Culture Ministry wants money back from ‘Palestinian’ film

Movie by Israeli-Arab, who received over NIS 2 million in government grants, submitted to festival on behalf of ‘Palestine’

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Listing of the film Villa Touma, by Israeli-Arab screenwriter Suha Arraf, at the Venice Film Festival, 2014. (screen capture: La Biennale)
Listing of the film Villa Touma, by Israeli-Arab screenwriter Suha Arraf, at the Venice Film Festival, 2014. (screen capture: La Biennale)

The Culture Ministry, together with other public organizations, may seek to retrieve over NIS 2 million ($580,000) that it provided for a film by an Israeli-Arab director after the finished movie was billed at the Venice Film Festival as produced in Palestine.

The film “Villa Touma” by director and writer Suha Arraf was featured at the International Critics’ Week of the prestigious festival without any mention of Israel despite the funding that made the work possible, Walla reported on Thursday.

Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry gave NIS 1.35 million ($393,00) towards funding the film, the National Lottery gave NIS 114,000 ($33,000) and the Economy Ministry another NIS 600,000 ($174,00). In total the state funded two-thirds of the film’s NIS 3 million ($873,000) budget.

When questioned about why she had listed the film as coming from Palestine, Arraf, who identifies as Palestinian and is from the Israeli Christian-Arab town of Mi’ilya in the Galilee, declined to comment and instead raised the plight of Palestinian civilians in the conflict-ravaged Gaza Strip.

“I am not interested in responding,” Arraf said. “I have no response. I would be very happy to respond about the murder of children in Gaza. That’s my response. The identity of my film is not a matter of debate, period.”

Many of those involved in the film, including one of the other producers and the art director, expressed their dismay at Arraf’s actions.

“What Suha Arraf did was abusive, and that really hurts,” said Eitan Levi, the artistic designer for the film. “The film Villa Touma is an Israeli film according to the law, because it received Israeli money, was funded by an Israeli fund, and won a prize at the Haifa festival that is an Israeli festival.”

The film tells the story of three Christian sisters living in Ramallah during the early days of Israel’s occupation of the area. The sisters retreat into a reclusive life in their villa until the arrival of a niece who shakes up their world.

“The Culture Ministry needs to deal with this, in order that it doesn’t become an example for other films that will be called ‘Palestinian’ at our expense,” Levi said.

Levi said that he questioned Arraf about her actions and that the she responded that because she — the director, screenwriter, and producer — is Palestinian, so too is the film. However, she would not be drawn further on the subject, Levi told Walla News.

The Culture Ministry said it was looking into legal methods for demanding the money back

“We were astounded to hear of the intention to present the film, that was made by Israeli producers and benefited from the support of the State of Israel, at the festival as something that represents Palestine,” the ministry said in a statement.

The National Lottery said that it too was taking similar steps.

“Presenting the film as representing any non-Israeli entity is deceit and abuse of funds given to Israeli citizens,” the organization said in a statement. “Mifal Hapayis is investigating how to rectify the situation and claim a refund of money. In addition, if necessary, new rules will be laid down to prevent a recurrence of similar incidents.”

The Economy Ministry said in a statement that it “is looking into the legal aspects of the situation.”

Angelica Berman, who co-produced the film, was also furious at Arraf’s decision.

“I am amazed at how all the advertisements can say the film was produced in Palestine,” she said. “Why distort the truth and hide the amazing and professional collaboration between Jews and Arabs that went into this production? The film was produced and shot in Israel, with the support of Israeli public money.”

“I think a great injustice has been done to all the Israel partners in this special production,” she added.

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