|'Palestinian film' through an Israeli lens
|EuroMed project is mired in questions
This is the second 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.
In late 2005, Palestine's arts community learned that a Palestinian Authority NGO called the Ramallah Film Institute (RFI) had applied to participate in a documentary film development project called Greenhouse.
Sponsored by EuroMed's Audiovisual II Program, Greenhouse would include Spanish, Czech and Turkish partners. RFI's "core partner" was Israel's New Foundation for Cinema and Television (NFCT). The news sent shockwaves through Palestine's cultural community.
During the following months of controversy, Palestinian efforts to dissuade EuroMed have centered on RFI's director, Adam Zuabi. Skeptical ears might dismiss this as a petty quarrel within the fractious Palestinian community.
It is not. Nor is it simply the story of yet another Arab opportunist taking advantage of gormless bureaucrats with money to spend before the end of the fiscal year.
The Greenhouse controversy strikes at the heart of EuroMed policies that, as enunciated in a recent letter to Palestinian artists, "encourage people from different countries in the Mediterranean region to work together despite the many obstacles that they face."
This asks artists to work within the status quo, problematic in Palestine since the status quo is a military occupation condemned by international law.
Palestine's filmmaking community has several reasons for opposing Greenhouse. There is, for one thing, the Israeli partner.
The NFCT is a state organization established in 1993 by Israel's Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport with the assistance of The Israel Film Council. It receives 60 percent of its funds from the Israeli government.
Hany Abu-Assad, the Netherlands-based writer-director of the Academy-award-nominated "Paradise Now," says he petitioned against Greenhouse because, as an Israeli state agency, the NFCT has refused to take a position against the occupation.
Other Palestinian filmmakers insist they have no problem collaborating with Israelis opposing their state's illegal occupation of Palestinian land and denial of Palestinian rights.
In an interview with "YNET," an online service of the Israeli newspaper "Yedioth Ahronot," dated March 16, Zuabi characterized Palestinian unwillingness to co-operate with the NFCT as "hypocritical."
"Without Israel we couldn't do anything," he said. "The Palestinian Authority has contacts with Israel; every cellular phone within the PA is operated by Israeli companies. In daily life, the PA is completely dependent on the State of Israel ... This exists in all walks of life, but in the film sector, when there's an opportunity of a project which requires this sort of collaboration, they can't deal with it. Not everything should be turned into political propaganda."
The edge of Zuabi's remarks is blunted, however, by a February 15 letter written to EuroMed by 67 Israel filmmakers and artists in support of their Palestinian colleagues.
"It is difficult," they write, "to imagine the Israeli partner organization being capable of taking an unprejudiced position vis-ˆ-vis Palestinian film proposals that may be (and ought to be) very critical of the State of Israel and the Israeli occupation.
"A case in point is the script for 'Paradise Now,' which ... was submitted to the Israel Film Fund [and rejected by it] ... We fear that other Palestinian proposals that directly challenge Israeli occupation and contend with the complexities of the Palestinian struggle for national liberation, may share a similar fate should they be submitted to Greenhouse."
Most Palestinian filmmakers also take issue with the Palestinian partner. Before December 2005, Ramallah filmmakers say they'd never heard of Zuabi's RFI.
"I found out [about RFI] in December ," writes Ramallah-based Annemarie Jacir. In fact, she continues, RFI isn't registered in the PA as an NGO. It's registered in East Jerusalem as an Israeli private company (registration number 513-540997), with Adam Zuabi as sole shareholder.
Jacir's colleagues say Zuabi actually can't register the RFI in the PA because, two years after the Ramallah International Film Festival, he still hasn't provided financial documents to the PA Culture Ministry. They fear he's registered in Israel to get around PA regulations.
Strangely, RFI also lists people on its board of directors who completely disown it.
"The current board of directors listed by [RFI]," says one Palestinian letter to the EU, "consists of several members who were either included on the board of RFI without their knowledge, such as Amany al-Wazir, or individuals who agreed to be on the board for the Jericho Film Festival, such as Basem Khoury and Firas al-Husseini."
These "board members" have written the EU to say they're not, and that when Zuabi put them on his board of directors they didn't know he planned to form a partnership with an Israeli state agency and didn't agree to such plans.
All this calls RFI's Palestinian credentials into question.
"Palestinian artists have been working for a long time trying to make our voices heard and not to only be defined in terms of Israel," Jacir writes. "An organization that wishes to represent or work for Palestinian artists needs to ... be on good terms with the artists, be part of that community, and be able to speak for them and defend them."
The EU was informed of local concerns and, in January 2006, received a letter signed by 40 prominent Palestinian filmmakers and cultural workers. The cream of the Palestinian filmmaking community signed the petition - including Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu-Assad, Rashid Masharawi, and Mai Masri.
"Palestine is not a jungle," the letter says. "Financial transparency and accountability is vital ... We are working against organizations who believe that financial records are private rather than public ...
"Throwing funding and/or projects at less wealthy countries who are struggling with corruption and supporting projects that are not rooted within the community, nor take into consideration the concerns of the local community they purport to be helping, hurt the Palestinian community considerably."
The EU did not respond to this note, or follow-up letters, for three months. On March 6 the European Commission's Carla Montesi, writing on behalf of the Brussels-based EuropeAid Co-operation Office, did reply to Ramallah filmmaker and academic Sobhi al-Zobaidi.
Montesi's letter sets Greenhouse within the narrative of EuroMed's five-year-long mission to circulate and promote "films between the two shores of the Mediterranean, [preserve] the South Mediterranean's televisual heritage, [train] professionals, [produce] documentaries, and [develop] successful features."
She defends the transparency of the Greenhouse process, saying the project "succeeded on its technical merits in a free and transparent competition."
She reassures Zobaidi that the "NFCT, as contracting Authority of the project, is the only responsible for [its] administrative and financial management."
In closing, she expresses confidence that Greenhouse would "develop a multi-cultural dialogue and promote the creation of professional and personal ties between regional filmmakers, objectives that reflect the main aims of the Euro-Mediterranean co-operation ... "
Montesi's response scrubs the politics off Greenhouse and casts it in the language of paternalistic charity, market competition, and multiculturalism. In this crucible, evidently, the Palestinian's other concerns should simply dissolve.
Palestinian filmmakers confirm that European funding bodies have been pushing Palestinian-Israeli cooperation for some time now, while film organizations in Ramallah have had trouble funding Palestinian cinema.
Gaza-born Rashid Masharawi founded the Ramallah Cinema Production Center, which produced the first shorts of 16 young filmmakers.
"My problem always was with financing," Masharawi says. "I got so many offers from Europe and Israel for joint projects with Israel and I refused: I was trying to establish Palestinian cinema."
"Many Palestinian cultural organizations apply for support from Europe and get it," writes Jacir. "And many do not unless they are in a nice little package with Israel, which totally ignores political and social realities, like the fact that we live under the boot of a harsh occupation.
"We've had joint Israeli-Palestinian projects dangled in our faces for decades which white-wash the reality of our lives and refuse to see Palestinians as individuals. This dangling of money and benefits is not enough. Unfortunately there are Palestinians who take advantage of this for their own personal gain."
Nazareth documentarian Nizar Hassan too questions the EU funding regime, saying that as long as EuroMed support doesn't issue from a professional foundation of cinema or television, it will attract "parasites" and "opportunists" like RFI.
He writes that he knows of one film to emerge from EU funding - Elia Sulieman's "Divine Intervention" - but he "can count at least 20 thieves, who take the money and run [while] not doing anything. I do believe the problem isn't with the one who give[s] the money, but with the one who takes it."
"I would rather not have any [EuroMed] support than have a project that only serves to assuage European guilt for their role in creating this mess," writes Jacir, "that turns our work as artists into a 'peace process' and simultaneously asks us to work with an Israeli governmental organization which has done nothing to change its oppressive policies towards Palestinians."
Last month, in response to Palestinian objections, Greenhouse's Spanish and Turkish partners withdrew from the project. Safaa Kaddioui, an operations manager with EuroMed Audiovisual II in Rabat, has since informed The Daily Star that the project will continue with German (and possibly British) partners.
"A few weeks after the project was signed," she continued, "we received information from a number of sources alleging possible mismanagement by one of the partners ... [T]he Commission is now carrying out an audit to verify the management capacity and probity of the partners based on transparency and international management standards."
It is questionable, though, whether a simple audit can address the EU's problematic choice of partners.
Most Palestinian filmmakers will not work with an Israeli state institution like the New Foundation for Cinema and Television, while filmmakers elsewhere in the Arab world - living and working in countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel - cannot do so. Palestinian filmmakers will not work with Adam Zuabi's Ramallah Film Institute, whose record has utterly alienated Ramallah's artistic community.
It will be distressing indeed if the EU stands by these core partners. At best it suggests EuroMed's managers are unresponsive to the concerns of the constituency they purport to assist, compromising the EU role as advocate for democratic practice in this region.
At worst it could limit Palestinians' freedom of artistic expression, making the EU complicit in the Israeli occupation.
The Daily Star