Italian Film Industry Leaders Support Israeli-Arab Director

Although the resumption of the trial against film director Mohammed Bakri aroused little media interest in Israel, it has made waves in Italy. Some 50 Italian film industry leaders have signed a petition in support of Bakri.

The petition warns that the defamation suit against him, filed after screening of his film "Jenin, Jenin" in Israel, could restrict freedom of expression. As a sign of their solidarity with Bakri, the film was screened in close to 40 Italian cities last month, including Rome, Turin, Milan, Naples and Florence.

"There appears to be a real danger that the suit against 'Jenin, Jenin' will turn into a kind of attack against the right to freedom of information and freedom of artistic expression in Israel," states the petition, whose authors warn that the results of such an attack could have sweeping ramifications.

"If Bakri is found guilty, the message of such a verdict is liable to be that an Israeli of Palestinian extraction, and all the more so a Palestinian, will have no right to present facts concerning a conflict, in any format," states the petition.

The petition, published in the Italian press, was signed by prominent film industry figures including directors Mario Monicelli ("The Great War," 1959), Marco Tullio Giordana ("The Best of Youth"), Giuseppe Bertolucci ("Pasolini prossimo nostro") and Saverio Costanzo ("Private"), as well as actor and theater director Moni Ovadia.

The defamation suit was filed against Bakri by five Israel Defense Forces reserve soldiers after the screening of "Jenin, Jenin" at theaters in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The film is a critical portrayal of the IDF's actions in Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin in 2002, and alleges that the Israeli soldiers serving in the refugee camp at that time perpetrated war crimes. The men who filed the suit served in Jenin during that period.

After the other two defendants in the suit - the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv theaters - reached a compromise agreement with the plaintiffs in November 2007, Bakri remained the only defendant in the case, and the trial resumed last week.

The Italian group behind the petition worked with Bakri in recent months on a film about Palestinian musician Ramzi Abu Radwan. As a child during the first intifada, Radwan threw stones at IDF soldiers. Years later, after he grew up and was accepted to study music in Paris, he dreamed of founding a free music school for Palestinian children. While working on the film, Bakri told his Italian colleagues about the trial underway against him in Israel, and they decided to mount the campaign in his support.

"If Bakri is found guilty, I think the greatest danger is that many Israeli filmmakers, actors and directors will be afraid to make films that include incidents like what happened in Jenin or that relate to them, with the threat of a NIS 2.5 million fine hanging over them," said Nicola Perugini, one of the campaign's initiators.

"I appreciate them very much," said Bakri on Sunday, "and thank them for what they did. I hope that this initiative will reach the hearts of the good people of Israel. I think it sends a message to Israeli artists, who should have stood by me, not one of whom, Arab or Jew, lifted a finger."