CHICAGO — Artists, activists and cultural workers are staging a #DropTheFilmFest twitter campaign targeting the Music Box Theatre and the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema. In keeping with the global cultural and academic boycott of Israel, organizers are calling for the Music Box Theatre to cease screening festival films, and for the festival itself to be canceled.
Now in its 11th year, the 2016 edition of the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema runs from November 1-13. The festival showcases Israel’s most current award-winning feature films, documentaries, shorts and TV shows, with guest appearances by Israeli film stars, filmmakers, and critics. This year’s festival features films in Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi.
Although Chicago is known for having a large anti-Zionist community, just a handful of demonstrators showed up to protest the film festival on November 3 outside the Music Box Theatre. Organizers had hoped for between 30 and 60 protestors, but numbers were considerably smaller as only a dozen people arrived by its conclusion.
Protestors chanted slogans such as “Ethnic cleansing isn’t pretty, no film fest in this city,” while festival-goers walked by to attend the screening of Ido Haar’s documentary “Presenting Princess Shaw.” The festival event was co-hosted by the Israeli Consulate General to the Midwest and Israel House.
Demonstrators complained of the large police presence and private security called by the Israeli Consulate.
Michael Deheeger, the Chicago Organizer for Jewish Voices for Peace explained the protest’s objective.
“We want the Music Box Theatre to drop the festival. The festival itself should also be cancelled because it is part of a strategy of whitewashing of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.”
Deheeger cited the words of Israeli politician Arye Mekel, who told The New York Times, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits… This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
Protesting, however, can be a thorny issue.
When pressed about the paradox of protesting outside the screening of “Presenting Princess Shaw,” a documentary that celebrates the life of an African-American woman, Samantha Montgomery, and the inherent contradictions of asking that this narrative be dropped, Deheeger admitted that he hadn’t seen the film in question.
“I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t know her story. But, this is what happens when the Israeli government uses artistic work in the service of political propaganda. If a cultural event is sponsored by an institution, it’s a target, regardless of content,” Deheeger replied.
Yona Eichenbaum, one of the festival’s board members, disagrees.
“’Presenting Princess Shaw’ is about the universal element of music to unite and take us to a different place,” he said. “We have a woman in New Orleans; we have a man on a kibbutz in Israel 8,000 miles away. They come together through YouTube and he creates something that transcends everything. How can you protest that?”
Eichenbaum added, “If they would have taken 10 minutes to see this film, they would have known that. I wish they could meet Princess Shaw.”
Raynard Cosby, Princess Shaw’s nephew, spoke to organizers to understand their point of view. He said that his aunt, who attended the screening and performed afterwards, saw the protestors and was concerned that they were protesting directly against her.
“We are not protesting individual films,” said Debbie Southorn, another #DropTheFilmFest organizer and a videographer. “We do, however, protest the fact that the festival and this screening are supported by the Israeli government.”
In response, the office of the Israeli Consulate General to the Midwest said in a prepared statement, “If the Palestinians and anti-Israel groups put more effort and energy into dialogue for peace instead of promoting propaganda, their situation would be much better.”
Last year the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema screened Israel’s hit series television series “Fauda.” The series has been praised for its realism and empathetic portrayal of the Hamas characters. Far from whitewashing, the series presents the ugliness of the occupation from both sides.
“The whole idea is to make sure that our audiences have a fully dimensional view of Israelis and Israeli life,” said Cindy Stern, the festival’s Executive Director. “Our only agenda is quality. “
“We wish to show contemporary Israel unvarnished — or un-whitewashed,” she added. “With that in mind, some of that is really good news. Other films provide great food for thought and dialogue. That’s a start. And it gives us hope that peace and justice for all can one day be achieved.“
The #DropTheFilmFest hashtag has yet to catch fire. It has, however, brought the Music Box Theatre and the protest organizers together for a dialogue, which will occur next week. This can be seen as progress.