Prosecution of filmmakers spreads «like a pandemic»

    IDFA / ICFR addresses a growing political prosecution and incarceration of filmmakers.

    «Most unfortunately, in the past few years, cases of prosecution of filmmakers have been spreading like a pandemic», said IDFA‘s Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia at the International Theatre Amsterdam (ITA), where he sat for an extensive talk with the festival’s Guest of Honour Laura Poitras and his colleagues from the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR).

    Launched in 2020 at the Venice Film Festival as a collaboration between IDFA, the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) and the European Film Academy (EFA), the coalition was established out of a shared concern for independent filmmakers whose lives and livelihoods were imperilled. Two years later, the world sadly has not made a step forward. In fact, if anything, the situation has only aggravated with a stifling censorship, political prosecution and incarceration of filmmakers, not to mention the ravaging wars and military conflicts affecting entire nations. «Our concerns at this stage are deeper than ever», said IFFR Festival Director Vanja Kaludjercic at the talk.

    Cases of prosecution of filmmakers are not bound to one specific country or region. Filmmakers are facing unsubstantiated accusations and ludicrous sentences ubiquitously, from Turkey to Myanmar, from Syria to the US. Filmmakers around the world are essentially in the same boat. The rhetoric of «aiding» or «taking care» of filmmakers from certain countries or regions feeds into a harmful discourse that does not reflect the true state of affairs and may only enhance power imbalances. «I think that we are all trying to do what we believe is right, and we are all taking risks, and there is, unfortunately, no government that I would trust when a filmmaker tries to push the limits. And we will keep on pushing the limits», Nyrabia said.

    Cases of prosecution of filmmakers are not bound to one specific country or region.

    When talking about exposing the myth of American exceptionalism, Poitras, who hosted the ICFR talk, looked back at her time in Iraq while filming My Country, My Country, where the mere «act of holding a camera» amid the unfolding US occupation of the country landed her on the terrorist watchlist. Poitras recalled that the patrolling US military spotted her on the roof of a house with the camera as she followed an Iraqi family there amid the explosions on the street, which were «a daily event» at the time. That act of holding the camera in the occupied country rendered the filmmaker a national security threat, which led to her being detained each time she travelled in and out of the US, her notebooks photocopied, and her electronics confiscated. Years later, when Poitras did the NSA story with Edward Snowden (Citizenfour), the CIA contemplated «reclassifying» her and Glen Greenwald «as information brokers» rather than journalists, which, if pressed ahead, would have enabled them to conduct surveillance and prosecute Poitras and Greenwald. «They ultimately decided not to do that», Poitras noted, «but in that same reporting, it was exposed a much more urgent case of US targeting of press freedoms, which is Julian Assange, who the US is currently seeking to extradite from the UK and has an indictment [against] him for publishing true information about US war crimes in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently facing 175 years in US jail for being a publisher.»

    Since its foundation, ICFR has undergone a few seismic shifts in the nature and volume of its work. In the past two years, the coalition’s activities morphed from advocacy for individual filmmakers at risk into a cascade of cases which came flooding in when massive crises unfurled. When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the crisis that ensued shook the world, putting organisations like ICFR face to face with a surging demand to support the filmmaking community in Afghanistan. Suddenly, ICFR was engulfed in cases where hundreds of filmmakers and their families were under threat. Yemeni-Scottish filmmaker Sara Ishaq (Comra Films), who has been part of the ICFR efforts, recalled how the entire team had to scramble «to figure out the logistics of finding safe haven for hundreds of Afghan filmmakers.» This work involved a lot of individual networking, corresponding with those on the ground to verify cases, and reaching out to communities in different parts of the world to try to find places to relocate filmmakers and their families. Getting the world’s focus was also a task to reckon with, due—at least in part—to the fact that different countries and disasters do draw different responses. It was not a lone struggle. However, Nyrabia noted, ICFR joined other groups of Afghan and international colleagues that worked tirelessly on mobilising, lobbying and connecting Afghan filmmakers and their families with authorities around the world so that they could be brought to safety. Less than a year from that, another immense crisis happened when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on the night of February 24. Within weeks of the start of the war, ICFR was able to launch an emergency fund for filmmakers, raising donations from a number of public and private funds and organisations. Additionally, community-based initiatives around the world were held in support of the fund, including various crowdfunding campaigns and screenings. In total, roughly 400,000 euros were raised, and as spelt out by Kaludjercic, they opted for microgrants to support «as many people as possible simply because of the sheer scale of the threat.» These microgrants were given to Ukrainian filmmakers to assist them with «minor but crucial expenses», such as relocation costs, legal and administrative fees (visas), etc. In the end, over 400 filmmakers received the microgrants, ranging from 500 to 1500 euros.

    Within weeks of the start of the war, ICFR was able to launch an emergency fund for filmmakers, raising donations from a number of public and private funds and organisations.

    In the space of two years, ICFR has proven to be a coalition that has allied for combined action and benefitted from a collective community response that has organically emerged from the international film community in the wake of ICFR’s dedicated actions. This sense of solidarity and camaraderie that has permeated the coalition’s lobbying and campaign activities also entails that we «cannot pick and choose», Nyrabia noted—if we defend one, we have to defend the others as well. «I cannot take the side of Moataz [Abdelwahab, Egyptian producer] and forget that there is Çiğdem [Mater, Turkish producer]. If I need Çiğdem to be free, I am also going to be defending Ehran [Örs, Turkish film editor] and Firouzeh [Khosravani, Iranian director] and Jafar Panahi [Iranian director]», he elaborated. The campaigning and lobbying may have no impact on a judge’s verdict, but it does impact those behind bars. Spotlighting their cases and standing in solidarity with them, in words and actions, sends faith to those detained and the entire film community. Nyrabia, who was detained in Damascus in 2012, was once on the receiving end of that immense solidarity and experienced it first-hand. «And I think this is truly a very powerful contribution in itself», he added. Egyptian producer Moataz Abdelwahab, who had been imprisoned in Cairo on trumped-up charges, was invited to address the ICFR talk as a special guest. In a prepared statement that he read out at the beginning of the talk, Abdelwahab echoed the same sentiments. The film producer was jailed for 25 long months, or 772 days, and while in prison, he read hundreds of books, dreamt of making many films out of them and used his hand as if it were his lens to imagine filming on set. And it was the continued support of his family, ICFR and numerous international film colleagues, some of whom he had never met in person, which got him through these painful times and made him feel that he was alone, that he was part of the community.

    «A film that was never made», read azure banners at the ITA Studio 1, calling to mind the absurdity and tragedy of the case of Turkish producer Mater, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison because of thinking of making a film about protests. During the talk, she addressed the IDFA team and festival guests in a harrowing letter read by Kaludjercic. «I am writing to you from a women’s prison in the heart of Istanbul», her letter said. «I’ve been sentenced to 18 years in prison for thinking about making a film regarding the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey. You heard that right, there is no actual film—just the talk of it. […]. I guess that’s thanks to filmmaker colleagues who stubbornly continue to tell their stories and incredible solidarity which knows no borders. Your voice and support is overcoming great prison walls and barbed wires to reach the Bakırköy jail. I’m sure those filmmakers imprisoned in other cities across the world, who are continuing their underground resistance, are also hearing your voice. Sending you my love and thanks as I dream of the day we can talk only about films.»

    Sevara Pan
    Sevara Pan
    Journalist and film critic.

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