Assange brother, directors urge New Zealand film festival to 'cut ties' with Israel embassy
Filmmakers have urged the Doc Edge Film Festival to cut ties with the Israeli embassy in New Zealand, calling the relationship a "blatant contrast" with the "spirit of a festival".
Nine producers and directors participating in the festival this year, including Julian Assange's brother Gabriel Shipton, have published an open letter accusing Israel of using art and culture as "propaganda" to "whitewash its abhorrent crimes" and "justify apartheid".
The filmmakers said: "By affiliating with Israel, DocEdge are legitimizing an abhorrent and racist apartheid regime which attacks and persecutes the very storytellers they claim to support.
"It is a blatant contrast [with] the spirit of a festival."
The filmmakers said they were "deeply concerned" with what they alleged was Doc Edge's "continued acceptance of funding and official support from the Israeli Embassy".
Doc Edge's website lists the embassy as a supporter but does not say whether this involves financial assistance.
The open letter links to a 2018 news story on local website Newsroom which discussed the embassy giving money for an Israeli director to attend Doc Edge.
The article reported that the embassy "confirmed… it was paying" for Yariv Mozer's accommodation and flights.
Asked about this, including whether the money was paid to the festival, Doc Edge said: "All arrangements with regards to support and donations between the festival third parties are confidential."
In the Newsroom article, Doc Edge's chair said other countries, including Germany and the US, had "provided support to their national filmmakers" to help with travel.
A post on the Israeli embassy's website from 2018 said it "sponsored" the director's "attendance at the festival".
Mozer told The New Arab he was "not sure who covered my visit to the Doc Edge Film Festival".
He said that "usually, it is common that film festivals are addressing local embassies to cover [the] participation of a filmmaker".
Doc Edge separately shared with The New Arab a letter dated 3 June which was signed by its executive director.
This was addressed to contributing filmmakers, colleagues, and supporters and discussed a call for a boycott of the festival this year by the Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa (PSNA).
The festival's letter reads: "PSNA says it's reacting to Doc Edge screening the film Dead Sea Guardians, which has received some promotional support from the Israeli Embassy here in NZ [New Zealand]".
The Dead Sea Guardians group, which shares a name with the film, said the documentary is "independently produced" and "has not been funded or supported by any government at any stage".
The film features a Dead Sea swim that the group says started in Jordan and finished in Israel. The PSNA alleged it actually ended in the occupied Palestinian West Bank.
This claim was denied by the Dead Sea Guardians group, which describes itself as an international movement seeking to save the salt lake, which is under threat of drying up.
The group told The New Arab the swim finished in Kibbutz Ein Gedi "within the internationally recognized borders of Israel proper", without "crossing into [the] West Bank at all".
They added: "Dead Sea Guardians tells an inspiring story of a Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli trying to rise above the constraints of [a] decades-long conflict to work together and face challenges that included both threats and actual life-endangering violence against two of them."
Israeli ambassador to New Zealand Ran Yaakoby called Israel a "film and TV creative powerhouse" in an embassy statement sent in response to a request for comment from The New Arab.
"We are accompanying and have been gladly supporting the DocEdge Film Festival in New Zealand for many years and we are proud of the quality of our film and TV industry being acknowledged by this distinguished film festival," he added.
The embassy's statement did not say whether it has been supporting the festival financially.
Shipton and the other filmmakers' open letter said Doc Edge, an Oscar-qualifying documentary film festival that ends on 10 July, has called itself "apolitical" and said it seeks to "facilitate dialogue".
It added: "Unflinching affiliation with an apartheid government discredits any notion of being apolitical.
"This is not an issue of 'censorship' or 'pressure groups', it is an issue of Israel using culture and art as a form of propaganda, curating an image of sophistication and philanthropy to whitewash its abhorrent crimes and justify apartheid."
Leading human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch describe Israel's actions against Palestinians as apartheid.
The filmmakers explained that they are worried about the "credibility" and "legitimisation" Israel gets from Doc Edge's "endorsement and platform", not Israeli influence on the festival selection.
"Our call isn't to take 'sides' or censor films, it is to recognise human rights and to keep our cultural spaces free from the harm and normalisation of racism and colonisation," they added.
"Inspired by the international movement that contributed to ending apartheid in South Africa, it is critical to mobilise non-violent pressure on Israel to end its apartheid, persecution and illegal occupation against Palestinians."
The letter Doc Edge shared with The New Arab said: "We can reassure you we are fully committed to the Festival’s curatorial independence, the rights of film makers to share their important stories with New Zealanders, and our audience’s rights to experience a rich and diverse range of views and narratives.
"We strongly believe that restricting freedom of expression contributes to greater polarisation around complex issues.
"Our curatorial independence reflects our organisational values and enabled Doc Edge to be selected as an Oscar-qualifying festival."
The festival's letter said its mission is to "bring the best domestic and international documentaries to New Zealand audiences" and to "stimulate debate, inform and to educate".
"We will continue to support all films selected for this and future festivals and look forward to sharing this year’s world-class selection with New Zealand audiences," it added.
Doc Edge is a not-for-profit charity and this year's festival is the 17th time the annual event has been held.
In response to a request for comment from The New Arab, the Israeli embassy in New Zealand said: "Israeli Ambassador to New Zealand Ran Yaakoby says that he is pleased to share Israeli Culture being represented at the DocEdge Film Festival and for New Zealanders to enjoy some of Israel’s top film productions."
Israel has long been accused of using the arts to sanitise its reputation.
Some performers staged a boycott of the Sydney Festival arts event earlier this year over its decision to accept a $20,000 donation from the Israeli embassy in Australia.