Zeitgeist’s Middle East Film Festival Continues Israel Boycott

This month, the fifth annual Middle East Film Festival gets underway at Zeitgeist in New Orleans. For the third year, it adheres to BDS — the movement that urges boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

The BDS movement has been growing in recent years as an attempt to isolate Israel, and is especially prevalent in academia and cultural venues, particularly in Britain and Scandinavia. It is similar to the divestment issue that has gone back and forth inside the Presbyterian Church USA.

Rene Broussard, who founded Zeitgeist 25 years ago, said he chose to join the BDS after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which Israel launched in late December 2008 in an attempt to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Southern Israel.

After the invasion “and the illegal use of white phosphorous on a civilian population and the refusal of the Israeli government, after destroying the infrastructure to allow in building supplies,” he decided to act.

White phosphorous was used as a smokescreen in Gaza and did cause burns. The United Nations’ Goldstone report stated that while its use is not illegal, Israel’s use of it was “reckless.”

Broussard said critics misunderstand what BDS actually is. He said the festival does not boycott Israel as a whole, “we just don’t want to be part of the ‘Rebrand Israel’ campaign.”

When he made the decision to follow BDS, there was controversy in the artistic world over the Toronto film festival’s decision in 2009 to highlight Tel Aviv as a “City to city” focus.

A group of activists, including Jane Fonda, Eve Ensler and Danny Glover, signed a declaration that labeled Israel an “apartheid regime,” called the Tel Aviv filmmakers’ works “Israeli propaganda” and stated they would boycott the festival.

“I did not want to be part of that propaganda” by Israel, Broussard said. However, that does not mean he will not show Israeli films — “just not ones that have been branded by the Rebrand Israel campaign.”

“It’s really a boycott of the Israeli government,” he said, adding that anyone who looks at the festival’s schedule would see that no government in the Middle East is portrayed sympathetically in this year’s offerings.

He also noted that in the 2010 festival, the audience choice award went to “Jerusalem Moments 2009,” a set of six documentary shorts showing different aspects of living in Jerusalem, by three Israeli and three Palestinian directors. That project is in done in partnership with the Jerusalem Cinemateque and premiered at the Jerusalem International Film Festival.

And in 2009, the first year of the boycott, the audience award went to “City of Borders,” a documentary about Shushan 4, the only gay bar in Jerusalem, and its mixed clientele.

This year he wanted to screen Israeli film “A Matter of Size,” about three large Israeli men who explore the world of sumo wrestling. It is scheduled for several Jewish film festivals in the region this year. But he decided against it because it was coming out on DVD just before the festival, and why rent it for the festival when anyone who wants to see it can just get it on Netflix?

“We’re actually open to having a balanced approach,” Broussard said,” but the problem is we’re an alternative art center, and we provide alternative views to what is mainstream,” and Israel is definitely mainstream.

When he started the boycott, he received over 1000 emails. He said the ones critical of him were almost all identical, as if from a template, while the ones that were supportive were individually written.

Noting that Zeitgeist was where the Southern Jewish documentary “Shalom Y’all” premiered in 2003, he said “I’ve lost some of my Jewish indie cred.”

In 2009, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans criticized the boycott as stemming from “lack of knowledge or a wrong perception of Israel,” and because of Israel’s diversity, “a cultural boycott against Israel negatively affects those who the boycott is attempting to assist” and “contradicts the very essence of art premised on freedom, originality, and independence. The New Orleans Middle East Film Festival is silencing.”

The Middle East festival grew out of Patois, a human rights film festival that was founded by local Palestine solidarity activists and held at Zeitgeist. In 2009, that group convinced Broussard to take part in the cultural boycott of Israel.

About 700 to 800 attend the festival each year. This year, as before, there are numerous films critical of Israel’s treatment of Gaza, such as “Occupation Has No Future,” “Gaza-Strophe, Palestine,” and “Challenging Power,” about a co-op in Olympia, Washington, home of Rachel Corrie, which is the first grocery store in the United States to boycott Israeli products.

But this year’s Broussard is most excited by “Microphone,” seen as a film that basically predicted the Egyptian revolution earlier this year, and even debuted the day before Tahrir Square demonstrations began. Filmmaker Ahmad Abdallah was scheduled to attend the festival, but as Egypt continues working through turmoil, he is staying there to film it.

He also is excited about the opening film, “This is Not a Film,” by Iranian Jafar Panahi. Convicted of propaganda against the Iranian regime, he was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from filmmaking. He made a documentary about one day in his life, and the films that he can not make. The result was smuggled out of the country on a USB drive hidden in a cake and debuted at Cannes.

Broussard said he has always favored a two-state solution. “Oslo came very close to something that made sense.” He is not in favor of a Jewish state, but neither does he approve of Islamic or Christian states. “I don’t think religion should be part of government. I don’t believe in an Arab state either.”

His main goal is to challenge authority. “If we’re not antagonizing everyone, we’re not doing our job right,” he said, noting Zeitgeist’s mission to provide “something for and against everyone.” 

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, he took the oft-asked “why do they hate us” and provided an answer with 30 documentaries in 30 nights, each detailing “U.S. acts of terror.”

He noted, “it was very easy to find 30 nights of documentaries. Latin America alone…”
“We’re mostly anti-government,” he said, “and Israel is no exception.”

The first weekend of the festival, which opens Dec. 9, is the monthly O.C.H. Art Market at Zeitgeist, and this month the theater is actually doing a tribute to “the Jewish history of the street we’re on,” Dryades Street, now called Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.