actions by Israel and ourselves give power and popularity to Hamas. I don’t suggest that the problem will go away entirely if Palestine becomes a free state, but it will only get worse in the meantime.

    So yes, we should be aware of atrocities on both sides. I was basically trying to see what Loach might be trying to achieve, and then wondering why he didn’t seem to be doing it.

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Ken Loach threatens to boycott the Edinburgh Film Festival?!

    I would call that a blessing in disguise.

  7. It’s uncertain to me whether Red Ken would even have the authority to withdraw his film from the festival — that would be up to the distributor.

    I’ve little interest in his work, or Sinyor’s, but obviously the festival should be free to pick the best films available without worrying about such considerations. There are many countries with appalling human rights records, but we still take money from them. If Loach pays his taxes then he’s actually guilty of giving money TO a country involved in human rights abuses.

  8. Seamas O'Reilly Says:

    I’d like to presume that Ken’s unwillingness to give a full and coherent defense of his position is based on a reluctance to do so through the vehicle of “the open letter”, a medium so loathsome and self-serving it only ever seems to have a personalising, “I Am Bigger Than This Story” effect. BUT, Ken has already made himself bigger than the story here, so I think unless he makes further, clarifying statements as loud as he can, he has only himself to blame if it comes off as him taking his ball and going home.

    Israeli boycotts are really only deployed FOR their press-gaining effects, in the same way that Apartheid boycotts raised more awareness of their deeds than they did economic pressure. For this reason, it would be preferable if Ken could do everything in his power to articulate that statement so that it comes off less like the straw man argument of a self-important, “politically-correct”* veto.

    The main problem with the struggle to publicise Israel’s wrongdoings is the complacency commonly engendered by official sanction. The acceptance of Israel’s actions on the part of our governments (speaking here of Britain, and to a lesser extent Ireland), and Israel’s outward pretense of being a democratic, civilising force amid a continent of keening extremists, is a situation which has bred an odd commonality between Israel and Western states. A sense of them being more ‘us’ than THEM, to the extent that we fund them and continue extremely amicable diplomatic relationships except for every once in a while when one of our photographers or aid workers gets killed and then we get in a muted miff for a couple of weeks.

    This perception among some that people decrying Israel are somehow denying Hamas’ crimes ignores this greater truth. The greater ire against Israel by many is not merely as a response to the vast, vast majority of total crimes within the state being their responsibility, endemically enacted and cynically under-reported. It is simply a good moral basis to state that when our governments praise, support and fund repulsive actions, we are ourselves rendered complicit unless we articulate our opposition.

    For this reason, there is a greater onus on British people to demonstrate against Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war than there is for them to do so against Saddam Hussein’s military actions, no matter how equally oppressive and cynical. The people I know who did demonstrate against Saddam did so in the eighties, when he was getting a great deal of his lovely weapons from Luton and Birmingham. Similarly, there is a greater onus to criticise Israel than Hamas, an organisation who, repellent as they are, do not receive official sanction nor your taxes.

    Having said that, I thought The Wind That Shakes The Barley was The Boring That Dulls The Tedious.

  9. Ella Taylor Says:

    “Well yes, but there are a lot of people doing that already, aren’t there? ”
    Right, but unfortunately those people tend to dovetail rather reliably with those who, at the very least, extend a warm welcome to suicide bombers — and by no means only in Gaza. I don’t support the occupation either, but I don’t believe we can pin all of Hamas’s excesses on Israel. I’m not suggesting you do, but such subtleties don’t interest Mr. Loach, which is probably we he refuses further debate.

  10. Hamas is an extremist organisation and would still be that even if Israel behaved more moderately, I accept. But Hamas have certainly gained in popularity as a result of Israel’s aggression.

    I basically endorse everything Seamas says. Although I can imagine an open letter being a last resort for somebody desperate to get their point of view across.

  11. Seamas O'Reilly Says:

    But surely, the possibility – or fact – that a viewpoint might be co-opted by those with nefarious intentions is irrelevant to said viewpoint. I know I personally have no interest in exonerating those people who harbour similar sentiments to mine for dubious ends, and I’d imagine Ken Loach feels similarly. Drawing a clear and direct philosophical parallel between Loach and those who commit suicide bombings, ignoring their dual bases for either argument, is illogical at best, and highly cynical when dressed up as some form of ‘call for balance’.

    For example, I wouldn’t particularly like to spend a night with the irrefutable saps that populate the Dublin Fish-Slappers Association, yet obviously, my enjoyment of Monty Python remains untainted.

  12. Agreed again. I think that’s very lucidly put.

    I guess we just have to be extra clear what we’re saying, because it’s easy for anti-militarism to be misapprehended or mis-portrayed as anti-Semitism or pro-Hamas views, and that doesn’t help clarify the arguments.

  13. Ella Taylor Says:

    Amen to that.

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