Cultural solidarity in Quebec: An interview with filmmaker Malcolm Guy

Filmmaker Malcolm Guy (Khalil Allioui)

An important development in the growing international campaign for a cultural boycott of Israel has recently taken place in Quebec, Canada.

Documentary filmmaker Malcolm Guy made media headlines last year for withdrawing from a jury for a key award for Tolerance in Cinema at the Rendez-vous du cinema quebecois (RVCQ) film festival in 2008, given that the award was funded by pro-Israel organizations. In response, this year the festival cancelled the major cinematic prize for the 2009 edition of the main festival celebrating filmmaking in Quebec.

The prize for recognizing “tolerance” in cinema was established as a joint initiative from the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and the Alex and Ruth Dworkin Foundation, was launched at the RVCQ festival in 2002. Although the festival award was cloaked as a celebration of progressive cinematic works from Quebec, celebrating the promotion of “tolerance” in cinema, in fact the award was intimately intertwined with the pro-Israel lobby in Quebec.

The award was established as a cultural initiative after major protests AT Concordia University in Montreal against a visit from the recently elected right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2002. The festival award, although publicly celebrating “tolerance,” was initiated and funded by organizations such as the CJC which maintains a fundamentally intolerant position toward the Palestinian people and openly defends the ongoing Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands.

After Malcolm Guy withdrew from the jury for the award for “tolerance” in cinema last year, the organizers of the largest festival exclusively celebrating cinematic works from Quebec, took into consideration a call for the festival to cancel the award.

Weeks prior to the 2009 RVCQ launch, festival organizers announced that they were canceling the award. The announcement came shortly after the most recent Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip. Pro-Israel organizations quickly lobbied the festival to reinstate the award but the RVCQ held its ground. In response almost 60 filmmakers from Quebec wrote a public letter congratulating the festival for the principled stand, indicating the growing solidarity with Palestine in Quebec and around the world.

The Electronic Intifada contributor Stefan Christoff interviewed filmmaker Malcolm Guy about the RVCQ’s recent decision to cancel the award and the growing movement for a cultural boycott of Israel.

Stefan Christoff: Can you explain why as a filmmaker you chose to withdraw from the jury for the award celebrating “tolerance” in cinema?

Malcolm Guy: It was an award that was going to be presented at the 2008 RVCQ celebration, the major film festival that takes place each year in Montreal to celebrate all types of film from Quebec, documentary and beyond. Sometime prior to the festival taking place, the RVCQ called to invite me to be a jury member for an award for Tolerance in Cinema. I accepted the invitation because it is always fun to be involved in a festival jury because as you get to see great films and most importantly you get to give a prize to a filmmaker which helps important films gain recognition, to support fellow filmmakers, so obviously I agreed to be on the jury.

A few days prior to the festival taking place the festival organizers sent me the material outlining the award and right away after looking at the material it was clear that there were serious flaws in the award. As the award was essentially an initiative of primarily two groups, the CJC and the Alex and Ruth Dworkin Foundation, after a little research it was clear that the award was problematic.

On the surface the award sounds good, as an award celebrating tolerance in cinema and importantly, an award that potentially provides $5,000 to an independent filmmaker. Actually, I was not in the country when the award was initially established. I had been out of the country in Asia, so I wasn’t familiar with all the details when the festival asked me to join the jury. So after researching the award was surprised to see the financial foundations for an award celebrating “tolerance.”

In fact the CJC, which was instrumental in setting up the award, simply doesn’t accept dissenting voices within its own ranks. For example, Jews in Canada who are critical towards Israeli government policies are not welcome in the CJC — [those who are critical of Israel] from its expansionist policies, to the treatment of Arab Israeli citizens and of course towards the Palestinians living under occupation. In recent years people were expelled [from the CJC] for maintaining dissenting opinions, which is essentially the opposite of tolerance.

There are major issues with the Alex and Ruth Dworkin Foundation who also backed the award, as they are supporters of the Jewish National Fund, an organization which has a central mandate and institutional purpose of stealing Palestinian land.

So essentially we have an award which purports to be about tolerance. However, the institutions that back the award are about anything but tolerant.

Quickly I worked to try to convince my fellow jurists to jointly withdraw from the award prior to the festival. They didn’t, so then I wrote an open letter explaining the reasons as to why I was withdrawing from the jury for the award, given the fact that I didn’t want any association with the organizations that set up the award.

The open letter had an immediate impact. Have to admit that I have been writing open letters and many other public appeals for many years, however, this was the first time that within the first 24 hours after sending the letter out, I received over 100 emails, most of them congratulating me for taking the initiative.

SC: Following your public withdrawal from the jury, this year the RVCQ decided to pull the award, after much debate it seems, so obviously your public position in opposition to the award had a major impact.

MG: After pulling out from the award and outlining that I wasn’t interested in being on the jury, I recommended to the festival that they drop their links with the CJC and the Alex and Ruth Dworkin Foundation.

In my open letter to the festival I suggested that the festival drop the award as soon as possible; I was hoping that they would drop it last year, however, the people from the festival contacted me letting me know that they were considering my suggestion for the festival in 2009.

This year I heard through the grapevine first, then directly from the festival, that the RVCQ festival had decided to drop the particular award. This was a really great decision.

This decision taken by the festival was partially a direct result of the open letter written in 2008, but also the involvement of many people within the film community in Quebec and people in general who called on the festival to drop the award and do the right thing.

I think that it is very insidious the way that pro-Israeli organizations work within the cultural sphere, using terminology such as tolerance for their own political agenda. This is a clear misuse of the term tolerance — organizations such as the CJC … do not tolerate any differing opinions within their own ranks and certainly show no tolerance towards the Palestinian people.

This is an important victory for Palestinian human rights within the cultural world in Quebec. I think that we will start to see more and more cultural workers being skeptical toward cultural projects or awards that are connected to pro-Israel groups. Even though today cultural institutions are very hungry for funding I do think that we will start to increasingly see breaks with organizations that support Israel within the cultural realm.

Hopefully this little struggle will inspire others to examine similar connections to pro-Israel sources of funding within the cultural world.

SC: Now almost 60 filmmakers from Montreal have signed a letter to support your decision in withdrawing from the jury. The letter also congratulates the RVCQ for dropping the award; could you comment on this?

MG: After the festival dropped the award, fellow filmmakers such as Mary Ellen Davis quickly mobilized support from the broader film community for the decision by the festival to drop the award.

I sent a letter to the festival congratulating them on taking a principled position on the tolerance award and at the suggestion of other filmmakers and social activists, mobilized support for the festival’s decision. As strange as it sounds, that it is a positive decision to drop an award for tolerance in cinema, in this instance it was a good thing, as the award was simply a political manipulation of the concept and word, tolerance.

Almost 60 filmmakers came forward to support the letter but also the letter created a much larger discussion within the film community on Palestine, which was important. I think that this was an important first step in pushing forward a wider cultural boycott of Israel that we now must consider.

SC: The RVCQ took the decision to drop the award connected to pro-Israel organizations shortly after Israel’s latest military attack on Gaza. There are growing discussions around the world concerning the importance of building a campaign of boycott directed towards the Israeli government as inspired by the international boycott campaign in solidarity with South Africa throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Do you think that the recent invasion of Gaza has had an impact on cultural workers and people in general in considering the boycott campaign?

MG: I think that the recent attack on Gaza impacted not only artists but people around the globe in a profound way; it was a very important shift. …The images of death and destruction in Gaza impacted people deeply around the world. It is clear that many artists and cultural workers were moved.

I was very moved; I couldn’t believe what was happening, the depths to which the Israeli regime had sunk and the war crimes that Israel was carrying out in Gaza, it impacted me deeply.

Now is the time to carry out the boycott campaign. This was an important campaign before, however, now is the time that we will see the campaign really take off.

We can’t wait for the annihilation of the last Palestinian to start the boycott campaign, we have to move now. Certainly there are going to be accusations of being anti-Semitic, but it’s clear that critiquing the Israeli government or struggling for Palestinian human rights has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

A cultural boycott targeting the Israeli government is the way to go today. Many, many people within the film and artistic community are now talking about this, people who were hesitant before are now willing to consider supporting the boycott. I think that many people went through a sea change after the latest Israeli attack on Gaza, people were touched emotionally not only theoretically, it was kind of a cathartic experience.

Many terrible things have been done to the Palestinians before and also to the Lebanese, from the Israeli siege on Beirut in 1982, to the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, or Jenin.

However, a series of elements came together in the context of this latest Israeli attack on Gaza, the length of the ongoing siege, the fact that no Western journalists were allowed into Gaza and that the Palestinian journalists were telling their own story for the first time. These elements and others really created the beginnings of a sea change on Palestine.

The depth of this attack, the use of white phosphorus, of high tech military machines against a mainly civilian population, really turned public opinion on this issue. I noticed even among my friends and family, that people who were not that open to the boycott campaign previously were willing to support the international boycott campaign against Israel.

Stefan Christoff is a community organizer and journalist based in Montreal and a member of Tadamon!, a collective of social justice activists in Montreal working for justice in the Middle East.

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