'I Lie to Save People'

Mohammed Bakri, in Tel Aviv, says he dreams of wandering through Gaza to find Shalit

When you think about an evening of homage to a creative artist, what usually comes to mind is a civilized and serene event, marked by smiles, handshakes and words of thanks. But on Sunday it became clear that when the creative person being honored is Mohammed Bakri, the rules change. When it comes to Bakri, Israeli society can't keep mum. Several dozen angry demonstrators waited on the sidewalk across from Tel Aviv's Left Bank Club, where the evening of homage for the actor and director was set to begin.

"Mohammed Bakri is living in a movie," declared one of the demonstrators' placards, playing on a Hebrew slang expression meaning that the person in question is out of touch with reality. "Mohammed Bakri is an Oscar nominee for best liar," screamed another. "You are giving homage today to a person who has slandered the Israel Defense Forces. We have come here to honor the IDF and shame you," one of the demonstrators shouted into a megaphone.

The many guests who came to pay homage to Bakri seemed surprised by the stormy reception. They quietly slipped into the building on Ahad Ha'am Street. It seemed as though the police were the only ones indifferent to the tumult - they had been called to keep an eye on the demonstrators.

After being subjected to a barrage of curses, journalists were disappointed to find that Bakri was not eager to speak. But they insisted, shoving the microphones his way. Yes, he felt victorious about holding an evening like this, and yes, the demonstrators waiting downstairs were acting like "murderers, beasts of prey." A musical ensemble took to the stage, signaling the start of the evening's cultural part. The master of ceremonies, journalist Shlomi Laufer, said the event marked 30 years of Bakri's creative work as film and stage director as well as actor. But Laufer also noted that the evening paid homage to freedom of speech, too. The guests wished to encourage Bakri and to congratulate him for having survived the lengthy trial against him, which ended just a month ago, when the Petah Tikva District Court judge acquitted him of the libel suit filed by five reserve soldiers. They had alleged that his film, "Jenin Jenin," damaged their reputation.

The executive director of the Agenda organization, former journalist Anat Saragusti, spoke about the legitimacy Israeli society accords to a militaristic and violent weltanschauung, while denying the legitimacy of alternative worldviews. "When 'Jenin, Jenin' was screened, it immediately became illegitimate," she noted. "It is necessary to raise an outcry: How is it that when something is screened depicting one particular security perspective, it is all right, whereas another viewpoint is immediately perceived as dangerous, as endangering our existence?"

Only after several more songs and several more congratulators did Bakri take the stage. (Filmmaker and journalist Gal Uchovsky did not attend since doing so would have threatened his continued appearance on the Channel 2 television show "A Star is Born" - the local version of "American Idol"). Among the people on stage were MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), who said that "if the libel suit against Bakri had been accepted, the boundaries of freedom of speech would have shrunk dramatically; that is why this is a historic court ruling."

Bakri told of meeting with Noam Shalit, the father of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, and about daydreams in which he is wandering through the streets of Gaza seeking information about his whereabouts. He called upon the government of Israel to talk to Hamas to bring Shalit home and return the Palestinian prisoners to their families. Bakri also referred to the demonstrators outside the hall: "I lie, they say. Yes, maybe there is an instance in which I lie - when it is a matter of human lives, I lie. If my lie saves people, then I am proud to lie. I lie when I create hope out of nowhere. But those who cause me to lie are not the ones who were standing here outside and screaming like wild beasts. You are the ones who cause me to lie, you are the ones who help me create a new world."

Bakri's documentary "Since The Day You Left" (2005), which was also screened at the event, affords a glimpse of what has been happening in his life in recent years. It starts from the media attacks on him amid suspicions that some of his relatives had helped the terrorist who blew up the bus at Meron Junction in 2002, through the censor's decision to ban the screening of "Jenin, Jenin" and the intervention by the High Court of Justice in the matter, to the public wrath the few screenings of the film aroused and the libel suit that came after.

"You said that you lied in order to give hope. I want to say that your truth gives hope, and I want to thank you for this," said one of the guests at the end of the screening. "You should know that you are not alone - we are all with you in this tragedy."

But the optimism and the promises were shattered by the flashing lights of the police car that greeted the audience upon leaving the hall. It reminded them that the war has not ended and the campaign to silence Bakri has not let up.