A group of filmmakers participating in the DocEdge documentary film festival have written an open letter over its acceptance of sponsorship funding from the Israeli Embassy in New Zealand.
The embassy is supporting the screening of the film “Dead Sea Guardians,” an Israeli production about “three nations in endless conflict… willing to risk their lives in order to save the Dead Sea”.
In the open letter, the group of nine writers, directors and producers said that DocEdge’s acceptance of this funding is “an offensive and unacceptable affiliation which we do not endorse”. They said that their move was not about censorship, but “the credibility and legitimisation that Israel gains from DocEdge’s endorsement and platform”.
A United Nations human rights report has said that Palestinians continue to live under an “oppressive rule of institutional discrimination”. The situation now, it says, is “apartheid,” which is a “crime against humanity today and into the future, wherever it may exist”. Cole Yeoman, a Kiwi filmmaker who coordinated the open letter, told Critic Te Arohi that while DocEdge has partnerships with several other states, including Australia, France, the Netherlands and the US, accepting Israeli money was different. “There are ethical issues with many different funders,” he said, “but apartheid is a very clear thing where everyone can draw a line in the sand and say, ‘That is not OK’.”
While Cole initially considered pulling out of the festival, he thought that “the most effective thing is to stay involved, keep working that relationship and put the pressure on from the inside.” However, he said there was “not much engagement after a month,” despite concerns being raised about this sponsorship from as early as 2018.
When asked for comment, Doc Edge pointed to a previous statement made by executive director Dan Shanan, in response to the Palestinian Solidarity Network Aotearoa’s concerns about this funding. In it, he said that they “acknowledge and respect PSNA's own independent voice and efforts,” but defended their “curatorial independence” to choose films and partners as they saw fit. “We strongly believe that restricting freedom of expression contributes to greater polarisation around complex issues,” he said.
Cole then decided to escalate matters, and reached out to other filmmakers to share his concerns and gain support. The open letter was signed by nine filmmakers, including participants from Aotearoa, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, Ukraine and the UK. One of them, Kaia Kahurangi Jamieson, is a news reporter at Radio 1. Another, Gabriel Shipton, is Julian Assange’s brother.
Cole told Critic Te Arohi that, for filmmakers, it is “difficult to speak up against things they’re not comfortable with.” As well as being busy, Cole said there is a distinct power imbalance. He himself was torn between being honoured that his film was being played at the film festival, and concerned about its ethical implications. “Nine being willing to take that risk is huge,” he said. DocEdge has said that the sponsorship funding only represents “a tiny fraction” of their budget, but Cole argued that what Israel stands to gain is the important part: “They gain the legitimisation and credibility of having their logo displayed”. This helps them to present a sophisticated image on the global stage, he said, allowing Israel to “art-wash” what is “an incredibly barbaric regime”.
When asked to comment on the letter, Israeli Ambassador to New Zealand Ran Yaakoby did not respond directly. He told Critic Te Arohi that he was “pleased to share Israeli Culture being represented at the DocEdge Film Festival and for New Zealanders to enjoy some of Israel’s top film productions”. He added: “We have been gladly supporting [Doc Edge] for many years, and we are proud of the quality of our film and TV industry being acknowledged by this distinguished film festival.”
Cole hopes that this open letter will spur DocEdge to return to the table and engage with their concerns. Ultimately, he hopes that they’ll walk away from their partnership with the Israeli Embassy.