By Steven Stotsky
BOSTON, Mass. – This week, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston is wrapping up its sixth annual weeklong Palestinian film series. Bestowing such importance upon Palestinian films seems out of step at a time when the West Bank and Gaza remain relatively placid in comparison to events unfolding throughout the Middle East.
But rather than introduce audiences to the broader Arab culture at such a crucial juncture, the film program limits its audience to Palestinian films recycling the usual and increasingly stale theme of Israeli mistreatment.
The MFA’s focus on the Palestinians evidences a failure to stay current and explore what’s new. What self-imposed obstacles impede the administrators of the film program from reaching out to filmmakers in the region beyond the narrow confines of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza? Surely, among the 200 million people in the Arab-dominated states of the Middle East and North Africa there must be many filmmakers eager to share their stories and document their societies in a moment of wrenching transition.
One cannot help but wonder if the MFA’s adherence to the limited selection of Palestinian films year after year is due to misplaced priorities, giving greater weight to a political agenda over contemporary relevance and new themes. The complacency of the program implicates the benefactors of the program as well, who continue to fund a program that attaches greater importance to promoting the Palestinian cause than to revealing the less well understood, but more profound transformation in the region.
It is not as if Palestinian films suffer from lack of exposure. It is the Palestinian’s good fortune to have Israel, a westernized Jewish state, as its enemy. During the height of the Second Intifada in 2001-2004, international interest in Palestinian films flowed from the intense news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portraying the Palestinians as the underdog.
This enabled the Palestinians to garner celebrity victim status among an influential element who patronize independent films. But the Intifada had burned itself out by the time the MFA initiated its Palestinian film series in 2007. The MFA, rather than acting as a leading edge for new films, instead relegated itself to the role of a trendy follower.
Numerous Palestinian and Israeli-made films portraying Palestinian victimization at the hands of Israeli occupiers received widespread attention at important film festivals. Some films like “Ford Transit” and “Paradise Now” were feted by the media. Many Palestinian films lambaste Israel in propagandistic fashion. “Writers on the Borders,” a film that featured several Nobel Prize winners in literature was one especially noxious example. In that film, Portuguese author Jose Saramago odiously asserted: “what is happening in Palestine is a crime on the same plane as Auschwitz.”
In 2005, the Sundance Cable TV channel, associated with the popular Sundance film festival, repeatedly aired over the course of several months eight Palestinian and Israeli films that portray Israelis as oppressors and Palestinians only as victims.
Palestinian victimization is again a major theme of this year’s selection of films for the Palestine series. The MFA website provides an overview of the 2012 film topics include the following:
• A film about released Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails
• A film documenting “non-violent” protests against Israel’s security fence in Bil’in
• A film presenting the Palestinian side of Israeli settlers occupying a Palestinian man’s home in Jerusalem
There is little new ground here. One film that does offer a new angle, titled “Private Sun,” blames a young West Bank girl’s vitamin D deficiency on “nosy neighbors, an overbearing sister-in-law and Israeli surveillance planes.”
The MFA dedicates weeklong film series to just a few specific groups of people. In 2012, just five select groups were distinguished; along with the Palestinians, there was a series featuring Iranian films (starting January 20), Turkish films (starting March 22), Jewish films (starting April 18) and LGBT (starting May 4) films. The Jewish series featured several Holocaust-related films, while neglecting Israel.
The film program is designated “The Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Film Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.” Its principal sponsor is the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, a major Jewish benefactor in the Boston area. Other Jewish sponsors appear among the short list of benefactors. It is notable that a film series endlessly rehashing the theme of Palestinian victimization at the hands of Jews has Jewish sponsors.
Where are the Jewish and Arab sponsors of films telling the compelling story of how the Jewish state grapples with vexing societal conflict and yet retains a flourishing, open society—all while threatened by enemies that encircle it? Why is that story less worthy?
Devoting so much attention to Palestinian films squeezes out more timely stories. How many filmmakers from Syria or Kurdistan, or Iraq and Yemen has the MFA sought out? What about filmmakers documenting life in Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea? Why doesn’t the preeminent art institution in Boston use its funding to seek out filmmakers from the expansive region that do not already benefit from trendy favoritism at film festivals and on independent film networks?