The recent Academy Award nominations for the films “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras” managed to anger not only Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat but also Israel’s Ambassador to Serbia Yossi Levy. After the minister called upon filmmakers and directors to exercise “self-censorship,” the ambassador, speaking to a film festival jury in Serbia, said that Israeli directors make films about the Palestinian issue only so that they can win prizes abroad.
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On March 3, Levy was invited to attend the Belgrade International Film Festival in order to accept the prize for best film on behalf of Israeli director Dror Sabo for his film “Eagles.” When he took to the stage, before an audience of 3,500, the ambassador praised the fact that Israeli cinema “is doing splendidly at international festivals.”
But after the cinema, behind closed doors, the ambassador was singing a different tune.
In a cable the ambassador sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' headquarters in Jerusalem, he explained how Serbian director Srdan Dragojevic and the three jury members – a Serb, a Frenchman and a Macedonian – asked him privately about the public debate in Israel surrounding the feature films and documentaries dealing with the seam line between art and politics. In response, Levy issued a scathing attack on Israeli filmmakers. In the cable he reported his reply in great detail:
“I replied to them that in my personal opinion, the further Israeli films move away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the better they are, the more credible they are and the more artistic they are. Why? Because the concern with the conflict with the Palestinians distorts the cameras and breaks them.
“Between the European festivals and the Israeli cinema there is an unwritten agreement – wrapped of course in rustling cellophane of fine words and noble justifications – that the basic formula for cooperation is like this: an Israeli occupier who plays the role of the bad guy, versus an occupied Palestinian who arouses sympathy. This is the winning slogan and this is the entry ticket to invitations to a festival, to budgets, to funding, to publicity, to honor and to adulation.”
Levy, who has apparently confused hasbara – so-called “public diplomacy” – with art, continued: “This is the reason there are so many films dealing with great relish with the Palestinian victim – uprooting of trees, land theft, the sadness of the roadblocks, discrimination and so on. But there are very few Israeli films dealing with the Israeli victim – the terror attacks on buses, Israeli families that go out to a pizzeria and get slaughtered, cafes that blow up with the people inside them, an entire family that is slaughtered in one of the settlements … How many moving and strong films could be produced from those tragedies? Dozens. How many have actually been produced? Maybe one or two, and even they have not been invited to festivals abroad.
“This perhaps is the whole story on one foot – a large part – too large a part – of the makers of Israeli cinema are looking for the easy way to succeed abroad – on the back of the Israeli victim and on the back of the truth. In order to justify their mustering for the other side’s story they are using arguments of ‘it is impossible to hide the truth’ or ‘it is necessary to look at ourselves in the mirror’ and such inflated slogans. But they don’t apply all this beautiful advice to themselves. A film about terror? No way.”
Levy’s cable caused quite a few jaws to drop at the Foreign Ministry. Some even decided to reply. Ambassador Anna Azari, who is serving as the deputy director general for Eurasia at the Ministry and is Levy’s superior, replied to him with a cable of her own.
Azari, a veteran diplomat, replied politely but firmly: “An Israeli win at a festival is always cause for rejoicing … but your arguments on the issue of the Israeli cinema pleased me a lot less. I have never gone into the history of the Israeli cinema but the sweeping accusation that all the filmmakers who devote their works to the issue of the occupation are making art that has as its main aim exploiting a political and economic conjuncture must not, in my humble opinion, be voiced – at least not until proof that the claim is correct has been received. Is it possible, just possible, that there are Israeli filmmakers who express their real approach in their work, not in order to profit? The entire issue brings us once again to the question of the distinction between hasbara and artistic freedom, and this is not the place to deal with that.”
Levy’s harsh comments about Israeli filmmakers are also interesting because, in addition to being a diplomat, he's an author who has written and published five books under the pen name Yossi Avni. I decided to check whether Levy has written about Palestinian terror and Israeli victims in his books.
During the search, I came across a review written by Dan Lachman of Levy/Avni’s book “Auntie Farhuma Wasn’t a Whore After All,” which was published in 2002.
Reading the review, I realized that at the film festival in Belgrade, Levy was playing the role of his own protagonist. In the second chapter of this book, the hero is sent to work in a foreign country, which, from the descriptions in the book, sounds a lot like Serbia.
During a meeting with a Bosnian friend, the hero of the book gives a monologue strikingly similar to Ambassador Levy's excoriations: “I am angry that our intelligentsia is mobilized as one man not to our benefit but rather to the benefit of the other side … It’s no wonder the Palestinians haven’t been convinced that it is necessary to put an end to the conflict.”