"My films were and still are part of the effort to open the eyes of those who refuse to see the political realities in Israel. (...). I learned, in the hard way, that in order to learn the lessons of history, nations do not go to the movies; they go to war.”
(Judd Ne'eman , in his acceptance speech while receiving the Award for Special Contribution to Israeli Cinema , Haifa Film festival 2006)
Haifa, pleasantly located on hills overlooking the Meditearrenean sea and its huge industrial port, is a charming and bustling cosmopolitan city, famed for its peaceful co-existence of Jews and Arabs.
Home to famous writers, intellectuals and filmmakers proponent of Jewish Arab co-existence, such as the renowned Arab Israeli author Emile Habibi, who created the emblematic arab-language newspaper Al Itihad, Sami Michael, the iraqi-born writer, former communist activist and acclaimed author of “Trumped in the Wadi” , or Amos Gitaï, for whom his hometown represents the Mediterranean city par excellence, nourished by the mixture of origins and faiths, the city hosts also the Haifa International Film Festival, committed to mutual understanding by promoting for example tiredly Palestinian film directors.
Created in 1983, the festival takes place each year during the Succoth holiday and has become over the years one of the biggest film events in Israel with an amazingly strong local audience, thus impregnating during 8 days the life in the city. This year, the screenings in the five different venues were packed, from morning till late into the evening and attracted over 60 000 people. But that is without counting the other huge crowd who filled every evening the plaza in front of the theaters with its free concerts, food stands and beer-stands, conveniently run by the main sponsor, a famous beer company. The rich but uneven program ranged from of over 150 international films - gala screenings of prestige Hollywood movies such as Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Allans Coulter’s Hollywoodland, a “best of Cannes, Berlin and Venice’ selection in the Mediterranean Film competition (with Bruno Dumont’s Flanders winning the Golden Anchor Award), the New Directors – Fipresci Competition, to a Sam Peckingpah and Roberto Rosselini Retrospective, and featured about sixty-seven new Israeli shorts, fiction, TV dramas and documentaries.
While fighting ones way through the dense and joyful crowd gathering every evening in the adjacent streets till 2 or 3 in the morning, it was hard to believe that only two months ago the city was living in a war zone. And weren’t it for the dozens of heavily armed military and police, standing like out of place in the peaceful and lush parc behind the Kinematek for their daily briefing, the police-cars, parked alongside of the main festival venue with their engine kept running, and the overall presence of security guards controlling thoroughly every single entry in the round, one could have felt like in any other Mediterranean city.
However, even though obvious signs of damage left of the barrage of rockets that had hit the city by surprise are not longer visible, the famous Katyuchas are still very much present in everybody’s the mind who had lived within in the city during this summer. Since the end of the war in Lebanon, Haifa’s stronghold of coexistence is finding it difficult to recover from the blows it suffered, and suspicion and loss of trust seem to be creeping into the mixed neighborhoods.
In discussions with people the festival crowd, this traumatism seems to have erased the slightest expression of compassion for the death and the massive destruction that had happened less than 50 km further away in the north, on the other side of the Lebanese border.
Obviously, the war had cast its shadows also on the festival. “Preparing the festival during the war was a terrible problem” explained Festival director Pneena Blayer , “we had Katyuchas falling right behind the Cinematek, our communication system was interrupted, we held our meetings in bomb shelters, and sometimes, when I spoke over the cell phone with my staff I heard the rockets falling around them as they went to work. And of course sending out invitations in the middle of the war when we didn’t even know where the thing was leading us, was impossible.” This explains that the festival, who over the last years, received the visit of some of the biggest name in the film world, lacked this year very obviously the presence of foreign filmmakers, actors and international press. Brian De Palma, for example, was supposed to premiere his film "The Black Dahlia" at the festival, or Bruce Beresford, to name just a few of them, decided to cancel their visit.
But it was not only fear of renewed fighting that stopped foreign guests to attend.
Against the background of the war in Lebanon and the ongoing military operations in the territories, a Palestinian petition called in August for a boycott of Israeli cultural institutions which was largely echoed through several film festivals . Among the international renowned figures who heeded the call were British filmmaker Ken Loach, who won the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival with his film "The Wind that Shakes the Barley." As a result of the boycott, Loach had turned down the invitation to attend the Haifa film festival, a decision which had been extensively trumpeted through international print and online media. But while Loach boycotted Haifa, not only the festival did not boycott Loach and kept the film in the program – a decision, that earned Pnina Blayer harsh criticism from the local media – but it gave also this year the Award for Special Contribution to Israeli Cinema to Judd Ne’eman, a distinguished filmmaker, teacher, producer, and writer known for his anti-war films and uncompromising left-wing positions. There could have been no better response to the boycott call of the Haifa festival than the speech Ne’eman delivered publicly during the opening session.
“We all know that in accepting a tribute one also gives consent to cooperate with the body that accords the honors. I do, of course, respect the Haifa Film Festival that promotes values of human rights in the cinema, values in which I believe. However, as is the case with other public institutes, the Haifa festival also has a partner – the Israeli government. As a filmmaker, I have never shaken hands with the government; and now, upon accepting this tribute, my hand is somewhat unsteady.(…)
A film is not a political tool, but at times, like politics, film pens the history of the future. In order to put an end to the horror show of ripped bodies from both sides of the border, the Israeli government must adopt Herzl's stance and confine the IDF to its bases. Instead of embarking on a new war, the government must dare to write the future of the region not in blood but in the ink of agreements and historical compromise. We have to commence talks with whoever wants to talk with us – Hamas, Syria, Hezbollah, Iran.
I am well aware that such a call will be rejected. However, in a democracy it is customary not to harm the opponents of the official policies. The way to neutralize them is much more sophisticated. They are told: we will not harm you or your property; you will just not be "one of us".
I feel great satisfaction that in all of my films I have managed to avoid being "one of us". And yet, in spite of that, you’ve decided to honor me today. And for that I thank you.”
Interestingly enough, just a couple of days after the end of the Haifa Film festival, one of the most acclaimed Palestinian filmmakers, Elia Suleiman, withdrew his support for the Palestinian petition calling for a boycott of all cultural activities participated in and sponsored by the state of Israel.
Barbara Lorey de Lacharriere