The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is one of the largest events of its kind, bringing together filmmakers, industry experts, journalists and film lovers from around the world to celebrate and reflect on the art of documentary filmmaking. As an art form suited to political discussion, protest and dissent, it stands to reason that IDFA would welcome filmmakers challenging injustice and the limitation of freedom.
However, this year’s edition takes place during the ongoing conflict in Palestine, and on 8 November, at the opening night screening, protesters carrying a banner with the popular slogan ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ took to the stage. The phrase has been interpreted as anti-Semitic by some members of the Jewish community, and an open letter was issued by key figures of the Israeli film community condemning IDFA, particularly the festival’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia, for applauding the protesters.
IDFA was quick to issue a response on 10 November, in which they thanked the “Jewish community in Amsterdam and internationally, from Israel, from Palestine, and many other places, for reaching out.” In the statement, Nyrabia explains that, “The slogan written on the banner held by the young protesters, which later was reported as very visible to the audience but not to me on stage, is a triggering statement and an offensive declaration for many, regardless of who carries it. It does not represent IDFA, and was and will not be endorsed. I apologize for not paying attention to the banner in the moment. I clapped to welcome freedom of speech, and not to welcome the slogan.” Last month, the Dutch Court of Appeal ruled that ‘From the river to the sea’ is protected speech and not anti-Semitic, which seems at odds with IDFA’s comments. Later on 10 November, IDFA issued a separate statement calling for a ceasefire.
In return, the Palestinian Film Institute issued a statement on 11 November condemning IDFA’s actions and withdrew their activities and films from the festival, including three projects in the market by Palestinian filmmakers Yousef Hammad and Noora Said (Sheikh Jarrah), Dalia Al Kury (We Never Left), Hazem Alqaddi and Elettra Bisogno (The Roller. The Life. The Fight). “As the world’s largest documentary film festival, IDFA holds the responsibility to respond to the plight of journalists and documentarians on the ground in Gaza, the Palestinian film community, and Palestinian lives. Contrary to its stated goal of promoting films that inspire critical thinking and societal betterment, IDFA‘s actions fall short,” the PFI’s statement read.
At the same time, filmmakers began withdrawing their films from the festival in solidarity with Palestine. Filipino filmmaker Miko Revereza, who had initially called on IDFA to denounce the bombardment of Gaza on 9 November, withdrew his documentary Nowhere Near on 11 November. He was swiftly followed by Basma al-Sharif (a Palestinian filmmaker with four shorts selected to play, who also resigned from the Envision jury), Jumana Manna (a Palestinian filmmaker screening her short Blessed Blessed Oblivion), Maryam Tafakory (Mast-del), Charlie Shackleton (Lateral), Terra Long (Feet in Water, Head on Fire), Kaori Oda (Gama), Joshua Gen Solondz (We Don’t Talk Like We Used To), Nika Autor (Newsreel 242 – Sunny Railways), Niles Atallah, Dr Nariman Massoumi (Pouring Water on Troubled Oil), Sister Sylvester and Deniz Tortum (Shadowland) and Sky Hopinka (małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore).
During a conversation event with Manna, Hopinka read al-Sharif’s public statement aloud to the audience including the festival director. On 13 November, in his own withdrawal statement, Hopinka also expressed his support for Nyrabi, writing, “He’s in an impossible position as the director of the festival, as an Arab, as a Syrian, and as a friend to so many of us.”
Others chose to use their platform at the festival to highlight the situation in Gaza, such as Mohammed Almuganni during his pitch for Son of the Streets, and the Peruvian XR team consisting of Claudix Vanesix, Juan Pablo TantaVilca and Lorena Garcia pulled their work following a live statement. Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly is continuing to screen his film Life is Beautiful – quoted in the Guardian, he explained “I want to be heard, because now that everything has been destroyed, what is left are our stories and freedom of expression.”
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on 14 November, Nyrabia said: “We respect the choices and the decisions of all filmmakers, whether that is to speak their minds on stage or online or to withdraw their films, all forms of peaceful protest, including criticism of our work, we honor and respect.”
In a statement posted to Instagram, Manna pointed out that IDFA’s initial statement goes against the Dutch court’s ruling, and “sets a precedent whereby bad-faith accusations are given leverage rather than dismantled,” adding, “This is dangerous particularly when it happens in a prestigious documentary film festival that should set a standard of critical thinking and journalistic truth. Over 40 journalists have been killed in Gaza this past month. If IDFA did not have the court to make a clear statement against this systematic targeting of Palestinian voices, call for the end of the genocidal onslaught and the end of apartheid, the least it could have done is protect a slogan for equality and freedom from demonization.”
“‘From the River to the Sea’” is an expression of liberation and resistance by Palestinian freedom fighters,” said Tafakory in her statement. “To call this slogan ‘hurtful’ is to be against the end of occupation. To equate decolonization with terrorism is to maintain the colonial narrative.”
On 12 November, IDFA responded to growing criticism with a third statement: “IDFA is about giving the stage to outstanding artists to be critical and free. IDFA is an open platform and not a censor. Our aim is to make sure everybody feels welcome and safe to express themselves and to listen openly to others, even when in disagreement.” This response was welcomed by the Palestinian Film Institute – as reported by Screen International, the PFI’s public programme curator Mohanad Yaqubi urged filmmakers still attending the festival to use it “as a way to speak up and use their platforms to talk about the continuous atrocities in Gaza.”
However, the situation has severely damaged the trust between some filmmakers and IDFA. In a press statement shared with LWLies, Basma al-Sharif wrote: “As a Palestinian and a filmmaker, I am shaken and terrified by the precedent set by IDFA that when confronted with real world politics within its framework, they have chosen to throw its most vulnerable under the bus at the first sign of trouble. If one of Europe’s biggest and most important documentary festivals cannot be trusted to protect the space for rigorous, important and necessary dialogue, then the festival is in crisis and the platform to share our work has been devalued.”
Readers are able to watch and support the work of Palestinian filmmakers and journalists who often put themselves in harm’s way in order to speak out against the persecution they face. Girls in Film, Roxy Faridany, Alannah Olivia and Amir El Masry held a film screening fundraiser on 8 November in support of Medical Aid Palestine, and The London Palestine Film Festival returns this week, running from November 17 to December 1. The Arab Film & Media Institute has also made a selection of Palestinian films available globally to watch for free during November.
IDFA has not yet responded to LWLies’ request for comment about the films withdrawn from the festival – we will update this article when they do.
Published 15 Nov 2023