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International Human Rights Film Festival, Tel Aviv, Israel, and Ramallah, Palestine

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The festival would have no rationale if human rights were to be respected and the Middle East finally become a place, like many other places in the world, where human rights are part of common knowledge and constitution.

Reviewed by Yael Munk

Monday, February 14 2000, 8:53 PM


The International Human Rights Film Festival that was held in Tel Aviv and Ramallah in early February can be counted among the very few festivals whose organizers hope will not happen next year. The festival would have no rationale if human rights were to be respected and the Middle East finally become a place, like many other places in the world, where human rights are part of common knowledge and constitution. Meanwhile, it is most relevant for Israel and Palestine.

The festival consisted of forty-eight films, most of them documentaries, from various conflicted regions of the world. Most were accompanied by their respective director, who commented and answered audience questions . Two panels were held: one in Tel Aviv and the other in Ramallah. One state and one quasi-state meant two official openings and foreign guests travelling between here and there.

The festival organizers --- Jerusalem journalist George Kleifi, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, Israeli producer Osnat Trabelsi, and Alon Garbuz, director of the Tel-Aviv Cinematheque --- stressed the importance of opening new communication channels between Israel and Palestine, parallel to those created by their respective governments. Film and video productions shown on both sides of the conflicts could constitute such an alternative channel. Almost all speakers mentioned comparative national experiences, especially the South African experience .

The opening screening, Iranian Journey by Maysoon Pachachi, was most appropriate. The film follows the first and only woman bus driver of Iran and offers insights into the meaning of human rights twenty years after the Iranian revolution. The filmmaker's remarkable capacity to inscribe trivial, personal events into a political-national sphere creates the unique impact of her film; it's a documentary road-movie with a feminine touch.

However, the highlight of the festival was its panel on truth and reconciliation. Planned for a Friday afternoon, the panel was supposed to offer a conceptual framework for the festival. But, as opposed to the gala opening, only a few believed that such a panel was worth the effort to "renounce the traditional Friday schlafthunde," as a friend of mine said on the opening night. Needless to say, this influential producer decided to stay home on Friday afternoon and rest.

The absence of public interest in the violation of human rights could be deduced from the festival's limited attendance, but was not an issue at the panel. As director Ram Levy --- whose documentary, The Film That Wasn't was not allowed by its producers (Israel Broadcast Authority) to be shown at a special screening during the festival --- suggested, maybe the pervasive absence of specific human rights events causes a general public feeling that 'everything is under control.' Or as another acquaintance phrased the matter more bluntly, "These are just some bored intellectuals who organized a panel for themselves."

Nevertheless, the panel was one of the most relevant parts of the festival. The moderator, Tel Aviv University professor and filmmaker Judd Ne'eman, presented the panelists --- feminist and former MK Shulamit Aloni, professor Sari Nusseibeh, and U.S. filmmaker Deborah Kaufman --- as "conspirators of reconciliation." He spoke about the need to appease the human predator from within and opened the question of whether filmmaking is an effective means of reconciliation. Shulamit Aloni said that at one time she shared the founders' belief that the State of Israel could build a model society and that no one then believed Jews would oppress other people. "Today we use our traumas to justify our present deeds and humiliate our neighbors. There is something that people cannot forget; this is neither hunger nor pain, but humiliation."

Deborah Kaufman talked about the meaning of multiple subjectivities in relation to the issue of truth. Today, with some twenty global corporations that control the media, the problem of truth, any truth, becomes more and more acute. "As a filmmaker," she argued, "there is an obligation to cross borders when we can and also, name the forces that create these borders."

Nusseibeh questioned the chances of reconciliation in our times. Considering that history is an expression of largely what is bad in human history, according to Nusseibeh, the issue of human rights loses when involved in larger causes, such as nations. Therefore it should stick to values of primary importance, such as freedom, without forgetting that the other half of freedom is equality. For Nusseibeh, while there is no more than one truth, still "there are different stories about the same event," as with Israel's independence and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe). He summarized by saying that there is a limit to the question of recognizing the past and that what really matters is the future. "As human beings we deserve better than states; we deserve civil communities."

During its three days in Tel Aviv, the festival films had more success than the festival panel. Some of the most instructive insights from the world's violation of human rights appeared in films like Chilean filmmaker Carmen Castilo's La Flaca Alejandra, Jay Rosenblatt's Human Remains (Denmark), and Alexis Cordess' Itsembatsemba , Rwanda, One Genocide Later (France).

When the Tel Aviv portion of the festival is complete, a panel about "Media and Human Rights" will be held in Ramallah. It would be interesting to compare the attendance, although no one seems to have too many hopes for another intellectual meeting. The same question is raised everywhere: why do intellectuals believe they can do something that politicians can't? The answer seems obvious: they can if there are open communication channels between them and the public. But for the time being, Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and their publics are separated by too many major and minor obstacles.

One of the minor obstacles can easily be noticed in the festival catalogue. Considering the fact that the event was defined as a festival of peace and reconciliation (between Israelis and Palestinians, one presumes), it was strange to note that most of the catalogue was printed in English. Foreign film titles and introductions, which are usually translated by a festival's organizers (as happens at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, for example), appear only in English. This may simplify international public relations, but didn't the organizers profess to believe in the influence of the cinematic medium as a catalyst in the process of changing opinions? If this catalogue, which explains the 'raison d'etre' of the entire festival, cannot be read by the people it addresses, the point has been missed. On the other hand, if it doesn't address them -- which makes it worse -- then we're back at square one. Those already convinced of their opinions will have a another argument to add to their already-solidified positions. In the violent Middle East, this is a luxury we cannot afford.

Copyright © 2000 by Yael Munk. All rights reserved.
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