A new training project, Greenhouse, which aims to bring documentary filmmakers in the Middle East together to form a common regional film community has so far done the opposite: widened the gaps and sparked a conflict rather than dialogue
Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.
Email: 1@moderntimes.online
Published date: May 4, 2006

The EU has demonstrated its readiness to throw lots of money after doc film cooperation in the region, but is this being done the right way?

The Middle East is a region of conflicts and politically things are not getting easier. On a personal level, filmmakers have connections and are working together across conflicts. Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers have been cooperating for years on film projects and various grass-root events. But a new documentary training programme for the region called Greenhouse – initiated by the state-funded New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television (NFCT) and supported by EU’s EuroMed Audiovisual II – has run into problems and is currently suspended even before take-off.

Greenhouse was launched at the Berlin festival as a new three-part training initiative for young documentary filmmakers from the Mediterranean region, especially for feature-length doc projects aimed at cinema release. It aims to create a Mediterranean Film Centre located in Tel Aviv and is supported by EU’s EuroMed Audiovisual II programme in the amount of EUR 1.5 million over a three-year period. The European-Mediterranean cooperation was set up by the EU in 1995 for the purpose of encouraging people from various countries in the region to work together despite the many obstacles they face. The non-EU countries in the cooperation are the so-called MEDA countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus and Malta.

The original Greenhouse partners were NFCT, Ramallah Film Institute (RFI), Spanish Parallel 40, the Turkish documentary filmmakers association and IDF from the Czech Republic. The Spanish and Turkish partners have withdrawn their participation, however, after a large segment of the Palestinian film community sent a letter of protest to the EuroMed Audiovisual II office, a protest which was also supported by a long list of Israeli filmmakers. The partners also withdrew because they felt they hadn’t been properly informed about their role in the project and about the objections to it.

Ramallah Film Institute

The Palestinian protest letter (signed by prominent filmmakers as Hany Abu Assad, Rashid Masharawi, Mai Masri and Elia Suleiman) expresses two major concerns. The first has to do with the partner (RFI) designated to represent Palestine. The RFI, managed by Adam Zuabi, is a rather new body, and was in charge of the Ramallah Film Festival in 2004, which received financial support from various European funds and TV channels. Palestinian filmmakers are concerned about the institute’s ability to manage the project properly as Zuabi (according to the claim) has not presented any proper financial report of the festival as requested. The filmmakers also document that several of the persons Zuabi lists as board members of the institute never accepted to be on the board or have withdrawn from the board. In this light, the filmmakers believe it is difficult to trust the institute. The EuroMed Audiovisual II office is currently investigating the charges.

Israeli State Institution

The other issue raised is that the administrator of Greenhouse (the NFCT), is an official Israeli state institution and thus represents the power which occupies Palestinian territory. This creates an unequal relationship as the Palestinians point out in their letter to EuroMed: “We would like to note that partnering or collaborating with Israeli-government sponsored institutions is a very sensitive issue here in Palestine –assuming an equal relationship between two such partners when in fact one is supported by a government that occupies the other. A great many promising projects have failed to achieve their goals because they failed to take into consideration the complexities involved and thus alienated the majority of the communities targeted. We wish not to see the EuroMed project end as a failure. On the contrary, we believe that such an opportunity for funding can play a major role in nurturing documentary film practices in Palestine – but money alone cannot achieve this. In order for this to happen we need the community of filmmakers to believe in the project and to trust in it enough to participate in it.”

And this viewpoint is supported by the Israeli filmmakers: “It is difficult to imagine the Israeli partner organization being capable of taking an unprejudiced position vis-à-vis Palestinian film proposals that may be (and ought to be) very critical of the State of Israel and the Israeli occupation.”

The problem with the Israeli management is not only a problem for the Palestinians, but also for filmmakers from the other Arab countries. Lebanon and Syria are officially at war with Israel, and filmmakers cannot enter into any cooperation with Israeli institutions, as this will be considered treasonous.

This is also partly why the Turkish association of documentary filmmakers withdrew their partnership as they explain in their letter to EuroMed: “There are strong worries that an organisation based in Israel and funded partially by national public resources may have the tendency to side with Israeli state policies, making it difficult or impossible for independent filmmakers in Israel and for possible partners from the region like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, etc., to be included as participants and it challenges the objectives of the programme. This is a very important point that should be clarified, since this point is also debatable for Israeli filmmakers.”

Crucial Administrative Body

For the Turkish association and for those critical of the project, an obvious solution would be to find a different way of administrating the project, which could solve the problems. The Turkish doc association continues: “We strongly believe that in a very important project like Greenhouse, the administrative structure should be revised and the opposition should not be completely ignored. […] We would like to see and take part in this much needed and necessary project according to the EU regulations. But we also think that to continue the investment on Greenhouse project cannot be justified if the Mediterranean Film Centre will be located in a city (Tel Aviv) where most of the Mediterranean filmmakers cannot even enter. As documentary filmmakers living and facing the problems in our conflicting region, we believe in the need to be more sensitive and inclusive in these kind of projects.”

At the time DOX went to press, the NFCT was awaiting the decision of the EuroMed office and looking for new partners at the same time. They do not comment on whether they have plans to restructure the organisation, but haven’t taken any steps in that direction. The NFCT has not invited the Palestinian film community or the opposing Israeli filmmakers to enter into dialogue. Instead the organisation has started a campaign to approach European filmmakers, producers, film organisations to ask for support in circulating the NFCT’s point of view.

False Normalization

In the campaign, NCFT stresses that it is artistically independent of the state so getting money from the state will not affect the organisation’s judgement of Palestinian or other projects. And the NCFT acknowledges that it will be very difficult for Syrians and Lebanese to participate in the project, but find this to be unimportant and point out that one of the other EuroMed projects is based in Lebanon, which prevents Israelis from participating. In the original outline, NCFT’s aim was “to create a cultural meeting place for filmmakers from different MEDA countries; to promote dialogue and advance the normalization process among the various regional countries; to create a network of regional filmmakers, especially in light of the tense political situation,” but this is toned down in their new approach.

Avi Mograbi

Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi remarks to this campaign that it is disturbing that they mention the Palestinian opposition, but fail to mention the substantial Israeli support to the Palestinian opposition. He finds that it is crucial as this otherwise gives the impression that it is “like always”, i.e. the Palestinians are opposing all opportunities of dialogue. But the truth is that the opposition to Greenhouse is not an opposition to dialogue, it is an opposition to false normalization.

NCFT also argues that the participation of the Ramallah Film Institute is not a necessity, but it is difficult not to imagine that it has played a major role in convincing the EU to grant such a huge sum of money. And if they no longer find it important that the countries conflicting with Israel (Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Palestine) can participate, the whole purpose doesn’t seem to apply to the underlying philosophy of EuroMed which they themselves state to be “to encourage people from different countries in the Mediterranean region to work together despite the many obstacles that they face.” What sounded great on paper for the EU officials wanting to support the normalization process in the Middle East has proven to be difficult to adopt in this politically sensitive region.

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