Civil discourse film fest at SFSU was anything but civil on opening night

A film festival meant to convey the ongoing strife, discord and anger of the intifada brought a bit of strife, discord and anger to San Francisco State University last week.

Opening night Nov. 4 of the three-day presentation was marked with rancor, accusations and at least one attendee storming out of the lecture hall. However, both filmgoers and organizers said that the mood was much calmer on Nov. 5 and 6, which allowed for a better appreciation of the films and their messages.

“Personally, my viewpoint was widened a bit. I’m more aware of viewpoints that give me hope and frighten me, from both the people in the films and the students on the campus,” said SFSU senior and Hillel participant Arnon Clark.

“I think this was useful. I don’t know if we students used it as well as we could have, but it was useful. My understanding was that the purpose of this was to gain a better understanding of the other side. I think too many people used the films to argue either for or against a certain point of view instead of finding common ground.”

The film festival, which bracketed a Palestinian and Israeli film each day, was part of the campus’ “Year of Civil Discourse,” a program founded after last year’s near-riot following a pro-Israel demonstration.

On the first day of the festival, however, the discourse was anything but civil.

An audience discussion broke down into shouting and name-calling. According to an observer, one pro-Palestinian filmgoer panned the Israeli film “As if Nothing Happened,” saying, “This film was badly done and the music was bad, but I guess that’s to be expected because the film was made by a colonizing, imperialistic people and colonizing, imperialistic people have inferior culture.”

Other films included “Gaza Strip,” “Jenin Jenin,” “Jenin Diary: The Insider Story,” “Living in Conflict” and “Palestine is Still the Issue.”

In a letter of support to SFSU President Robert Corrigan and Professor Jerald Combs, the film fest’s organizer, San Franciscan Bill Kennedy Kedem nevertheless voiced a number of complaints about the festival’s format and atmosphere.

Among other points, he noted that a timeline of Middle East events neglected to mention the Jews expelled from Arab lands and absorbed in Israel, and also included the embarrassing misspelling, “Holoclaust.”

“Despite his numerous attempts to maintain order during the discussion period, Dr. Combs was unable to prevent his colleague Dr. [Deborah] Gerson and a number of pro-Palestinian speakers from rudely interrupting my polite comments and statements of fact,” wrote Kedem, who has also picketed National Public Radio, which he believes is anti-Israel. “To be fair, Dr. Combs did his best to restrain one pro-Israel woman who was quite rude to pro-Palestinian speakers,” he added.

Combs, however, said the festival “went really well overall, given the potential for problems with something like this.” He was pleased with the large number of students who attended and the overall attendance of about 230 over the three days.

j. correspondent Michal Lev-Ram contributed to this report.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.