|Greenhouse : EuroMed film center built on shaky ground
|Controversy has roots in failed Ramallah Film Festival
This is the first of a two-part series examining the controversy surrounding the EuroMed Greenhouse project - a Tel Aviv-based documentary film development center with Palestinian and Israeli core partners.
With their political leadership as polarized as ever, it is tempting to see signs of co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian artists as good news. It looks like a victory for humanism over political intransigence.
It was with great fanfare, then, that the European Union announced the launch of "Greenhouse - the Mediterranean Film Centre" last February 15 in Berlin. One of 12 projects funded by the EuroMed Audiovisual II Program, Greenhouse's agenda is to train "young documentary filmmakers and ... [develop] feature-length documentaries geared towards the big screen."
To accomplish this laudable goal, Greenhouse linked Spain's Parallel 40 and DocsBarcelona, the Czech Republic's Institute of Documentary Film and Turkey's Association of Documentary Filmmakers with two core partners - Israel's New Foundation for Cinema and Television (NFCT) and the Ramallah Film Institute (RFI).
The announcement was made despite months of strenuous objections from Palestinian filmmakers and other cultural workers to the NFCT-RFI partnership. In response to Palestinian objections, the Spanish and Turkish partners withdrew from Greenhouse. EuroMed insists on persevering with the project.
Does cultural co-operation trump transparency and representative credibility? The two shouldn't be mutually exclusive but, when they are, is it ethical to link financial assistance in the cultural sphere to co-operation between occupier and occupied?
The vast majority of Palestine's filmmaking community feels that equal cultural exchange between occupier and occupied is impossible. The EU thinks otherwise. Appraising this conflict requires an examination of the back-story, rooted in the 2004 Ramallah Film Festival.
RFI is the brainchild of one Adam Zuabi. He appears to have been a peripheral figure on the Palestinian cultural scene until 2003, when he emerged as organizer of the first Ramallah International Film Festival (RIFF).
"Cinema has always belonged to the storyteller," said Zuabi in a May 2004 Daily Star interview. "The Palestinian people have countless stories to tell. For the first time, the [RIFF] will celebrate their stories and give an opportunity for others from around the world to share their stories with them...
"We want to create a cultural territory that is separate from politics," he continued. "We want to try to create a pure cultural space as much as possible."
Zuabi was lauded for his attempts to "foster a grassroots project to cultivate a springboard [sic] to the cultural and educational life in the Palestinian territories."
The RIFF, however, left a bad taste in the mouths of many in Palestine's cultural community.
George Azar is a Gaza-based photojournalist, a former RIFF board member and one of the chorus of voices that asked the EU not to fund Greenhouse.
"Personally, I felt Mr. Zuabi's charm, salesmanship, and connections with the larger film world could be a tremendous asset to film arts in Palestine," Azar wrote in a letter to EuroMed earlier this year.
"Sadly, dealing with Mr. Zuabi was problematic from day one ... Board members grew increasingly concerned about reports of wide-ranging RIFF irregularities [which] led [them] to begin resigning one by one."
The flight of board members included such prominent figures as George Khleifi, head of Al-Quds Media Center; writer and critic Sam Bahour; Al-Ayyam newspaper's Mahdi Masri; and Sani Meo, founder and editor of This Week in Palestine.
Particularly disenchanted by the RIFF were Ramallah's filmmakers, such as Najwa Najjar.
On one hand there was a tacit relationship between the RIFF and the 23-year-old Jerusalem International Film Festival (JIFF). The RIFF opened the same day as the JIFF, screened international films imported for the JIFF and even brought (often ill-prepared) JIFF speakers to participate in RIFF panels.
This is problematic, Najjar argues, because the JIFF promotes Jerusalem as the legitimate capital of Israel - despite the fact that most of the world sees East Jerusalem to be illegally occupied. Establishing an organizational relationship between the Ramallah and Jerusalem festivals (tacit or otherwise) makes it appear that Palestinians acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Najjar says the RIFF was not a grassroots festival. She points out that its major venues were turned over to international films that had not even been subtitled into Arabic - which drew limited foreign audiences but made them inaccessible to most Palestinians.
Far from celebrating Palestinian stories and giving the international community a chance to share them, the festival either rejected Palestinian submissions or screened them at secondary venues, effectively sidelining the artists and audience that should be at the center of the festival.
"This attitude continued throughout," Najjar writes, "raising the question as to whom the film festival was geared."
Now it might be argued that, for a new festival with limited funding, piggy-backing atop another established festival and not having Arabic subtitles is simply a matter of pragmatic necessity.
Zuabi's critics, however, say he did receive funding from the local offices of foreign institutions. Najjar reckons Zuabi raised somewhere near $400,000 for the RIFF - from such sponsors as France's TV5, Italy's RAI, the British Council, the European Cultural Foundation, the Italian Ministry of Culture, UK's Channel Four Television, Europa Cinema, and the Palestinian Ministries of Culture and Education.
The money, they say, paid for neither film-import costs, panelists (all in-country for the JIFF), Arabic subtitling, or professional organizers (as he relied on volunteers). This and the lack of disclosure to RIFF board members raised questions about Zuabi's ethical practice.
It has been impossible to reach Zuabi to have him answer these charges. He didn't respond to emails sent his email addresses. It is impossible to reach Palestine by telephone from Beirut and illegal for Beirut-based journalists to travel to Israel-Palestine. Furthermore, Zuabi remained silent throughout the months of energetic petitioning against Greenhouse.
Last month Zuabi did grant an interview with a sympathetic journalist at "YNET," the online service of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, dated March 16.
Zuabi told Yedioth Ahronot he started the RIFF "with nothing, I worked voluntarily ... I wish we had resources to cover even the basic expenses of telephones. I finished the festival with losses amounting to 65,000 shekels that my father paid for out of his own pocket.
"The festival and the Institute have an accountant who did his job properly," he continued. "We announced numerous times that we would be happy to give a copy of our financial reports to anyone who wishes to see them. Copies were also given to the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, although they were not partners of the festival and did not support it financially, because we asked to remain independent."
Ramallah's cultural organisations, NGO and state bodies were so badly alienated by Zuabi's management style that it was impossible to stage the RIFF in 2005. He tried transplanting it to Jericho but, dogged by accusations of wrongdoing, that festival was also cancelled.
Zuabi depicts himself as an innovator under personal attack from a clannish Palestinian establishment because of his success and background.
"I don't live in Ramallah," he told Yedioth Ahronot. "I wasn't born there and for the past six years I've worked in Italy ... I arrived in Ramallah and changed things around. I succeeded where other organizations, which have been there for years, failed. Maybe they were aggravated by the arrival of someone young and energetic who wanted to get things done ...
"We did things on our own, and the international reaction created jealousy which still exists. I'm being attacked because of this success, because I'm an outsider, my mother's Jewish and I spend time in Europe."
His critics stress Zuabi's professional conduct rather than lineage. Najjar writes that RIFF's board of directors resigned because Zuabi has not submitted financial statements to the festival's backers.
"For the last two years we've been asking Zuabi to present financial and administrative reports," writes Ramallah-based filmmaker and academic Sobhi al-Zobaidi, "but he produced nothing."
Zobaidi says the RIFF was a good initiative, but that "it was a one-man show. Zuabi managed to alienate almost every Palestinian who got involved in the festival. But he pleased many foreigners."
One of Zuabi's outreach initiatives, launched in September 2003, was a screenplay-writing competition for students from 802 high schools throughout the Palestinian territories. Zuabi offered to publish and film the winning entries and to release the films theatrically. Winners would attend a screenwriting master class hosted by leading industry professionals.
"Many of the ... awards, etc. that were to follow some of the activities never materialized," Zobaidi writes. "Those kids whose scripts were chosen got [blank] papers for awards and nothing ever happened to their effort.
"Now, Zuabi thought that no one would ask, but people do care and that's why he is having lots of problems here."
The controversy around Adam Zuabi didn't die with the RIFF. He carried it with him to the EuroMed's Greenhouse documentary film project - effectively magnifying Palestinian concerns. This is the subject of Tuesady's article.
The Daily Star