'Jenin, Jenin' Director Honored With Berlin Free Speech Award

Criticism by government minister Limor Livnat sparks furor amongst group of Israeli and Palestinian directors.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat sparked irate reactions over the weekend after she sharply criticized a group of Israeli and Palestinian directors who supported giving the controversial director of the 2002 movie "Jenin, Jenin" a prize for free speech.

"The minister does not represent us," said Scandar Copti, who co-directed the Oscar-nominated film "Ajami" and presented the prize to Israeli Arab director Mohammed Bakri in Berlin on Friday.

"There are those who push toward hatred, but we want to unify," said Copti. "It is too bad that those who want to get the two peoples to meet and bring them closer are considered haters of Israel."

Israeli director Udi Aloni ("Forgiveness"), Canadian director John Greyson and the Yes Men satire group created the Platinum Bear for Free Speech prize to protest Israel's decision to join a lawsuit accusing Bakri of defamation.

Bakri is accused of distorting what happened during an Israel Defense Forces raid of Jenin in April 2002.

"In the face of this new attempt to silence, criminalize and bankrupt Mr. Bakri, and in protest against the ongoing brutality of the occupation, we have come together to spontaneously nominate Mohammad Bakri as our 2010 Filmmaker of Free Speech, and pay due respect to his art and to Palestinian filmmaking," the petition states.

Aloni said the prize was awarded in coordination with senior officials of the Berlin International Film Festival, but not as part of the festival, which ended Saturday.

In addition to Copti and Aloni, other signatories of the petition include directors Eran Kolirin, Hany Abu-Assad, Oren Moverman, Eyal Sivan and Yael Hersonski, and the actors Saleh Bakri, Juliano Merr-Khamis and Yousef Sweid.

Those directors are legitimizing "a propaganda film that contains nothing but hatred of Israel," said Livnat. "The court has already ruled that the film contains what can be deemed libel about IDF soldiers."

Copti, who earlier this month received Livnat's personal congratulations after "Ajami" was selected as one of the five nominees for the Oscar for best foreign-language film, stressed the importance of free speech for artists in Israel.

"This incident was a show of solidarity by filmmakers for their colleague," said Copt. "It is a prize for free speech. If they come and silence us, there is no reason to create art."

Aloni said he doesn't think Israeli cinema should exist to serve the country.

"A normal minister would have said that she appreciates the solidarity of Israeli and Palestinian artists," he said. "If the culture minister calls such an illustrious group of artists 'destroyers,' the entire culture industry must call for her dismissal."

Aloni said the directors showed the government that they would not be used to "clear their conscience, so that the world will see how enlightened and wonderful" Israel is.

Actor Yousef Sweid said the artists Livni was criticizing "represent our country with dignity."

"Free speech is based on criticizing the place where we live, in order to make it a better place," he said. "Her remarks border are contrary to the principles of democracy and border on racism."

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