Arab speakers upset film fest viewers

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is debating how to co-present films in the future after remarks from two staffers of Cinemayaat, the Arab Film Festival, greatly upset some festivalgoers.

While Cinemayaat has co-presented films with the SFJFF in the past, this was the first year that remarks repeatedly made by Arab festival staffers managed to upset a large portion of the filmgoing audience.

It happened the first time at a Saturday, July 24, Castro Theatre screening of “Channels of Rage,” a film about two hip-hop artists, one Israeli Jewish, one Israeli Arab. In introducing the film to the San Francisco audience, Dina Saba, the Arab festival’s founder and director, delivered a speech that many considered extremely anti-Israel.

Among other things, she used the phrase “apartheid wall” for the Israeli security fence, and called Israel a “self-described democracy.”

Some in the audience cheered Saba on, while others hissed.

Peter Stein, executive director of the SFJFF, said that the festival has never asked to screen remarks made by co-presenters — of which there were 24 this year.

Stein was “really quite shocked” by Saba’s speech, and was planning on calling board members the next day, Sunday, July 25, and Jewish community members the following Monday to notify them about what happened.

However, he didn’t have time to make the calls before Sunday morning, when the second Cinemayaat co-presentation was to screen: “Ford Transit,” a film about a Palestinian driver and his passengers navigating the difficult travel conditions of the West Bank.

Because of miscommunication, Stein wasn’t aware that Saba was in the theater until the house lights were going on. Stein quickly asked her not to address the audience, which caused Saba to say that she was being censored.

Neither Saba nor anyone else from the Arab Film Festival returned phone calls by press time.

Stein and Saba went out to the lobby, where they had a frank discussion about the more extremist elements in both of their communities that were pressuring them not to collaborate with each other.

“We agreed that in this terribly polarized climate, that our collaboration, as rocky as it may be, is actually crucial,” said Stein. “I also let her know that an opportunity for dialogue had really been squandered.”

That sentiment was expressed by Avner Even-Zohar, director of the campus division of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, who was in the audience for “Ford Transit” at the Castro and at “Channels of Rage” at Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium, where one of Saba’s colleagues delivered a similar message.

“This was a real chance for them to build bridges and they really missed it,” said Even-Zohar. “Their attitude was not ‘Let’s educate our respective communities about the issues involved,’ but rather ‘Let’s stick it to the Jews.'”

At the July 31 Wheeler screening of “Ford Transit,” Stein gave a disclaimer before Saba spoke, saying that the SFJFF doesn’t necessarily agree with the speaker’s point of view, and some audience members hissed at him.

However, no such disclaimer was made on Aug. 4 before Amera Rizk, artistic director of the Arab festival, introduced “Channels of Rage” at Wheeler. Giving a speech similar to Saba’s, she was shouted down by some audience members, while others gave her a standing ovation and ran to console her as she angrily left the podium. Stein asked the audience to let her finish, which she then did, and spoke to her privately afterward.

Abby Michelson Porth, assistant director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said the group had been in discussion with Stein.

“In this case, the concern was that what should have been a cooperative understanding … was abused,” said Porth.

Stein said that the matter would definitely be taken up at the upcoming board retreat.

“I would prefer not to put our audiences in the position where they unknowingly are subjected to political speeches,” he said. “But that said, this collaboration is very rare. It may be the only one where two organizations that are rooted in their two communities are trying to work together. It’s a deeply important mission.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."