Minister Demands Subsidy Back After Director Classifies Film as Palestinian

Israel Film Fund backed Suha Arraf’s 'Villa Touma,’ but is now being asked to repay $400,000 subsidy; movie premieres in Venice.

Emil Salman

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat has demanded the return of Israeli funding for a movie at the Venice Film Festival that has been classified as Palestinian by its director.

Livnat wants the Israel Film Fund to immediately return the 1.358 million shekels ($396,000) it invested in Suha Arraf’s film “Villa Touma” to the Israeli Film Council. This follows Arraf’s decision to register the film as Palestinian rather than Israeli at the prestigious festival, where it will be screened as part of Critics’ Week (running from August 27 - September 6).

The minister’s decision was taken after a discussion at the Film Council on Wednesday, when a majority of Council members recommended that its subsidy be returned by the Film Fund. “No one spoke to me,” responded Fund chairman Katriel Schory. “They [the Film Council] didn’t inform us and they told us nothing. When they decide it is appropriate to inform us, we’ll convene the Fund’s board of directors and it will determine how to act.”

Twelve members of the Film Council voted in favor of the decision, subject to a hearing process to be conducted by the Israel Film Fund. Three members opposed the move.

In the discussion preceding the vote, many members expressed dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Film Fund and its head, Schory. “We are members of the Israeli Film Council and not the film council of any other country. Our aim is to encourage and help production of Israeli films,” said some. Others noted that support for the film constituted a misuse of public monies intended to encourage the making of Israeli films only. Some members even called for Schory’s resignation.

In announcing her decision to approve the council’s decision, Livnat said, “I will immediately embark upon a procedure to get back the public money that was invested in the film.”

Earlier on Wednesday, attorney Hadass Ferber – the Culture Ministry’s legal adviser – published an opinion to the effect that the ministry has the right to demand the return of the subsidy given to “Villa Touma.” This, she wrote, was in light of the fact that the investment by the Israel Film Fund constitutes a use of its subsidy monies for a purpose other than the one for which the funds were allocated.

Ferber also wrote that the ministry must inform the Fund that it cannot include this film in its application for support next year.

The minister said the legal adviser’s opinion confirms the initial suspicion that Arraf “acted in a grave and cynical way when she requested recognition and support for her film as an Israeli film, while aboard she is presenting it as a film of which the country of origin is ‘Palestine.’ Clearly this is a misrepresentation on the filmmaker’s part.”

In a letter sent to Film Council chairman David Alexander on Wednesday, Film Fund head Schory noted that the “producer and director submitted the film as a Palestinian film to the Critics’ Week category at the Venice festival, and this is a clear violation of the agreement.” He also noted that he had contacted the producer, informed her that she had violated the agreement and demanded that she change the way the film is registered.

Prior to the Film Council meeting, the Film Fund formulated a proposal whereby Arraf’s film would be presented at film festivals abroad under the classification “no country,” and not as an Israeli or Palestinian film. The hope was that this solution would calm the tempest that had erupted around the way the film was registered, and prevent any potential damage to Israel’s image internationally in the wake of the state’s demand for its money back. However, the Film Council members rejected this proposal and recommended the return of the subsidy.

Arraf’s film tells the story of three Christian sisters in Ramallah during the early days of the Israeli occupation. They live a reclusive life, as though the world around them has not changed, until their orphan niece walks into their lives. Arraf also wrote the script.

The filmmaker was unavailable for comment.