The Israel Film Fund:
Interstitial Production in Palestinian Cinema and Patterns of Israeli National Branding and Censorship

Emily Lynell Edwards

Palestinian Cinema Under Occupation

 

Palestinian cinema is intimately related to the project of Palestinian nation-building. Scholarship on Palestinian cinema has focused particularly on questions of historical representation, collective memory, and the revolutionary potential of exilic cinema.[1] Yet, the question of industrial production of Palestinian cinema has been elided in scholarship and only recently been examined by rising scholars in theses and dissertations.[2] The reasons for the lacuna in scholarship are complex, including a lack of access to empirical and archival sources due to the on-going Israeli occupation and the small and underdeveloped size of the Palestinian film industry.[3]

 

With these challenges in mind, this article focuses on the relationship between Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers and the Israel Film Fund (IFF), a non-governmental organization that is funded by the Israeli Film Council under the Ministry of Culture. It aims to illuminate the relationship between the Israeli state, interstitial modes of production of Palestinian cinema, and practices of censorship which include textual censorship of scripts as well as forced registration and categorization of Palestinian films as “Israeli” on the international festival circuit.[4] Through these strategies of censorship, the state retains control of the film production process.[5] While the IFF may today employ “soft” forms of censorship through controlling the grant funding process,[6] the Israeli state has a long history of explicit legal censorship of artistic and cultural industries. In this way, Israel’s censorship of filmic content and erasure of the national Palestinian label abroad in the contemporary period is connected to historic and on-going forms of conservative ethnonationalist governmental policy.

 

Focusing on several IFF sponsored productions including Chronicle of a Disappearance (Elia Suleiman,1997), Lemon Tree (Eran Riklis, 2009), Tel Aviv on Fire (Sameh Zoabi, 2014), Villa Touma (Suha Arraf, 2018), and Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz, 2018), this essay examines how the Israeli government, through its funding of the IFF, marshals its financial support of films to go through a script review process and register the projects as Israeli abroad, thus promoting a cinema industry that produces films featuring a positive portrayal of the Israeli state and Israeli society.[7]

 

Due to the high costs of filming in Israel, most films receive some form of public funding.[8] IFF funds are available to Israeli citizens and Palestinian-Israelis who possess Israeli citizenship. For Palestinian and Palestinian-Israeli filmmakers there is an absence of institutional, public, or private financial support to fund productions within the Palestinian economy due to the historic marginalization and destruction of Palestinian cultural institutions, particularly since the destructive 1947-1949 War.[9] After the 1967 Arab-Israeli or Six Day War, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) established the Palestinian Film Unit and began producing a series of documentary-style political films to document the conflict; however, these films did not reach a commercial audience.[10] In comparison, the 1990s and the early 2000s were distinguished by a proliferation of films produced by Palestinian filmmakers in diaspora and funded by international, private, and public funds.[11]

 

These diasporic structures of industrial production render Palestinian filmmakers vulnerable to Israeli state censorship as filmmakers often rely upon funds from Israeli non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs such as the IFF attach financial support to positive or apolitical treatment of sensitive topics within scripts and increasingly require films to be categorized as Israeli in the context of international distribution structures. The exploration of the diasporic nature of Palestinian cinema has often focused on themes of psychological and cultural displacement within films.[12 While these questions of cultural memory and diasporic identity are important to consider, financial conditions and grant-funding institutions increasingly structure the material and industrial production of Palestinian cinema and thus the possible textual content of Palestinian films.

 

 

Industry Level Studies of Palestinian Cinema and Histories of Israeli Censorship

 

An industry level approach focusing on a particular organization brings together the “macro political economy scale” of the state of Israel and its occupation of Palestine with a “micro examination of individual organizations and productions” of the IFF.[13] Palestinian cinema may be defined as “accented cinema,” categorized by a mix of “personal, private, public, and philanthropic funding sources.” [14] The IFF is a philanthropic institution but is publicly funded by the Israeli government’s Ministry of Culture and thus is deeply imbricated within a larger process of national branding and censorship of media.

 

The nation-brand concept imagines the nation-state in the position of a corporate institution.[15]  For Israel to achieve a coherent brand requires the coordinated effort of “key-stakeholders,” state and industry, who together express “dominant values” that define the majority population and translate these values as products and images to an international audience.[16] The state of Israel seeks to shift international perception of Israel as the aggressor in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict abroad and to reinforce the state’s founding as an explicitly Jewish state to its citizenry at home.[17] To achieve this program of nation-branding requires the state to censor films which problematize this national image through various policies. The Israeli state engages in a program of branding that has been defined as a “structured process that not only manipulates the characteristics of a business’s [or nation’s] image, but also is essential to its process of strategic planning.”[18] Image “manipulation” then is connected to Israel’s management of the film production process. An institution that supports and produces high-quality, critical cinema, the IFF lends financial backing to filmmakers that accept modification or manipulation of their scripts and registration of their projects as Israeli. Increasingly, the IFF has utilized this more nuanced form of censorship of forced registration, manipulating the national categorization of films distributed internationally as “Israeli” rather than “Palestinian,” thereby preserving a positive Israeli image abroad as well as the primacy of Israeli cultural products over Palestinian films. However, these forms of manipulation of films are not unprecedented but related to a longer genealogy of state censorship.

 

The IFF and its current policies are situated within a historical context of previous patterns of state censorship that targeted the theater industry. The Board for Films and Theater Review, established in 1949, monitored and censored theater and early film productions,[19] engaging in an early and explicit form of media control and image manipulation. Censorship of artistic productions was related to what Illan Ben-Ami deems Israel’s “three scared cows”:antireligion material, anti-Israeli propaganda, especially if directed at its Arab citizens, and, of course, any material that could possibly jeopardize Israeli national security or foreign affairs… [and issues] related to
the Israeli Defense Forces (DF) and to Israel's wars.[20] Today these “three sacred cows” are still points of contention in Israel, even for the IFF, which describes its aims as funding and supporting the exhibition of films that deal with a variety of sensitive issues including “the complex relations between Jews and Arabs; the impact of the Holocaust; religious versus secular cultures; the service in the Israeli military and many others.”[21] While the Board for Films and Theatre Review was disbanded after strong industry protest in the late 1980s, this did not result in a fully open climate of artistic production in Israel.[22] While ostensibly the stated mission of the IFF is to produce progressive and political cinema, its intimate financial relationship with the Israeli government illustrates how the organization is still influenced by the state. The contemporary rise of the far-right Likud Party has intensified rather than lessened the state’s sensitivity to the “three sacred cows.”[23] Censorship has not gone away in Israel but rather shifted form to become more nuanced and opaque. Tracing the IFF’s grant funding process, however, reveals a clear narrative of institutional control, erasure of politically sensitive material, and elimination of the “Palestinian” national label in international markets.

 

 

The Israel Film Fund: Institutional Context and Practices

 

The IFF was founded in 1979 after a group of filmmakers including Judd Neeman, Renen Schorr, Ram Levi, Nissim Dayan, and Uzi Peres “voiced their need to create a public support system for more personal art house cinema independent and free of pure commercial interests.”[24] The Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, established the IFF under the domain of the Ministry of Culture in 1979.[25] The fund aims to support the funding and exhibition of “quality cinema,” that is, cinema that deals with “with the most relevant, challenging and often controversial issues and stories” in Israeli society.[26]

 

The IFF states on its website that as an institution it funds “Israeli producers, directors, scriptwriters with a proven professional background, who are Israeli citizens or permanent residents” and “encourages co-productions with…an Israeli producer.”[27] Since the passage of the New Cinema Law by the Likud-led government in late 2018,[28] however, the IFF has since made a change to its website that “The Israel Film Fund encourages co-productions with International partners who are welcome to apply and submit projects with an Israeli producer,” the underline emphasizing the importance of the Israeli label.[29] The IFF provides filmmakers with “Script & Project Development, Production, Marketing & Distribution in Israel, Promoting the Film World Wide,”[30] thus engaging in specific and targeted brand management of films internationally. It is clear that the organization has two key aims in the context of the grant process—to control the textual content of films and to manage the way in which films are categorized and distributed to international audiences. As such, the IFF functions to promote the Israeli national brand rather than the “Palestinian” label and to minimize textual content within scripts that is critical of the Israeli state.

Figure 1: The Israel Film Fund Description of the Reading & Selection Process (example).[31]

 

Figure 1 shows the IFF’s description of its reading and selection process. The IFF first reads scripts to decide if the projects will move to the next stage of selection, suggesting that the textual content of the films is reviewed for supposed subversion. If a script moves to the second stage, then the filmmakers put together a package where the Director of the Fund reviews the script with consultants. The IFF exerts incredible power over the final approval of films; they state that, “before signing the Fund’s Investment Contract, the revised and updated version of the script is being read again by the Director of the Fund and the Consultants.” The texts goes on to note that the “Director of the Fund reserves the right to ask for additional work on the script and the production planning as a condition to signing the investment contract.”

 

The IFF offers “professional consultants” to provide additional script editing at this final stage. Miri Regev, the Israeli Minister of Culture appointed by the Likud administration, in her campaign for the New Cinema Law, proposed hiring of a body of script readers to review scripts for films that would receive governmental funds.[32] There is a clear parallel to Minister Regev’s suggestion of an imposition of a body of script readers to current IFF institutional practices of providing “professional consultants” to read and revise scripts, both groups are designed to identify critical elements in scripts that may receive Israeli governmental funds. The IFF however, frames the offer of “professional consultants” to filmmakers as a special service rather than a practice of institutional censorship. Ultimately, the result of these institutional policies is that until the end of grant process, the IFF retains total control over script content by withholding grant funds from filmmakers until a script receives full approval. If filmmakers refuse to make changes to the final script, then the IFF may withdraw financial support from the film.

 

This process, which takes place behind closed doors, represents a more nuanced iteration of the Board for Films and Theatre Review in which filmmakers who seek IFF funding are not explicitly censored, but rather can be jettisoned if they do not make changes desired by the IFF. The practice of forced registration of Palestinian films as Israeli at international festivals has only recently become clear after a highly publicized conflict between Palestinian filmmaker Suha Arraf and the IFF in 2014.[33] Juxtaposing patterns of registration of older IFF films to current projects, we see a shift towards increased IFF restriction over the Israeli brand in the 2010s. IFF funded films produced from the late 1990s to the 2010s demonstrate the institution’s shift from embracing some content that deals with Ben Ami’s “three sacred cows,” including content that is critical of Judaism, the Israeli state, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), towards increased management of the Israeli brand on the festival circuit due to pressure from the Likud-led government to censor films that feature content that is critical of the Israeli regime.

 

 

IFF Productions: Evolving Strategies to Censor Palestinian Cinema

 

The IFF has funded several Palestinian productions that contain elements that are critical of Israeli state policies, the occupation of Palestinian land, and the conduct of the Israeli military. Since the 2010s, however, the IFF has sought to increasingly categorize films as “Israeli” for international distribution and to limit scripts that are highly critical of the Israeli state, even if these films are made by Israeli directors. These institutional shifts within the IFF are paralleled by the ascendency of the conservative Likud Party and the Israeli government’s rightward shift that reached a zenith in the 2015 Israeli elections.[34] Juxtaposing two IFF-funded films from the late 1990s and early 2000s, Chronicle of a Disappearance and Lemon Tree, with a more substantive discussion of three more recently released IFF-films, it is clear that IFF affiliated films and Palestinian, as well as Israeli, filmmakers have increasingly been affected by more aggressive Israeli national branding practices and the ethno-conservative policies of the far-right Likud administration.

 

Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance was one of the first major Palestinian films to break through to an international audience and was funded by the IFF.[35] Chronicle of a Disappearance is a non-linear film where Suleiman plays himself returning to Palestine’s occupied West Bank. The film features a series of vignettes and plays with visual imagery to point towards the fraught relationship between Israelis and Palestinians; what appears to be a bomb in the hand of a Palestinian is revealed to be an innocuous lighter. Suleiman’s film demonstrates that during the late 1990s the IFF, in a limited aspect, honored its mission statement to produce films that dealt with the politically sensitive content of Palestinian-Israeli relations.[36]

 

Perhaps more importantly in this discussion of industrial production and distribution of Palestinian cinema, Chronicle of a Disappearance was predominately registered and distributed internationally as a Palestinian rather than an Israeli film. At the Nantes Three Continent Festival in 1996, Sulieman’s film was registered under “Palestine” in the Official Selection for International Competition and won three awards; ARTE Award, Best Score, and the Silver Montgoliere Award.[37] Only in one case, of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) was the film classified solely as an Israeli film, a festival where Sulieman and the film did not receive any awards.[38]

 

Despite the IFF’s funding of the film, during this period, international categorization and branding of films was not the most salient issue for the organization. In an interview discussing his work, Suleiman attested that “[m]y films are Palestinian because I am Palestinian.”[39] In registering the film as Palestinian at the Nantes Three Continent Festival in 1996, Suleiman faced no repercussions that Palestinian filmmakers who went to register their IFF-funded films as “Palestinian” would face in later years. During this period the IFF, and by extension the Israeli government, was not acutely concerned with national branding or with the textual content of films that received state funding.

 

In a discussion regarding funding and creative freedom Suleiman noted that “Palestinian directors, are not in an easy situation . . . if you accept the conditions of the funders, if you agree to play by the rules of the game, you give in.”[40] While the funding process of Chronicle of a Disappearance in 1997 did not feature the same policies of “soft” censorship that exist today and greatly limit creative freedom, Suleiman’s assessment of the contentious relationship between Palestinian filmmakers and funding bodies is prophetic, particularly in the context of increased IFF censorship in the late 2000s. At this point in the IFF’s institutional history in the 1990s, the concept of nation as brand was less solidified, and furthermore, the conflict between Palestine and Israel was in a period of abatement. The Board for Films and Theatre Review been disbanded,[41] and the First Intifada (1987-1993), the first mass Palestinian uprising against the occupation, had ended by the time of Suleiman’s production and release of Chronicle of a Disappearance.[42]

 

Lemon Tree was one of the last films that demonstrated the IFF’s financial support of politically progressive cinema before the 2009 election, which saw a substantial electoral victory for the Likud Party, signaling their future electoral success in 2015.[43] Directed by Israeli Eran Riklis, the film featured Palestinian actor Ali Suliman, who headlined the Palestinian production Paradise Now (2005), directed by Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad. Palestinian-Israeli Suha Arraf served as a scriptwriter for the film. Lemon Tree follows Salma, a Palestinian widow, whose life on her ancestral lemon tree grove is complicated by the encroachment of Israeli settlements when the Israeli Minister of Defense moves next door. In the film, Salma embarks on a journey to save her family property in Israeli courts when the Minister decrees her groves should be removed as a security threat.

 

The film’s centralization of a Palestinian female character and its acknowledgement of Israeli legal hypocrisy is notable, as it still received funding from the IFF. Lemon Tree, while classified as an Israeli film, featured a strong level of Palestinian involvement both in front of and behind the camera. Though Lemon Tree was classified as an Israeli production, particularly because of the nationality of its director, the film reveals the duplicity of the IFF mission statement concerning filmic content, funding, and national categorization during this period.

 

Lemon Tree demonstrates the IFF’s latitude in censoring filmic content of films when they are branded as Israeli. The film features a negative depiction of the Israeli military, who are portrayed as callously patrolling near Salma’s property with guns. In a review of the film, the Israeli guards are categorized as “abusive and arrogant.”[44] Despite this negative and critical portrayal of the Israeli military, the film successfully went through the IFF grant process and was released and classified as an Israeli film on the festival circuit, suggesting that during the late 2000s the IFF was willing to confront the “three sacred cows,” provided films remained branded as Israeli productions when distributed internationally. In this way, the IFF has been able to realize its mission statement of producing politically critical cinema without engaging directly or acknowledging a Palestinian cultural perspective, a distinctive yet nuanced form of censorship achievable through national categorization and erasure.   

 

Three more recent films, Villa Touma, Tel Aviv on Fire, and Foxtrot illustrate how from the early 2000s to the late 2010s, the funding process has increasingly become tied to an Israeli brand in the wake of a right-ward shift in Israeli politics. In the 2010s, the salience of national brand management would increase in the aftermath of the breakdown of the Oslo Peace Process and subsequent Second Intifada.[45] Most critically, Israel would fundamentally shift rightward with the 2015 election season as a pivotal electoral moment.[46] Since the 2015 elections, the Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has shifted from a position of neoconservatism to explicit exclusionary far-right radicalism.[47]

 

The different treatments of Villa Touma, Tel Aviv on Fire, and Foxtrot by the IFF and Israeli government officials in terms of both national branding and filmic content demonstrates an increased intensity of censorship by the IFF and government, even as the two institutions pursue different policies and strategies to censor films. In Villa Touma and Tel Aviv on Fire the question of categorization and national brand remains paramount, however, in the case of the Israeli film Foxtrot, filmic content has now become a flashpoint specifically for the conservative Likud-led administration.

 

Villa Touma is directed by Lemon Tree scriptwriter Suha Arraf and focuses on three sisters living a cloistered existence in their villa in Ramallah when their niece, Badia who is now too old to remain at an orphanage, arrives at their doorstep. Juliette, Violet, and Antionette have lived sequestered away in their village since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and refuse to acknowledge the passing of time, living a dreamlike existence as if the 1960s Palestinian aristocracy still exists. The sisters begin a campaign of feminine training for Badia, teaching her French and piano in an attempt to curate a respectable martial match for the young girl. The film, as reviewers noted, was attuned more towards a “mourning of the past” that emphasized the “social rather than political” nature of Palestinian life and society.[48] Compared to both Chronicle of a Disappearance and Lemon Tree, Arraf’s exploration of Palestinian society and of the Israeli occupation was less overtly political or provocative than other Palestinian or even Israeli productions. For Villa Touma, the content of the film would not be at issue for the IFF or the Israeli government; it was the categorization of the film that led to conflict between Arraf and IFF.

 

The film had successfully gone through the entire IFF process of script revision and acceptance. However, when Arraf went to register the film at the Venice International Film Festival under the national category “Palestinian,” the Israeli Film Council demanded back the $400,000 she received as part of her grant application.[49] While the Film Council did not sue for the return of the film’s funds, Raphael Gamzou, the deputy director general of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, stated that Arraf’s registration of the film would affect future funding of Palestinian-Israeli citizens.[50]

 

In an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Arraf stated, “I am an Arab, a Palestinian and a citizen of the state of Israel. I have the right to emphasize my nationality as I present my film to the world, and there is no law in the state of Israel that forbids me from doing so.”[51] Despite this, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Arraf, under pressure, removed the categorization of her film as “Palestinian” and registered Villa Touma as a “stateless” production.[52] Nearly a quarter of Israel’s population is composed of Arab-Israelis (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and this group has a legal right to apply for funding from the IFF as citizens of the Israeli state. Despite this, the Israeli government and the IFF are intent on protecting the national brand of Israel as an explicitly Jewish state. Villa Touma, has been taken off the IFF’s website as a funded production, while Lemon Tree remains on the platform.[53]  

 

National registration of films on the international festival circuit is a critical means of increasingly the legibility of Palestinian culture production to a broader audience. While Elia Suleiman did not face consequences from the IFF in registering Chronicle of a Disappearance as Palestinian in the Nantes Three Continent Festival in 1996, other institutional bodies have often rejected the Palestinian national brand. Suleiman’s film was denied submission to the Oscar’s category of Best Foreign Language Film because Palestine was “not a country.”[54] In 2005, Hany Abu-Assad’s film Paradise Now was allowed to submit to the Foreign Language Film category, but the country of registration was the Palestinian Authority rather than Palestine.[55] These incidents reinforce that fact that even as interstitial modes of production can subvert constraining (post)industrial film production processes, the makers of Palestinian cinema as a particular form of accented cinema remain “limited, for they operate within a globalized capitalist system.”[56] As such, the limits Palestinian filmmakers face of censorship within the Israeli film industry and state regime can be compounded by political bias in international institutional bodies. Palestinian filmmakers increasingly face a hostile domestic and international environment in both producing and distributing their films.

 

Made nearly four years after Villa Touma, Tel Aviv on Fire is a comedy that focuses on a Palestinian television production assistant, Salam, who becomes involved in script writing on a popular soap opera after an encounter with an Israeli checkpoint commander. The checkpoint commander, Assi, has become interested in the soap opera as a way to connect with his distant wife. The film, about the television production process itself, focuses on the production of a soap opera, also titled Tel Aviv on Fire, which is populated by a series of stereotypical characters—a Palestinian female spy, her Palestinian lover, and the Israeli general she plans to seduce to advance the Palestinian political cause.

 

When Salam presents himself at the checkpoint as a writer of the popular show, rather than a lowly assistant, Assi’s interest is piqued and he marshals his power as a checkpoint commander to enter into a clandestine writing partnership with Salam to influence the script of the show. As a comedy, the film plays with critical questions of media representation and depicts the complex social life between Israelis and Palestinians. As a film about the media production process, the film cleverly imagines the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a soap opera. Despite this somewhat subversive commentary on media production processes for Palestinians working in media industries under occupation, the film received IFF funding and support on the festival circuit.

 

Tel Aviv on Fire received over $500,000 from the IFF and was directed by a self-identified Palestinian director, Sameh Zobai.[57] Tel Aviv on Fire also featured a Palestinian-German-Israeli actor, Kais Nashif, who played a lead role in Paradise Now, and was co-produced with Amir Harel, who also worked on the Paradise Now production.[58] Zobai, speaking of the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis, notes the demographic and social challenges in Israel and a new generation of Palestinian-Israelis; “We are 25 percent of the population and are clearly not wanted. It’s now a law that it’s a Jewish state . . . we are an indigenous people, but we are being brushed aside.”[59] This increased social heterogeneity of the Israeli state is recognizable in the diverse nationalities of filmmakers, actors, and production staff in IFF funded productions.

 

Even while the film featured a strong level of Palestinian involvement and was directed by a self-identified Palestinian, the film was classified in several festivals as an Israeli film.[60] While textual content is an important part of the censorship process, national branding is increasingly a greater concern for the IFF. In this particular context, for the IFF as an institution, categorization trumped content as an important consideration. This suggests that while the IFF may occasionally have an interest in producing films that display “the complex relations between Jews and Arabs” it is only when the voice of commentary on these political and historical issues is categorized as Israeli.[61] Categorization in this way represents an even more nuanced and complex form of censorship than the IFF’s ability to demand textual changes of scripts throughout the grant process. By branding and categorizing films as Israeli, even when directors identify as Palestinian, the IFF effectively engages in a form of cultural and commercial erasure of Palestinian cinema and asserts an Israeli cinematic perspective as dominant in domestic and international settings.

 

Foxtrot, an Israeli film, reveals the limits of Israeli cultural critique and highlights a complex fissure between the IFF and the Likud-led administration—this is to say, a divide between conflicting policies of “soft” censorship such as practices of national branding and more explicit policies of legal censorship. Foxtrot is an Israeli produced and directed production that received over $570,000 in funds from the IFF.[62] The film focuses on an Israeli couple, Michael and Dafna after they receive news of the death of their son, Jonathan who had been serving in the Israeli military at a checkpoint. What inspired intense commendation from the Likud government was the film’s depiction of the murder of four Palestinians at a checkpoint after the Israeli soldiers, including Jonathan, shoot at the car, mistaking a rolling beer can for a bomb. The group of Israeli soldiers then bury the car with the bodies in the desert, hiding evidence of the crime, and receive support from a military superior to stay silent about the incident. This raw depiction of the monotony, violence, and corruption that characterizes service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli security checkpoint system galvanized the Israeli government and represents a sacrifice of the “sacred cow” of the IDF by Israeli director Samuel Maoz.

 

The Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, boycotted the film upon its release in Paris.[63] In speaking out against the film, Regev has stated that it “harms the good name of the IDF,”[64] and more strongly stated that “the state must not fund films that can be used as weapons of propaganda in the hands of our enemies.”[65] Regev’s strong opposition, even as Foxtrot racked up accolades internationally, suggests a recent intensification of governmental sensitivity of filmic content.   

 

The greenlighting of Foxtrot by the IFF, but the paradoxical opposition of the Ministry of Culture towards a film it helped fund, demonstrates the similar yet potentially divergent aims of the IFF and the Ministry of Culture.[66] While the Ministry of Culture is increasingly influenced by the Likud Party’s far-right policies,[67] the IFF is concerned with its association and support of commercially successful festival films that are branded as Israeli.

 

The IFF seeks to exert textual control over the content of the films it funds, while also preserving an explicit Israeli brand which emphasizes the singularly of an Israeli artistic perspective on Palestinian-Israeli history and social life. However, while films such as Lemon Tree and Tel Aviv on Fire may be critical of Israeli military policies or present a possibly transgressive commentary on the media production process for Palestinians under occupation, if films remain definitely branded as Israeli then their production is supported financially. When films such as Villa Touma stray from an Israeli brand, however, whatever their textual content the IFF re-asserts its institutional control.

 

Since the release of Foxtrot, Minister of Culture Miri Regev has proposed a series of amendments to the existing laws that govern film production including the formation of a body of script readers selected by the Ministry, which would review scripts that receive funds from the Israeli government, including the IFF.[68] More specifically, the legislation targets the IFF explicitly and would require film productions that receive IFF grants to “hire 70% of their own script readers from this body.”[69] With these new moves by the Likud-led administration, the Israeli film industry is increasingly protesting these new legal interventions, much like a previous era of protest led by the Israeli theatre industry in the late 1980s.

 

The most visible form of protest over the new Cinema Law has been the retirement of Katriel Schory who has been the executive director of the IFF for twenty years.[70] In a statement discussing his retirement, Schory critiqued the new legislation and positioned the IFF as an important site that has supported artistic production and the representation of Israel’s national brand as a creative and progressive state; “[politicians] in relentless efforts to change the existing cinema law and with a series of senseless and damaging regulations try to impose measures with the aim to curb the creative freedom and independent thinking” of the IFF.[71] Even as Schory in his letter emphasized the artistic value of the IFF, the institution noted in his biography that some of his key accomplishments had been his establishment of relationships with international film organizations, and most importantly, his role in facilitating the funneling of millions of international dollars from foreign partners to fund Israeli cinema domestically.

 

Under Schory’s tenure as executive director of the IFF the institution saw the release of over 300 films that were noted for their international distribution and their play on the global festival circuit.[72] Thus, for the IFF there has been a fundamental divergence from conservative lawmakers who see the Israeli brand as defined by protection of the “three sacred cows” and a cohesive sense of ethnic homogeneity rather than an Israeli brand as defined by its exportation of progressive, diverse, and critical artistic cinema. These two institutions, while both practicing strategies of censorship, conceive of censorship and erasure in different forms. For the IFF censorship suggests an erasure of the Palestinian cultural label and the sole promotion of Israeli filmic products abroad, conversely, the Likud-led government emphasizes censorship as a policy that ensures no cultural or political critique of the state—regardless of the national origin of that critique.

 

The protest of Minister Regev’s proposed changes and of explicit legal censorship has not been limited to non-profit institutions such as the IFF. The Israeli Director’s Guild boycotted a hearing about the bill, and chairman of the Israeli Producers Association, Assaf Amir, stated that the Knesset was attempting to enact legislation that “will destroy the film industry” even as conservative lawmakers “are telling us that it will save the film industry.”[73] Thus, not only can one witness fundamental paradoxes regarding Israeli democracy and the inclusion of Arab and Muslim minority populations in this debate over film funding,[74] but the passage of Minister Regev’s Cinema Law suggests an emergent paradox between conservative ethnocultural nationalism and a supposedly free-market state that exists embedded within an international film production and distribution structure. Just as Hamid Naficy noted that interstitial productions confront the limits of the state and market economy, the national Israeli film industry and its production and exhibition must also be “checked against the realities of state encroachment” of conservative ethnocultural nationalism.[75] In this way, the increasingly conservative policies promulgated by the Likud-led administration have profound implications for textual content and industrial production of films not only for Palestinian filmmakers who exist in vulnerable political and financial positions, but for Israeli filmmakers in the mainstream film industry as well, exemplified by directors such as Moaz who seek to make “quality” cinema that is also politically critical.  

 

Despite the IFF’s historic mission of producing progressive films and the growing number of Palestinian-Israeli filmmakers who have availed themselves of the financial support of the institute, it is clear that the Palestinian and Israeli film industries are imbricated within a political economy that is defined by historic and emergent forms of censorship, epitomized through legal, financial, and taxonomical policies. The IFF has increasingly focused on the Israeli national brand, and succeeded, since the 2010s, in the silencing of Palestinian cultural production through aggressive branding strategies of its films as Israeli. This practice realizes an illusion of IFF progressivism, while still allowing the institute to maintain control over the cultural production process behind closed doors.

 

This more nuanced form of censorship is not sufficient for the far-right Likud administration however. Lately, the Israeli government, in a twist, has sought to marshal its public funding of the IFF to more formally and explicitly censor the textual and ideological content of films. The interstitial production model of Palestinian filmmaking has rendered Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers increasingly limited, as financial support from Israeli philanthropic sources is increasingly predicated on an ethnocultural version of Israeli statehood and belonging.

 

 

Conclusion: Legal Institution of Censorship and Implications for Cinema Production

 

Minster Regev, who protested the film Foxtrot, has successfully lobbied the Knesset to pass a new Cinema Law, which gives the Ministry of Culture more control over the individual funding of films and creates a new committee of script readers that controls which productions receive governmental funds.[76] Against the backdrop of this legal articulation of film censorship, Minister Regev also secured an increase of 20 million shekels to support Israeli film productions.[77] Thus, the Israeli state is attempting to embrace a profitable commercial film industry, but one that conforms to ethnonationalist ideological standards. Demonstrating this position of prioritizing ideological conformity over possible commercial success, Minister Regev, commenting on Foxtrot’s failure to reach the Oscars ballot, stated that “the decision saved us from bitter disappointment and prevented an untruthful worldwide representation of the Israeli army.”[78] In this way, the Likud-led administration has revealed the tension between the nation as state and the nation as brand.

 

The entrenchment of the Likud administration has led to more explicit legal control over scripts, branding, and funding. Reading Palestinian cinema through the lens of industry level studies reveals how practices of interstitial production, particularly in regard to funding sources, illuminate broader conditions of cultural censorship in the Israeli state and its management of its national brand and exclusion of an Arab minority. Ultimately, these patterns of film censorship are deeply related to the larger “paradoxes of Palestinian-Israeli citizenship.”[79]

 

Furthermore, this study has broader implications for other forms of “peripheral cinema”[80]; that is, increasingly philanthropic grant institutions structure the possibilities and limitations of revolutionary and diasporic cinema. Examining the role of grant institutions such as the IFF demonstrates paradoxes and contradictions in the relationship between the state and the film industry more broadly, particularly as states such as Israel increasingly prioritize issues of ethnic homogeneity, ideological conformity, and national sovereignty over a national industry’s international interests in commercial branding. In the wake of the 2018 Cinema Law, Palestinian filmmakers must now confront censorship of their films taxonomically, legally, and textually, thus critically limiting the possibility of creative resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Notes

[1] See Gregory A. Burris, The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019); Kay Dickson, David Martin-Jones, and Belén Vidal, “The Palestinian Road (Block) Movie” in Cinema at the Periphery, edited by Dina Iordanova, David Martin-Jones, and Belén Vidal (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010), 137–55; Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi, Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008); Joseph Massad, “The Weapon of Culture: Cinema in the Palestinian Liberation Struggle,” in Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, edited by Hamid Dabashi (New York: Verso, 2006), 32-44; Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018); Edward Said, “Preface” in Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, edited by Hamid Dabashi (New York: Verso, 2006), 1-6.

[2] See, for example, Yael Friedman,  “Palestinian Filmmaking in Israel: Negotiating Conflicting Discourses” (PhD Dissertation, University of Westminster, 2010), https://files.zotero.net/15306728985/Yael_FRIEDMAN_2010.pdf; Sarah Frances Hudson, “Modern Palestinian Filmmaking in a Global World” (PhD Dissertation, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 2017),  https://scholarworks.uark.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=3411&context=etd.

 

[3] See Omar al-Qattan, “The Challenges of Palestinian Filmmaking (1990-2003),” in Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, edited by Hamid Dabashi (New York: Verso, 2006), 110-130; see alsoGertz and Khelifi, Palestinian Cinema.

 

[4]  Naficy, Accented Cinema.

 

[5] Friedman “Palestinian Filmmaking in Israel,” 86.

 

[6] See Ilan Ben-Ami, “Artistic Censorship in Israel: 1949–1991,” Contemporary Jewry 16, no. 1 (January 1995), Ben-Ami; see also Ilan Ben-Ami, “Government Involvement in the Arts in Israel—Some Structural and Policy Characteristics,” The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society 26, no. 3 (1996): 195–219.

 

[7] See also Eli Avraham, “Marketing and Managing Nation Branding during Prolonged Crisis: The Case of Israel,” Place Branding and Public Diplomacy 5, no. 3 (August 2009): 202–212.

 

[8] Yaron Shermer, Identity, Place, and Subversion in Contemporary Mizrahi Cinema in Israel, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 6.

 

[9] See Gertz and Khelifi, Palestinian Cinema, 33; see also Adel Manna’,  “The Palestinian Nakba and Its Continuous Repercussions,” Israel Studies 18, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 86–99. https://doi.org/10.2979/israelstudies.18.2.86.

 

[10] Massad, “The Weapon of Culture,” 35 and 36.

 

[11] See Helga Tawil Souri,  “Coming Into Being and Flowing Into Exile: History and Trends in Palestinian Film-Making,” Nebula 2, no. 2 (2005): 113–40.

 

[12] See Gertz and Khelifi, Palestinian Cinema; see also Lina Khatib, Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World (New York: I.B.Tauris, 2006).

 

[13] Amanda D. Lotz, “Industry-Level Studies and the Contributions of Gitlin’s Inside Prime Time,” in Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries, eds. Vicki Mayer, Miranda J. Banks, and John T. Caldwell (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009), 26 and 27.

 

[14]  Naficy, Accented Cinema, 43.

 

[15] Keith Dinnie,  “Introduction: Defining ‘brand’ and ‘nation-brand,’” in Nation Branding Concepts, Issues, Practice (Oxford: Elsevier, 2008), 14.

 

[16] Leslie de Chernatony, “Academic Perspective Adapting Brand Theory to the Context of Nation Branding,” excerpted in Dinnie, Nation Branding Concepts, Issues, Practice, 16.

 

[17] See Nadim N. Rouhana, Palestinian Citizens in an Ethnic Jewish State: Identities in Conflict (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); see also Oren Yiftachel, “‘Ethnocracy’: The Politics of Judaizing Israel/Palestine,” Constellations An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory 6, no. 3 (September 1999): 364–90.

 

[18] Romey Hassman, “The Israel Brand, Nation Marketing under Constant Conflict,” Policy Paper, Tel Aviv University (April 2008), 11. http://www.ism-italia.org/wp-content/uploads/TelAvivUniversity200804-The-Israel-Brand-Nation-Marketing-under-Constant-Conflict-By-Rommey-Hassman.pdf.

 

[19] See Ben-Ami, “Artistic Censorship in Israel.”

 

[20] Ben-Ami, “Artistic Censorship in Israel,”6.

 

[21] “History.” Israel Film Fund NGO 58-015-103-3. Israel Film Fund, 2019. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/index.asp?id=2&History

 

[22] See Glenda Abramson, “Theater Censorship in Israel.” Israel Studies 2, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 111–35.

 

[23] See Ben-Ami, “Artistic Censorship in Israel”; Max Blumenthal, “Early Elections Could Result in Most Right-Wing Coalition in Israel’s History,” Interview by Anton Woronczuk, The Real News Network (December 4, 2014). https://therealnews.com/stories/mblumenthal1204israel 

 

[24] “History.” Israel Film Fund NGO 58-015-103-3. Israel Film Fund, 2019. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/index.asp?id=2&History

 

[25] “History.” Israel Film Fund NGO 58-015-103-3. Israel Film Fund, 2019. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/index.asp?id=2&History

 

[26] “History.” Israel Film Fund NGO 58-015-103-3. Israel Film Fund, 2019. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/index.asp?id=2&History

 

[27“Guidelines for Support.” Israel Film Fund NGO 58-015-103-3. Israel Film Fund, 2019. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/index.asp?id=6&Guidelines%20for%20Support 

[28] See Terrance J. Mintner, “Cinema Politics: Israel Passes Controversial ‘Film Law.’” The Media Line, October 17, 2018. https://themedialine.org/news/cinema-politics-israel-passes-controversial-film-law/.

 

[29] “Guidelines for Support.” Israel Film Fund NGO 58-015-103-3. Israel Film Fund, 2019. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/index.asp?id=6&Guidelines%20for%20Support 

 

[30] “Guidelines for Support.” Israel Film Fund NGO 58-015-103-3. Israel Film Fund, 2019. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/index.asp?id=6&Guidelines%20for%20Support 

[31] The Israel Film Fund, October 2014. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/CMS_uploads/EnglishSite/reading%20and%20selection%20chart%20upfated%20October%202014.pdf

[32] See Amy Spiro, “Israeli Film Industry Furious Over Proposed Funding Changes,” Variety, July 16, 2018. https://variety.com/2018/film/news/israel-film-industry-furious-proposed-funding-changes-1202874074/

 

[33] See Patrick O. Strickland, “Suha Arraf on her “stateless” Palestinian film.” The Electronic Intifada. October 9, 2014.

https://electronicintifada.net/content/suha-arraf-her-stateless-palestinian-film/13936

 

[34] See Joel Peters and Rob Pinfold, “Consolidating Right-Wing Hegemony: The Israeli Election 2015.” Mediterranean Politics 20, no. 3 (September 2, 2015): 405–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/13629395.2015.1084146.

 

[35] Livia Alexander, “Is There a Palestinian Cinema? The National and Transnational in Palestinian Film Production,” in Palestine, Israel, and the Politics of Popular Culture, edited by Rebecca L. Stein and Ted Swedenburg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 170.

 

[36] “Guidelines for Support.” Israel Film Fund NGO 58-015-103-3. Israel Film Fund, 2019. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/index.asp?id=6&Guidelines%20for%20Support 

 

[37] “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” IMDB, accessed September 16, 2019. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115895/awards.

 

[38] “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), September 4, 2015. https://iffr.com/en/2014/films/chronicle-of-a-disappearance.

 

[39] Elia Suleiman,  “A Cinema of Nowhere,” Journal of Palestine Studies 29, no. 2 (2000), 99. https://doi.org/10.2307/2676539.

 

[40] Suleiman,  “A Cinema of Nowhere,” 100.

 

[41] See Abramson, “Theater Censorship in Israel.”

 

[42] See Andrew Rigby,  Living the Intifada (London: Zed Books, 1991).

 

[43] See Peters and Pinfold, “Consolidating Right-Wing Hegemony.”

 

[44] Stephen Holden, “In Eran Riklis’s Film, a War of Wills and Words,” The New York Times, April 16, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/movies/17lemo.html.

 

[45] See Jeremy Pressman,  “The Second Intifada: Background and Causes of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Journal of Conflict Studies 23, no. 2 (Fall 2003), https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/JCS/article/view/220/378.

 

[46] See Aluf Benn, “The End of the Old Israel: How Netanyahu Has Transformed the Nation,” Foreign Affairs 95 (2016), 16.

 

[47] See Benn, “The End of the Old Israel”; see also Peters and Pinfold, “Consolidating Right-Wing Hegemony.”

 

[48] Jay Weissberg,  “Venice Film Review: ‘Villa Touma,” Variety, September 3, 2014, https://variety.com/2014/film/festivals/venice-film-review-villa-touma-1201295632/

 

[49] Debra Kamin, “Palestinian Movie ‘Villa Touma’ Arrives in Venice Amid Israeli Controversy,” Variety, August 30, 2014, https://variety.com/2014/film/markets-festivals/palestinian-movie-villa-touma-arrives-in-venice-amid-israeli-controversy-1201294724/

 

[50] John Anderson,  “The Hand That Feeds Bites Back,” The New York Times, October 16, 2014.

 

[51] Suha Arraf,  “I Am an Arab, Palestinian and Citizen of Israel - I Have the Right to Define My Own Identity,” Haaretz, August 24, 2014, https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-my-right-to-my-cultural-identity-1.5260747

 

[52] Strickland, “Suha Arraf on her “stateless” Palestinian film.”

 

[53] “Our Films: Lemon Tree (2007),”  Israel Film Fund, http://intl.filmfund.org.il/films/?nom=3334&film=Lemon%20Tree.

 

[54] See Sabah Haider, “Palestine Already Exists on Film,” Trans Arab Research Institute, March 2010, http://www.tari.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=59&Itemid=64; see also Judith Gabriel, “Chronicles of Dark Humor: Palestinian Filmmaker Snubbed by Oscar,” Al Jadid Magazine, Fall 2002.

 

[55] See Haider, “Palestine Already Exists on Film.”

 

[56] Naficy, Accented Cinema, 100.

 

[57] “Our Films: Tel Aviv on Fire (2017), Israel Film Fund, http://intl.filmfund.org.il/films/?nom=004144&film=Tel%20Aviv%20on%20Fire.

 

[58] “Amir Harel,” IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0362844/.

 

[59] “Palestinian Director Sameh Zoabi: To Truly Laugh, You Must Be Able to Take Your Pain and Play with It,” The National, accessed June 19, 2019, https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/film/palestinian-director-sameh-zoabi-to-truly-laugh-you-must-be-able-to-take-your-pain-and-play-with-it-1.762002

 

[60] See, for example, “TEL AVIV ON FIRE Orizzonti,” LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA, 2018, (https://www.labiennale.org/en/cinema/2018/lineup/orizzonti/tel-aviv-fire) and “TEL AVIV ON FIRE Program 2019,” Tromsø International Film Festival, 2019 (https://tiff.no/en/program/2019/tel-aviv-fire).

 

[61]“History.” Israel Film Fund NGO 58-015-103-3. Israel Film Fund, 2019. http://intl.filmfund.org.il/index.asp?id=2&History

 

[62] “Our Films: Foxtrot (2016),” Israel Film Fund, http://intl.filmfund.org.il/films/?nom=003935&film=Foxtrot.

 

[63] Debra Kamin, “Israel Boycotts Opening of Film Festival in Paris Over ‘Foxtrot,’” Variety, February 12, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/film/news/israel-boycotts-opening-israeli-film-festival-paris-foxtrot-1202695043/.

 

[64] “Movie Theater of the Absurd: Regev’s Boycott of ‘Foxtrot’ Snubs Israeli Culture,” Haaretz Editorial, accessed September 6, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/regev-s-boycott-of-foxtrot-is-a-snub-of-israeli-culture-1.5811161.

 

[65] David Caspi, “Oscars: Israel Selects ‘Foxtrot’ for Foreign-Language Category,” The Hollywood Reporter, September 19, 2017, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/oscars-israel-selects-foxtrot-foreign-language-category-1041341

 

[66] See Kamin, “Israel Boycotts Opening of Film Festival in Paris Over ‘Foxtrot.’”

 

[67] See Kamin, “Israel Boycotts Opening of Film Festival in Paris Over ‘Foxtrot.’”

 

[68] Spiro, “Israeli Film Industry Furious Over Proposed Funding Changes.”

 

[69] Spiro, “Israeli Film Industry Furious Over Proposed Funding Changes.”

 

[70] Isaac Zablocki, “Israel’s Culture Minister Is Killing Israeli Cinema,” The Forward, November 27, 2018, https://forward.com/scribe/414829/israels-culture-minister-is-killing-israeli-cinema/.

 

[71] Katriel Schory, “Katriel Schory Executive-Director of the Israel Film Fund Steps Down,” http://intl.filmfund.org.il/articles/?id=36.

 

[72] Elsa Keslassy, “Katriel Schory to Step Down From Israel Film Fund After 20 Years,” Variety, November 5, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/film/news/katriel-schory-step-down-israel-film-fund-1203019772/

 

[73] Spiro, “Israeli Film Industry Furious Over Proposed Funding Changes.”

 

[74] See Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East / West and the Politics of Representation (London: I.B.Tauris, 2010).

 

[75] Naficy, Accented Cinema, 53.

 

[76] Mintner, “Cinema Politics.”

 

[77] Mintner, “Cinema Politics.”

 

[78] Qtd. in Mintner, “Cinema Politics.”

 

[79] Shohat, Israeli Cinema, 274.

 

[80] Dina Iordanova, David Martin-Jones, and Belén Vidal, “Introduction: A Peripheral View of World Cinema,” in Cinema at the Periphery, edited by Dina Iordanova, David Martin-Jones, and Belén Vidal (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010).

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