Challenging Israeli Narratives About Queer Palestinian Culture

Staggering in its scope, Queer Cinema for Palestine comes from a global trend to redefine the breadth and scale of a film festival. Taking place simultaneously in 12 cities across five continents, the event is rooted in a decentralized ethos. There is no one director, chair, or chief executive. Instead, the organizers are as far flung as they hope their films will travel, united primarily by their support of the Palestinian cause. Queer activists and artists in various cities have been tapped to host in-person screenings and discussions, while other events will take place virtually across time zones.

Described as “an exercise in trust” by one of its key organizers, the festival represents an unprecedented number of queer filmmakers around the world screening works in solidarity with Palestine. The festival is in part a response to the “Brand Israel” campaign which the Israeli government launched in 2005. One of its tenets was to market Israel as a queer haven and tourist destination while simultaneously portraying Palestinian society as homophobic and regressive. Activists have pushed back against this, hosting their own queer-themed events and exposing how the Israeli security state has targeted queer Palestinians as a tactic of its prolonged occupation. Their work has drawn mainstream media attention, with more than 200 celebrities recently signing an open letter in support of TLVFest in response to the criticism.

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

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From Marco (2018), dir. Saleem Haddad, part of the Tunis program

Hyperallergic: How did Queer Cinema for Palestine come to be?

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

In the first years, the campaign encouraged filmmakers to pull out of TLVFest. Last year, filmmakers were asked to sign an additional pledge not to submit or screen their work there. Now we are not only honoring the Palestinian-led call to boycott the festival, but also creating an alternative global festival where we can screen the works of those who pulled out in previous years and promote dialogue around these issues. 

Ghadir Shafie: In 2016, Aswat [a queer Palestinian feminist collective] launched Kooz, a queer film festival, to bring visibility to gender and sexuality diversity within Palestinian society and counter Israel’s strategy to portray us as backwards and homophobic, their stereotypical image of queer Palestinians fleeing their families 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 to both depict reality and imagine better ones. 

From I Have to Say I Love You (2018), dir. Ariel Nobre, part of the Brasilia program

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

GS: It’s one way to depict our stories, it allows people to relate. Here we say, ‘The personal is political,’ and I hope they say it everywhere. I was a Palestinian teenager living in Israel, going to 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 one. I realized that there’s no ‘pink door’ in apartheid that allows queer Palestinians to escape from occupation and oppression. I lived 10 years thinking I couldn’t be both Palestinian and queer at the same time. It was only when I found Aswat that I realized I could be queer, Palestinian, a feminist, and a woman all at once.

JG: As queer people, we are inevitably looking for ourselves on screen. Especially those in isolation within patriarchy don’t see ourselves in our surroundings, except for what we might see on screen. Those 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 this way as a filmmaker, but it’s hard to think of another artform that has had more impact on the way people see us. The representation of queer lives in cinema can change opinions, humanize, promote empathy, and lead to debates about how to organize the society we live in. Queer cinema has always been part of connecting people and dismantling oppressive power structures around the world.

From Mother-in-Law (2019), dir. Shin Seung Eun, withdrawn from the 2020 TLVFest, showing in Seoul

H: A festival of this scope seemed almost unthinkable before the pandemic forced so many to go virtual. How have you seen the festival landscape shift, and how does this fit into it? 

JG: There’s almost no precedent in terms of a truly global festival. It’s never really been done before, the principle of collective curation. Each individual event ran in their own directions; it’s been an incredible exercise in trust. Kosovo does Kosovo, Berlin does Berlin, etc. Each city brings their interpretation of our mandate. This is the excitement of discovering what we mean by ‘Queer Cinema for Palestine.’ Everyone who attends the festival is going to be surprised — the definitions are very far reaching and different. QCP was inspired by the lockdown. As all festivals started to go online, we realized we could go forward with this long-held dream of a global festival. But it’s also a natural growth from those years of calling on people to withdraw [from TLVFest]. Now there’s an alternative. They won’t see films in the context of Israeli apartheid, but in a global space which is about supporting Palestine. 

GS: I think the pandemic allowed the world to reimagine life through the unknown. In one way, it has ironically been a great way to defy borders. We no longer have the excuse of ‘We can’t meet in person.’ With the presence of online platforms, groups all over the world that are organizing around Palestine can band together. It is inspiring to see how we can create alternative venues. This year we saw the popular uprising in Sheikh Jarrah spread not just 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 just inspiring, but actually made us feel one step closer to freedom. This allowed us as Palestinians to feel creative in our efforts. We saw queer artists all over the world take a stance against apartheid. Israeli is using and abusing cinema to maximize its pinkwashing strategy. It connects TLVFest to Israel pride month and Eurovision. It tries to distract from its crimes using art and culture. One way to react is not only to boycott, but to also provide alternatives to match the courage that Palestinians have demonstrated.

From The White Elephant (2018), dir. Shuruq Harb, part of the Beirut/Paris program

H: What do you say to artists struggling with the question of whether to screen 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 taking part 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: I was involved, back in the day, with the boycott effort to end apartheid in South Africa. At the time, it was a blanket boycott until apartheid is ended. In the short term South African filmmakers and scholars suffered, but that was in order to bring change. Here the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is approaching things in a more nuanced way. It’s not about censorship or targeting artists or artworks, it’s not about individuals, it’s about the funding. It’s not the filmmakers or the films or even the festivals, it’s the money they receive from the Israeli government. We’re not targeting films or filmmakers; we’re inviting them to join us. Even TLVFest could exempt itself from the boycott by refusing state funding.

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

H: Are there some highlights from the program you think people should not miss?

JG: I am excited about so many of our programs — Brazil, Paris-Beirut, Seoul. But in particular, the London, Ontario program will be bringing Indigenous and Palestinian filmmakers together in dialogue, viewing 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 bigger. I’m optimistic because more people are aware of what is happening in Palestine. Something about this generation is different. It’s not that they’re not fearless — we all felt scared during the pandemic and the subsequent popular uprising. But in a way, it gave all of us more courage. The more oppressed you are, the more courageous you become to break your chains. I think that this year will be a first of many to come, a global Queer Cinema for Palestine. I hope it will encourage more Palestinian artists to discuss queer issues in their films as well. Fewer taboos and more freedom for us all.

Queer Cinema for Palestine runs November 11-20, with physical events in 12 cities and virtual events available worldwide.

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