Document talks with a London-based filmmaker and activist, who is one of 30 industry professionals calling for the boycott of The London Israel Film and Television Festival, about weaponizing culture, the function of art in political discourse, and the responsibility of journalists to navigate the murky waters of propaganda.
In an open letter sent to the Guardian, a coalition of film professionals have called for the boycott of an Israeli film and culture festival taking place in London this week. The letter, signed by over 30 actors, writers, filmmakers, producers, and musicians, comes during the London Israeli Film and Television Festival taking place at a number of iconic British cinemas. Its signatories claimed that the festival, and culture at large, is being used to “art-wash” the Israeli government’s record of human rights violations. The claim has intensified in recent years as numerous artists have canceled shows in the country, including Lorde, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and Brian Eno as participants in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement.
But, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz established back in 2005, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been aggressive in using cultural programming as a “new means of presenting the country’s ‘prettier face’ to the world.” This most recent call to no-platform the work of Israeli artists is unique as it seeks to block these cultural efforts from leaving the country, as opposed to traditional calls to prevent international musicians and arts from coming into Israel. The film festival, say the letter’s signatories, “gives an apparently acceptable face to a brutal reality,” and that theaters hosting the films “should refuse to provide platforms for national celebrations sponsored by a regime that is guilty of systematic and large-scale human rights violations.”
In recent weeks alone, during protests on the border of Gaza, an Israeli sniper killed a Palestinian journalist, clearly identified as press, as well as the photographer Ahmed Abu Hussein. Six other photojournalists wearing press jackets were also injured by the Israeli military on that same day. Since the protests began on March 30, at least 31 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces.
Shortly after the letter’s publication, Document spoke with signee Leah Borromeo, a documentary filmmaker, activist, and journalist who has covered social movements across the middle east. We asked her about the legacy of “art-washing,” the BDS movement’s efforts to reach out to members of the culture industry, and the blowback faced by artists who call for sanctions against the Israeli government.
Document—First off, who approached you to sign the letter, and why did you?
Leah Borromeo—I was approached by a representative of a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions group who was reaching out to artists, journalists, filmmakers, and the rest of the “cappuccino classes.” I’m by no means hardline on BDS—I can’t be if I want to tell stories in parts of the world I care about and about people I love—or an extremist. I won’t not see a band because they are Israeli just as I won’t not tell a compelling story if its subject happens to be Israeli. You can’t help coming from where you come from. So I chewed on it, and it wasn’t an easy decision because I know how hard it is to make a film. Independent filmmakers need platforms for their voices. Film festivals are one of those platforms. However, not every film festival has overt support from a government—in this case, Israel—that flaunts UN regulations, commits countless human rights violations, serves up a feast of bellicose rhetoric towards its neighbors and critics and holds another people under the gun of apartheid.
Document—Some artists and directors have called the festival a form of “art-washing.” What do you make of the term?
Leah—It comes from “green-washing” and “white-washing.” It’s a hall of mirrors set up to entertain, amuse and decorate while the nasty business of subjugation, oppression, and death goes on in the background. It’s bandied about a bit too much—a kind of lazy copywriting. But apart from its overuse, I’m good with it.
“We have advanced critical thinking skills and bullshit radars that should allow us to navigate propaganda’s murkiest waters. We have a responsibility to call people out on their bad behavior, not to enable it.”
Document—Can you talk about journalism’s relationship to art, culture, and media as a whole?
Leah—I’ve often said that journalism is the coal miner of the arts. It’s a dark, gritty, unswervingly pragmatic art that’s often mistaken as a profession. There’s also a huge difference between the journalism that is invested in the stories of people and places and what Nick Davies calls “churnalism,” where data and advertising is reconstituted and spat out as information. There’s the business angle and there’s the art of crafting a narrative. The journalism I identify with crafts a narrative. The journalism that can be exploited and complicit in the suppression of voices also crafts a narrative—but with deadlier results. Journalism isn’t a catch-all word, basically. However, journalists have responsibility as professionals to a shared decency and respect for those who are suffering. We have advanced critical thinking skills and bullshit radars that should allow us to navigate propaganda’s murkiest waters. We have a responsibility to call people out on their bad behavior, not to enable it. It’s how many people in the world encounter and interact with culture. Media has made an industry out of itself and the selling of stories. It shouldn’t uphold that industry through selling people out.
Document—In your opinion, how does Israel use culture as a form of propaganda?
Leah—In this case, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Hasbara department have been overt with their aims to “put power in the hands of those who promote culture as a means of explaining Israel.” The purpose is to explain Israel’s case to the world through arts and culture, and while I have no axe to grind with anyone who wants to use the arts to explain their case. In the case of Israel, however, their case is at the expense and exploitation of other people whose only apparent crime was to live on a land someone else wanted. Because the output of the Jewish diaspora is so rich and beautiful, it’s ripe for exploitation. The current Israel would have you believe that every Jew supports the state and to not do so is an act of self-hate. The thing to remember is that this Israel does not hold the monopoly on Jewishness and Jewishness doesn’t mean you’re pro-Israel (just look at the panoply of folks who signed the letter). There could be another Israel—one that looks out for people and embraces the differences and similarities between cultures and religions. That Israel is possible. It’s just that currently Israel is run by people whose egos prevent their humanity from taking over.
Document—What do you say to people who argue that Israeli artists have the right to show their work on an international platform?
Leah—Israeli artists, American artists, Iranian artists, Chinese artists, Palestinian artists…and every other artist has the right to show their work. The letter is not against this expression or the right to it, it’s against where the support for the platform for this expression has come from.