'They threatened to make it a four-day nightmare'

Israeli film festival in Barcelona still on after venue change due to harassment campaign

Anti-Israel groups claim victory, ‘respect for call for cultural boycott,’ as family-owned theater cancels event due to their threats

'Karaoke,' a film screening at Seret Film Festival in Barcelona, stars Sasson Gabay and Rita Shukrun. (Greenwich Entertainment via JTA)
'Karaoke,' a film screening at Seret Film Festival in Barcelona, stars Sasson Gabay and Rita Shukrun. (Greenwich Entertainment via JTA)

JTA — Organizers of an Israeli film festival in Barcelona say they have been forced to change locations at the last minute because of harassment directed at the theater that was slated to host the event.

The Seret Film Festival, which has hosted a series of events around the world, will be moving forward in Barcelona, with the opening night starting on schedule on Thursday and the final films showing Sunday. But the new venue is being kept secret, divulged only to ticket holders.

“Due to threats from anti-Israeli organizations, that cannot accept the fact [that] artistic freedom is more important than politics, we are forced to change the location of our festival,” Odelia Haroush, Patty Hochmann and Noa Hadad, the festival’s organizers, wrote in a statement published on Instagram Wednesday. “We wish to emphasize that no one can and should silence freedom of expression, art and cinema.”

Controversies over Israel have roiled the arts ever since the outbreak of its war with Hamas on October 7, after the terror group led an onslaught on southern Israel that saw 1,200 people killed, mostly civilians, and 253 abducted to the Gaza Strip. Awards have been called into question, speakers have been disinvited and staff at publications and venues have protested their employers’ stances on the conflict. Lately, petitions have circulated calling for Israel’s exclusion from Eurovision.

Barcelona has also weighed in on the war, announcing in November that it was cutting ties with Israel. The announcement came a few months after the city had said that it would resume its sister-city relationship with Tel Aviv, which it had initially suspended earlier that year.

Cinemes Girona, the theater where the festival was originally set to be held, attributed its decision to a wave of harassment against its staff.

“We received threats that if we continue with the festival, we’ll have a four-day nightmare,” the owner of the theater wrote in an email to festival organizers, according to Israeli network Channel 12. “Yesterday they threatened us, and today it only escalated. This is a family business. We’re not sleeping at night. My family members and employees are scared.”

He added, “I didn’t want to cancel the festival, but the price that we were being asked to pay was too high.”

The festival is co-sponsored by a mix of Jewish, Israeli, Spanish and European cultural, community and economic organizations, including a fund operated by Israel’s Ministry of Culture and Sport, which provides financial support for Israeli filmmakers.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement published a statement on social media Wednesday claiming the incident as a victory.

“The Girona cinema chose to respect the Palestinian people’s call for a cultural boycott by canceling the Israeli Film Festival,” the statement said. “It stood up against Israel’s use of culture to cover up its brutal crimes against the Palestinian people.”

In response to the BDS movement’s statement, Haroush told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “I know and my team knows that they didn’t win.”

Haroush, the festival’s CEO, said she doesn’t blame the owner of Cinemes Girona for the cancellation.

“He really, really didn’t want to do it and he caved, just because they really told him that they’re going to come against him and carry out a campaign against the cinema,” she said. “But I can’t blame him. This is his life. And this is very, very sad that these things happen and they think that they won, but they didn’t.”

The film festival, whose name is Hebrew for “movie,” showcases Israeli films in cities around the world. Thursday’s opening in Barcelona will be Spain’s first Seret Film Festival, and in the past they have been held in Germany, Argentina, Chile, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, which hosted the first one in 2015.

Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi is scheduled to make an appearance for the screening of Friday’s film “Karaoke,” in which he stars. The film also stars Iraqi-Israeli actor Sasson Gabay, known for “The Band’s Visit” and “Shtisel.”

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