There’s no censorship here

(I should preface this post with a disclosure: I’m a long-time Melbourne International Film Festival [MIFF] attendee, and am quite partial to cinema.)

This week we learned that Richard Moore’s position as executive director of the Melbourne International Film Festival will not be renewed.

Finally, I thought, there is some kind of justice in Melbourne.

It isn’t new, this animosity I have toward Moore. It started when he first took over MIFF and I noticed the ‘State of Israel’ logo appearing on pamphlets and at screenings, next to the inscrutable term: cultural partner.

Some people, apparently, do not find a partnership with the State of Israel offensive. I tried to explain away the Moore/MIFF embracement of Israel as unawareness.

But I think there were some clues along the way. In 2007, MIFF ran a program celebrating Israeli cinema. In 2008, presumably due to the backlash from the ‘we love Israel –aren’t they stronger than ever’ stance, MIFF announced their Border Patrol section.

Moore told Jo Case:

Border Patrol is a spin-off from a focus we did last year on contemporary Israeli film. This year it’s the sixtieth anniversary of the birth of Israel, and we thought it would be nice to do a different version of that. There are four films, all dramas, and they’re dramas that look, in different forms and style, at the so-called ‘Israeli/Palestinian question’, from different perspectives.

‘So-called Israeli/Palestinian question’? Moore went on:

To be frank, there isn’t a lot of Palestinian cinema around. One film we’re featuring this year, Salt of the Sea, is very interesting as the very early beginnings of a Palestinian cinema. There’s Waltz with Bashir, which comes from Cannes this year, an animated documentary … it’s about one soldier’s repressed memory of going into the Palestinian refugee camps of the 1982 war against Lebanon, where the Israelis stood back and the Lebanese Phalangist forces massacred the refugees in the camps.

I saw both these films at that festival. Waltz with Bashir is amazing. It also distances Israel from any direct responsibility for the past 60 years of absolute dispossession of the Palestinian people.

Salt of the Sea is also amazing – and it’s amazing that it even got made, considering the filmmaker couldn’t get permission to shoot in any of the locations. It tells the story of a Palestinian-American who tries to return to her grandmother’s house. It screened once, somewhere close to midnight on a cold, wet weeknight.

Annemarie Jacir, writer and director of Salt of the Sea, says that she didn’t set out to make a political film, but ‘everything about Palestine is political.’

The Moore/MIFF/Israel relationship became a major problem last year when Ken Loach contacted Moore stating that he would withdraw his film from the festival if Moore continued to take money from the ‘State of Israel’.

Dear Richard Moore

Sadly, we learn that your festival is sponsored in part by the State of Israel.

As you are no doubt aware, many Palestinians, including artists and academics, have called for a boycott of events supported by Israel. There are many reasons for this; the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods, the massacres in Gaza, all are part of the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people.

We have no alternative but to respond to their appeal for help.

The Israeli poet, Aharon Shabtai, has said, “I do not believe that a state that maintains an occupation, committing on a daily basis crimes against civilians, deserves to be invited to any kind of cultural event.”

This is not a boycott of independent Israeli films or filmmakers but of the Israeli state.

We hope you can reconsider accepting Israel as a sponsor. If not, then we feel obliged to withdraw our film, Looking For Eric, from the festival.

Yours sincerely,

Ken Loach – Director

Paul Laverty – Writer

Rebecca O’Brien – Producer
Sixteen Films

Moore’s public response made it seem that Loach was trying to intimidate him, that Loach was wrong and that, fundamentally, this was an issue of censorship. ‘Mr Loach’s decision is part of an orchestrated campaign to target events that are in receipt of financial support from the State of Israel.’

And again, in the Guardian:

This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival was beset by attempts to censor our programme …

But for Loach the only question was the origin of that money. We were told that unless we rejected Israeli funding Loach would withdraw his latest film, Looking For Eric, already confirmed and printed in the official guide.

This isn’t the first time that Loach has pulled this stunt. Earlier this year the Edinburgh Film Festival buckled after complaints from Loach that Israel had provided £300 to fly director Tali Shalom-Ezer to the screening of her film Surrogate. The funding was withdrawn. This was a repeat of a shameful 2006 episode when Edinburgh returned a travel bursary funding flights for another Israeli director, Yoav Shamir.

Politics will always walk hand in hand with film, and with film festivals, but at the core of every festival, from Melbourne to Montreal, is the independence and integrity of the programme … To allow the personal politics of one filmmaker to proscribe a festival position would not only open a veritable floodgate, but also goes against the grain of what festivals stand for …

In other words, everyone has been given a royal dispensation from Loach to commit war crimes bar the Israelis.

Well, Richard, I disagree with you. Some rejoinders:

The program is censored, and subject to the politics and interests of the MIFF selectors. The films that screen have already been through a selection process. By taking money from the state of Israel, MIFF is openly declaring their partnership with an ‘illegal and oppressive regime’.

Another example? South Asian cinema is basically non-existent in the MIFF program. A region with over a billion people and you couldn’t find any independent cinema?

As MUFF so succinctly described Moore’s directorship:

There’s even a nod to right wing shenanigans that MUFF is known for, with the dicing of the PC Iranian and Middle East sections of MIFF in favour of our military and political ally Israel’s cinema.

And again here:

Also excellent is his Euro Debuts and his losing of the Iranian cinema nonsense over a strong section of Israeli films and cinema that all returns MIFF to its Occidental roots.

Occidental roots?

Edinburgh returned the funding because they realised the festival could pay the £300, rather than take the money from Israel. Given that it’s almost like a bribe, and an assurance that the state of Israel’s logo and presence is plastered over everything.

The Toronto International Film Festival last year planned to run a ‘sistership’ program with Tel Aviv – highlighting all that is wonderful about life in Tel Aviv. This resulted in ‘The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation’, signed by 1500 artists and writers:

Whether intentionally or not, [TIFF] has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine … We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers … nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF. However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of … an apartheid regime.

The thing that really disturbs me about Moore’s response is the fact that he does not understand, and by extension neither does MIFF, how very real and recent and brutal those Gazan war crimes were – and are.

Clearly, Richard Moore thinks that international law and crimes against humanity aren’t the concerns of a Melbourne film festival.

Meanwhile, unions, universities, academics, artists and filmmakers around the world are heeding the Palestinian call for a boycott campaign against Israel until it abides by its international obligations. Adhering to UN resolutions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention would be a start.

So where to now for MIFF?

2nd Letter/Reply Sent to Richard Moore

Dear Richard

Thank for your email.

We understand that Israel is and has been a sponsor of many festivals, including some which have shown our films. However, situations change. It is the Palestinians themselves, writers, artists, academics, people from all walks of life who are calling for our support. We are forced to make a choice by those who are suffering such intolerable oppression.

The boycott of apartheid South Africa suffered similar criticisms to the ones you now make. But who would now say it was wrong?

Film festivals will reflect many points of view, which are often radical and progressive. It is also true that there are many brutal regimes and many governments, including our own, which have committed war crimes. But the cultural boycott called for by the Palestinians means that remaining sympathetic but detached observers is no longer an option. You either support the boycott or break it.

For us the choice is clear.

Yours sincerely
Ken Loach
Rebecca O’Brien
Paul Laverty

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

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  1. No idea. The official announcement isn’t until 22 February and apparently Moore is unavailable for comment. Which sounds controversial, I think.

    Pre-Moore, James Hewsion was exec director for 6 years.

    Interestingly, the festival actually started in Olinda and I think the first director lasted for decades (this is unsourced as I can’t find the article).

    ‘The birth of a film festival’ sheds some light on the history of the festival, which includes such highlights as:

    At Olinda, politicians, scientists, journalists, clergy, artists and everyday film lovers spent the three days feasting on short films, documentaries and features from 50 countries.

    ASIO agents were there, too, to ensure that some of the communists and radicals among the organisers weren’t plotting to overthrow the nation. Accommodation was so limited that patrons slept in the forest, in the church hall or in strangers’ homes.

  2. Yes, one of the instigators behind the MFF was the Realist Film Association, the film group associated with the Communist Party (basically, they were to film what Overland was to literature). The Realists were some of the earliest film makers in Australia, and certainly some of the first film critics. There’s some great shots of them filming May Day marches in the 1940s.

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