Now Playing in Israel: Film Censorship

Right-wing politicians from the culture minister down are getting screenings canceled. The fear is that filmmakers will start censoring themselves.

Israel Friedman

When Likud’s Miri Regev became culture minister this spring, she made clear she wouldn’t flinch at censoring films and plays.

“If the Culture Ministry pays for such plays they’ll have to be balanced — not too right or left. If it’s necessary to censor, I’ll censor,” said Regev, who made a few more declarations that upset people in the arts.

But it seems no one dreamed how quickly these declarations would become reality. After a slew of canceled screenings across the country, filmmakers called a conference to discuss the new order.

Within weeks, Regev froze the Al-Midan Theater’s budget. Artists denounced Regev, who returned fire. The culture war grabbed headlines. Regev then threatened to withdraw support from the Jerusalem Film Festival if it screened the documentary “Beyond the Fear” about Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin.

Artists protested, the press raged, but both sides eventually grew tired. Many believed it was better to lie low and let things calm down. Some said the compromise under which “Beyond the Fear” was screened outside the festival but took part in the documentary competition was a good solution. The press moved on.

Emil Salman

But since then many screenings have been quietly canceled. Elected officials and political activists, inspired by events in Jerusalem, discovered the possibility of censorship and canceled one show after another.

It started with a right-wing text assault on the phone of Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, who quickly canceled “Shivering in Gaza,” a film about treating trauma victims from last summer’s war. Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich caved to similar pressure and prevented “Shivering” from showing at a local coexistence center.

It happened again in Haifa, where the Haifa Cinematheque and the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art refused to screen films about the Palestinians' suffering in 1948. Officials from the group Zochrot, which organized the screening, say city officials were behind this refusal, but the municipality declined to comment.

In any case, the fact that politicians can so easily cancel a film threatens freedom of expression. Artists protesting the “Beyond the Fear” affair held a pirate screening of the film as the festival was opening; they also sent a protest letter to Sderot’s Danilovich over “Shivering in Gaza.” They’re now weighing their next moves.

“We oppose the cancellation of any screenings. We opposed the Jerusalem festival compromise and we expressed our anger to the Film Council. We stressed that the council shouldn’t take part in it; on the contrary, it should serve as a fence to stop it,” says Osnat Trabelsi, chairwoman of the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum.

“Now we’re feeling the results. Once the dam is breached, more and more mayors and politicians realize they can cancel screenings. There’s no end in sight. The big fear is that censorship will go even further and pierce the hearts of the creators, who will self-censor to keep their films out of danger.”

Neither right nor left

The Culture Ministry’s demand (under the former minister, Limor Livnat) that the Israel Film Council return funds invested in a Suha Arraf film after she presented it as Palestinian could influence which projects receive funding. The same could be said for Regev’s handling of “Beyond the Fear” (which didn’t get funded by the Israeli fund).

Trabelsi shares this fear. “Fund leaders will obviously deny this, but you have to be very careful with censorship,” she says. “We’ll fight for the freedom to screen any film anywhere.”

Filmmakers have thus sent a letter to film funds, film schools, the cinematheques and film festivals saying they were meeting to discuss ways of fighting censorship.

“Artistic freedom and funding are not solely issues for us creators. They have repercussions on the narrowing of freedom of expression and thought,” the filmmakers wrote. “There is no right or left when confronting these threats. We must all stand up as one and shout that we won’t let democracy in our country be blocked, narrowed or impaired.”

Amit Lior, chairman of the Scriptwriters Guild of Israel, says the guild will make clear at the conference what is set by law and who is authorized to cancel a screening and under what conditions.

“We want anyone who screens films in the country to attend,” he says. “We’ll explain that there is a legal precedent — a court decision ruling that a mayor can’t cancel a screening on political grounds,” he says.

“It’s important to know who can’t order a cancellation of a screening — this includes both the culture minister and the chairman of the Film Council. Despite what they did at the Jerusalem festival, they’re not authorized to cancel a screening or threaten to withdraw support because of a screening.”

Lior says he hopes the chairman of the council will back him up. “We’ll also insist that the original sin — what happened at the Jerusalem festival — be investigated because ... now it’s mad anarchy,” he says.

Dan Yakir, the legal adviser for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, says the cancellation of screenings in Sderot, Be’er Sheva and Haifa have been illegal.

“The mayor has no authority to intervene in artistic content,” Yakir says. “The Sderot Cinematheque is an independent body that’s not supposed to take orders from the mayor. In Be’er Sheva, a bomb shelter was allocated for the Coexistence Forum for cultural activities. Clearly, banning the screenings resulted from right-wing pressure.”

Filtering down to the mayors

Yakir says the situation in Haifa was completely different because a nonprofit group sought to rent halls designated for public use. “The illegality is more pronounced there,” he says. “The High Court already ruled that a municipality that rents out halls may not block political or controversial events.”

Yakir said that in all these cases the “capitulating to political pressure” was wrong. "You have to let all opinions, positions and subjects on the agenda be heard. In this case, the insanity began with the education and culture ministers, who gave the sign to attack artistic freedom, and their decisions were illegal,” he says.

“Unfortunately, the atmosphere filtered down to the mayors. These decisions create an atmosphere of delegitimizing works .... There’s a fear that artists will censor themselves,” with one anxiety being the availability of funding.

The issue was discussed a few weeks ago in the Sha’ar Hanegev region when the council’s head, Alon Schuster, published a column in a local paper attacking the cancellation of “Shivering in Gaza.” Schuster wrote that the film wasn’t political and wanted to screen it in Sha’ar Hanegev, which borders Gaza.

In a letter in return, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) implored Schuster to cancel the screening scheduled for August 10, but Schuster refused. Nothing in the film justifies its cancellation, Schuster says.

“It has therapeutic value, and I can add a dimension of empathy for people who live here and suffer from geopolitical events, without going into the question of who’s responsible for all the misery in the world,” he says.

“Anyone who can’t empathize with wounded civilians and fears that this will violate his rights is a weak person. I see myself as a Jewish and Israeli patriot, as is everyone who comes to watch the film. Israel can’t cancel the film just because it annoys somebody. Anyone who finds this film disturbing is welcome not to show up.”

Director Shlomi Elkabetz, who quit the Jerusalem Film Festival’s judges’ panel due to the “Beyond the Fear” affair, says he’d do the same thing again.

“It’s no coincidence that a week before the Jerusalem festival they pulled Al-Midan’s money, then the film was dropped from the competition, and two days later a mayor decided a film wouldn’t be screened in his city,” Elkabetz says. “The time and circumstances are allowing this.”

Filmmaker Keren Yedaya agrees with some of Culture Minister Regev’s statements on reallocating budgets to favor people like women and Mizrahim — Jews with roots in the Middle East and North Africa.

“As a Mizrahi woman, she identifies with these groups, and that’s great,” Yedaya says. “But it’s impossible to fight for one group’s rights and suppress another’s. The challenge should be to correct the wrongs for all weak groups, and certainly not to shut up groups that aren’t heard anyway.”

Art isn’t merely pleasant background music, Yedaya adds. “Art must provoke questions, challenge. Otherwise it’s not art but entertainment. But this mustn’t prevent us from hearing the other side,” she says.

“You can dispute something, even call it a lie, but you have to allow for conversation. When a democratic regime violates the opposition’s freedom of expression, it becomes a dictatorship.”