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October 5, 2012 2:55 pm

Palestinian Films Suffer no Lack of Funding or Exposure

avatar by Steven Stotsky / JointMedia News Service

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Inside the Boston-based Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the host of an upcoming weeklong Palestinian film festival.

Starting Oct. 5, for the sixth year in a row, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston is hosting a weeklong Palestinian film series. Bestowing such importance upon Palestinian films seems out of step at a time when the West Bank and Gaza remain relatively placid in comparison to events unfolding throughout the Middle East.

But rather than introduce audiences to the broader Arab culture at such a crucial juncture, the film program limits its audience to Palestinian films recycling the usual and increasingly stale theme of Israeli mistreatment.

The MFA’s focus on the Palestinians evidences a failure to stay current and explore what’s new. What self-imposed obstacles impede the administrators of the film program from reaching out to filmmakers in the region beyond the narrow confines of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza? Surely, among the 200 million people in the Arab-dominated states of the Middle East and North Africa there must be many filmmakers eager to share their stories and document their societies in a moment of wrenching transition.

One cannot help but wonder if the MFA’s adherence to the limited selection of Palestinian films year after year is due to misplaced priorities, giving greater weight to a political agenda over contemporary relevance and new themes. The complacency of the program implicates the benefactors of the program as well, who continue to fund a program that attaches greater importance to promoting the Palestinian cause than to revealing the less well understood, but more profound transformation in the region.

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It is not as if Palestinian films suffer from lack of exposure. It is the Palestinian’s good fortune to have Israel, a westernized Jewish state, as its enemy. During the height of the Second Intifada in 2001-2004, international interest in Palestinian films flowed from the intense news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portraying the Palestinians as the underdog.

This enabled the Palestinians to garner celebrity victim status among an influential element who patronize independent films. But the Intifada had burned itself out by the time the MFA initiated its Palestinian film series in 2007. The MFA, rather than acting as a leading edge for new films, instead relegated itself to the role of a trendy follower.

Numerous Palestinian and Israeli-made films portraying Palestinian victimization at the hands of Israeli occupiers received widespread attention at important film festivals. Some films like “Ford Transit” and “Paradise Now” were feted by the media. Many Palestinian films lambaste Israel in propagandistic fashion. “Writers on the Borders,” a film that featured several Nobel Prize winners in literature was one especially noxious example. In that film, Portuguese author Jose Saramago odiously asserted: “what is happening in Palestine is a crime on the same plane as Auschwitz.”

In 2005, the Sundance Cable TV channel, associated with the popular Sundance film festival, repeatedly aired over the course of several months eight Palestinian and Israeli films that portray Israelis as oppressors and Palestinians only as victims.

Palestinian victimization is again a major theme of this year’s selection of films for the Palestine series. The MFA website provides an overview of the 2012 film topics include the following:

—A film about released Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails

—A film documenting “non-violent” protests against Israel’s security fence in Bil’in

—A film presenting the Palestinian side of Israeli settlers occupying a Palestinian man’s home in Jerusalem

There is little new ground here. One film that does offer a new angle, titled “Private Sun,” blames a young West Bank girl’s vitamin D deficiency on “nosy neighbors, an overbearing sister in law and Israeli surveillance planes.”

The MFA dedicates weeklong film series to just a few specific groups of people. In 2012, just five select groups were distinguished; along with the Palestinians, there was a series featuring Iranian films (starting January 20), Turkish films (starting March 22), Jewish films (starting April 18) and LGBT (starting May 4) films. The Jewish series featured several Holocaust-related films, while neglecting Israel.

The film program is designated “The Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Film Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.” Its principal sponsor is the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, a major Jewish benefactor in the Boston area. Other Jewish sponsors appear among the short list of benefactors. It is notable that a film series endlessly rehashing theme of Palestinian victimization at the hands of Jews has Jewish sponsors.

Where are the Jewish and Arab sponsors of films telling the compelling story of how the Jewish state grapples with vexing societal conflict and yet retains a flourishing, open society—all while threatened by enemies that encircle it? Why is that story less worthy?

Devoting so much attention to Palestinian films squeezes out more timely stories. How many filmmakers from Syria or Kurdistan, or Iraq and Yemen has the MFA sought out? What about filmmakers documenting life in Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea? Why doesn’t the preeminent art institution in Boston use its funding to seek out filmmakers from the expansive region that do not already benefit from trendy favoritism at film festivals and on independent film networks?

The MFA should free itself from the narrow scope imposed by a faddish political agenda and seek out gripping contemporary stories from filmmakers throughout the tumultuous Middle Eastern region. The tumultuous “Arab Spring” has introduced audiences to heretofore overlooked forces at work across the Middle East.

By continuing to attach such importance to Palestinian films, the MFA is stuck in the past, fixated on a story that no longer occupies the central stage. It needs to get current. One positive step would be to fold the Palestinian film series into a program that more broadly covers the Middle East region.

The writer (pictured) is a senior researcher for the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). Any opinions expressed above are solely his own.

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  • Lawrence kulak

    Ms Rubin may also be living in the past, as I believe that Israel has stopped bulldozing the homes of the families of the terrorists years ago to its detriment. And I am sorry to say but to compare the Palestinians self made predicament to the Holocaust is maddeningly ignorant and evidence of Jewish self-hatred. The Palestinian Film Festival was made for people like Ms. Rubin who are knee-jerk sympathizers with evil. In fact, you may even leave out the knee.

  • Lawrence kulak

    First, everyone should understand that the people who run museums are generally apolitical and only care about art. If they are forced to demonstrate political sensitivity it will be toward left wing causes because those represent the political sentiments of most artists.
    What Museum people care about most is donation and funding sources. These also originate mostly from left wing sources because those are the types of people who are the biggest patrons of the arts, it is sad to say.
    Beyond these fundamental considerations, The Palestinian Cause is sexy because everyone is aware of the fact that Israel is unable to act alone and is dependent upon world opinion. Promoting Israel’s adversary yields a feeling of power to evilly oriented men, as they feel that they are using their power to “squeeze” Israel. As we saw in Nazi Germany, some of the most intellectual, artistic and sophisticated people were the biggest sypmpathizers with the Hitler. Hopefully, this essentially explains the actions of the MFA as detailed in this article.

  • Gwen Rubin

    Mr. Stotsky, what are you so afraid of? Isn’t it reasonable that the Boston Palestine Film Festival would offer films about Palestine specifically? The purpose of the film festival, according to it’s website, is to “bring Palestine-related cinema, narratives, and culture to New England audiences.” – and that’s exactly what it does. You write that ” the MFA is stuck in the past, fixated on a story that no longer occupies the central stage. It needs to get current.” Mr. Stotsky, I challenge you to tell a Palestinian refugee who’s home has been bulldozed, that the theme of her suffering is “recycling the usual”. The Holocaust was almost 70 years ago, and I watch many films about it, as everyone should, – it is not old news, and it should never be seen as such. Never should a people’s suffering, current or past, be considered a “stale theme”. Despite your opinion, thank you for giving the Boston Palestine Film Festival some media buzz. Now that you’ve told me about it, I look forward to seeing the films. And I hope you view one too, before making judgement.

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