Challenging Israeli narratives of queer Palestinian culture

Breathtaking in its extent, Queer cinema for Palestine comes from a worldwide trend to redefine the scale and scale of a film festival. Taking place simultaneously in 12 cities on five continents, the event is anchored in a decentralized philosophy. There is not a single director, president or CEO. Instead, the organizers are as distant as they hope their films will travel, united mainly by their support for the Palestinian cause. Queer activists and artists from various cities have been asked to host screenings and in-person discussions, while other events will take place virtually across time zones.

Described as “an exercise in trust” by one of its main organizers, the festival represents an unprecedented number of queer filmmakers from around the world showing works in solidarity with Palestine. The festival is in part a response to the “Brand Israel” campaign that the Israeli government launched in 2005. One of its tenets was to portray Israel as a queer haven and tourist destination while portraying Palestinian society as homophobic and regressive. Activists opposed this, organizing their own gay-themed events and exposing how the Israeli security state has targeted gay Palestinians as a tactic in its prolonged occupation. Their work has attracted the attention of the mainstream media, with over 200 celebrities recently signed an open letter in support of TLVFest in response to criticism.

Ahead of the festival’s inaugural edition, Hyperallergic spoke to two of the organizers, the Toronto filmmaker John Greyson and feminist organizer based in Akka Ghadir Shafie, to learn more about the ambitious project.


Of Marco (2018), dir. Saleem Haddad, member of the Tunis program

Hyperallergic: How was the Queer Cinema for Palestine born?

John Greyson: Since 2009, there has been a boycott campaign demanded by Palestinian civil society and queer activists in Palestine focused on an Israeli LGBT film festival, the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival (TLVFest), especially because it receives funding from the Israeli government, in particular the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. This is part of a larger Israeli government propaganda effort that seeks to highlight Israel as a so-called “oasis” for gay rights in the Middle East. TLVFest receives this money as part of Israel’s pinkwashing effort to cover up their human rights violations.

In the early years, the campaign encouraged filmmakers to withdraw from TLVFest. Last year, the filmmakers were asked to sign an additional pledge not to submit or screen their work there. Now, we are not only honoring the Palestinians’ call to boycott the festival, but we are also creating an alternative global festival where we can screen the works of those who have retired in previous years and promote dialogue around these issues.

Ghadir Shafiie: In 2016, Aswat [a queer Palestinian feminist collective] spear Kooz, a queer film festival, to give visibility to the diversity of gender and sexuality within Palestinian society and counter Israel’s strategy of portraying us as backward and homophobic, their stereotypical image of queer Palestinians fleeing their family to live in Tel Aviv. We wanted to create this new platform to show stories of LGBTQ + people, and we saw that cinema is a way both to portray reality and to imagine better ones.

Of I have to say i love you (2018), dir. Ariel Nobre, member of the Brasilia program

H: What role does cinema play in the struggle for queer and Palestinian liberation?

GS: It’s a way of describing our stories, it allows people to identify with each other. Here we say, “The staff is political”, and I hope they say it everywhere. I was a Palestinian teenager living in Israel, attending Palestinian schools where Israel dictates the curriculum. I was 18 and had just started to question my sexuality. When I was young I moved to Tel Aviv, where I thought I would live free, but soon my Israeli friends wanted me to change my name to an Israeli name. I realized that there is no “pink door” in apartheid that allows gay Palestinians to escape occupation and oppression. I lived 10 years thinking that I couldn’t be both Palestinian and gay. It wasn’t until I discovered Aswat that I realized that I could be queer, Palestinian, feminist, and female at the same time.

JG: As queer people, we inevitably seek ourselves out on the screen. Especially those who are isolated within the patriarchy do not see themselves in our surroundings, except for what we might see on the screen. These relationships are necessary to create a sense of self and they have the power to fundamentally change society. Maybe I’m predisposed to see it that way as a filmmaker, but it’s hard to think of another art form that has had more of an impact on the way people see us. Portraying queer lives in movies can change opinions, humanize, promote empathy, and lead to debates about how to organize the society we live in. Queer cinema has always helped connect people and dismantle oppressive power structures around the world.

Of Stepmother (2019), dir. Shin Seung Eun, retired from TLVFest 2020, show in Seoul

H: A festival of this magnitude seemed almost unthinkable before the pandemic forced so many people to go virtual. How did you see the festival landscape evolving and how does that fit in?

JG: There is hardly any precedent in terms of a truly global festival. It has never really been done before, the principle of collective curation. Each individual event unfolded in its own direction; it has been an incredible exercise in trust. Kosovo makes Kosovo, Berlin makes Berlin, etc. Each city brings its interpretation of our mandate. It’s the excitement of finding out what we mean by “Queer Cinema for Palestine”. Anyone who attends the festival is going to be surprised – the definitions are very broad and different. QCP was inspired by confinement. As all the festivals started to go live, we realized that we could move forward with this long-held dream of a global festival. But it’s also a natural growth of those years calling on people to retire [from TLVFest]. Now there is an alternative. They will not see films in the context of Israeli apartheid, but in a global space that supports Palestine.

GS: I think the pandemic has allowed the world to reimagine life through the unknown. In a sense, this has ironically been a great way to challenge boundaries. We no longer have the excuse of “we cannot meet in person”. With the presence of online platforms, groups around the world that organize around Palestine can come together. It’s inspiring to see how we can create alternative places. This year we have seen popular uprising in Sheikh Jarrah has spread not only to other parts of Jerusalem, but also to Gaza, the West Bank, Palestinians living in Israel and the Diaspora. This wave of global solidarity was not only inspiring, but actually took us one step closer to freedom. This has allowed us as Palestinians to be creative in our efforts. We have seen queer artists around the world take a stand against apartheid. Israeli uses and abuses cinema to maximize its pinkwashing strategy. It links TLVFest to Israel Pride Month and Eurovision Song Contest. He tries to distract from his crimes by using art and culture. One way to react is not only to boycott, but also to offer alternatives that match the courage that the Palestinians have shown.

Of The white elephant (2018), dir. Shuruq Harb, part of the Beirut / Paris program

H: What do you say to artists grappling with whether to show their work at TLVFest or in Israel?

GS: Artists have a moral obligation to take a stand. I am disappointed by artists who say, “Don’t mix art and politics” because participating in a festival that accepts funding from the Israeli government is a very political statement. TLVFest says it’s the only queer festival in the region, but there are others in Palestine, Tunis, and Beirut.

JG: At the time, I participated in the boycott effort to end apartheid in South Africa. At the time, it was a general boycott until the end of apartheid. In the short term, South African filmmakers and academics suffered, but it was to make changes. Here the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) approaches things in a more nuanced way. It’s not about censorship or targeting of artists or artwork, it’s not about individuals, it’s about funding. It’s not the filmmakers or the films or even the festivals, it’s the money they get from the Israeli government. We are not targeting films or filmmakers; we invite them to join us. Even TLVFest could escape the boycott by denying state funding.

Of Land / Trust (2021), dir. Whess Harman, member of the London, Ontario program

H: Are there any highlights of the program that you think people shouldn’t miss?

JG: I am excited about so many of our programs – Brazil, Paris-Beirut, Seoul. But in particular, the London, Ontario program will bring together Indigenous and Palestinian filmmakers in a dialogue, looking at Palestine through the lens of Indigenous rights. I think it will be really special.

H: What are your goals for the future of this festival?

GS: I think it will only get fatter. I am optimistic because more people are aware of what is happening in Palestine. Something about this generation is different. It’s not that they aren’t afraid – we’ve all been afraid during the pandemic and the popular uprising that followed. But in a way, it gave us all more courage. The more oppressed you are, the more courageous you become to break your chains. I think this year will be a first among many, a queer world cinema for Palestine. I hope this will encourage more Palestinian artists to discuss queer issues in their films as well. Less taboos and more freedom for all of us.

Queer cinema for Palestine takes place November 11-20, with physical events in 12 cities and virtual events available worldwide.

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