A Guide for the Perplexed: What’s the Story With 'Villa Touma’?

Director-screenwriter Suha Arraf’s film will be screened this week at the Venice Film Festival. She described it as 'Palestinian,' although she received funding from Israeli organizations. Everything you need to know about the political and cultural brouhaha.

Rabia al-Salfiti

When did it all begin?

About a month ago it was reported that two Israeli films had been accepted to the prestigious Venice Film Festival, which runs from August 27 - September 6: “The Farewell Party” by Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit, and “Villa Touma,” the first feature of Israeli-Palestinian director-screenwriter Suha Arraf.

“Villa Touma” is a melodrama that takes place in Ramallah during the early days of the Israeli occupation. The plot follows three Christian sisters who have been living in the village for years, as though nothing around them has altered. But when their niece comes for a visit, things begin to change.

The film will be screened in the Critics’ Week, a noncompetitive festival strand that showcases debut movies by directors from all over the world. But the films in this category can also compete for the Audience Award and the Leone del futuro (Lion of the Future) award, which is given to the best debut feature at the festival. ‘Villa Touma’ will also be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. It premieres in Venice on Sunday August 31.

The film is registered as Palestinian and causes an uproar

Arraf registered the film as Palestinian, although most of the budget came from Israeli public funds. The film’s three main investors are the Israel Film Fund (1.3 million shekels – or $364,000), the Economy Ministry’s Small Business Administration (600,000 shekels) and Mifal Hapayis, the National Lottery (114,000 shekels). The film also received German investment money.

In response, sources in the Culture and Sports Ministry claimed that the government was considering a demand that the money be returned by the Haifa-based director. Gideon Ganani, the director general of the Makor Foundation, even posted a harsh and biting Facebook comment in which he called on the director “to demand the money from Palestine in return for her willingness to serve as a suicide terrorist.”

After the reports were published, the Israeli Film Council held a discussion and decided – by a 5-3 majority – to recommend to the culture minister that she immediately demand the money provided in support of Arraf’s film be returned, subject to a hearing procedure.

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) declared that she was adopting the decision, relying on an opinion of the ministry’s legal adviser, attorney Hadass Ferber, who ruled that Arraf’s behavior aroused suspicions of false representation and an absence of good faith. On Sunday August 24, it was reported that the Israel Film Fund will revoke the funding.

And what does Arraf herself say?

In an article she wrote this week in Haaretz, the creator of “Villa Touma” claimed, “Films belong to those who create them. They never belong to the foundations that helped fund them, and they certainly never belong to countries. I define my film as a Palestinian film because I am first of all a Palestinian.”

Arraf also raises another point: “While many films by Jewish Israelis are funded by European foundations, they are identified as Israeli. Would it ever occur to anyone in the German Culture Ministry to claim that Samuel Maoz’s film ‘Lebanon’ was a German film only because German foundations provided more than 70 percent of its funding?”

Meanwhile, artists and filmmakers have signed two manifestos supporting Arraf – one Israeli, the other Palestinian.

Haaretz will continue to follow developments.

Rabia al-Salfiti