Filmmakers Back Right to Boycott Israel Following German Festival Controversy

Viggo Mortensen - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Viggo Mortensen - Getty - H 2016

Viggo Mortensen, James Schamus, Laurie Anderson, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are among those to have attacked the Ruhrtriennale festival's "repressive" decision to drop Scottish band The Young Fathers for their support of the pro-Palestinian BDS movement.

A number of figures from the film world have given their support to those who choose to participate in the cultural boycott of Israel following a series of developments at a leading European festival. 

Earlier this month, Germany's Ruhrtriennale arts festival — due to take place Aug. 18-Sept. 30 — announced that Scottish hip-hop trio The Young Fathers would be dropped from the lineup due to their support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, a pro-Palestinian activist group that seeks to cut, among other things, global cultural ties with Israel. The band was among several names who pulled out of Berlin’s Pop-Kultur festival due to its sponsorship by the Israeli embassy, listed as a partner. A statement from the Ruhrtriennale director Stefanie Carp said that the Mercury Prize-winning group had "regrettably failed to distance itself from BDS."

However, following an international backlash — one that saw the festival accused of "McCarthyism," with several other artists pulling out in solidarity with The Young Fathers — Ruhrtriennale has now reversed its decision, re-inviting the group and actually encouraging them to actively discuss their support of BDS while onstage. 

An open letter — signed by filmmakers including Viggo Mortensen, James Schamus, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Danny Glover and Aki Kaurismaki — branded the initial decision by the festival as a "particularly alarming form of censorship, 'blacklisting' and repression." Patti Smith and Massive Attack, who have performed at the festival in previous years, were also among the signatories.

"We stand firmly against all forms of racism and identity-based discrimination, including anti-blackness, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and homophobia," the letter added. "Conflating non-violent measures to end Israel’s illegal occupation and human rights violations with anti-Jewish racism is false and dangerous. It denies Palestinians their right to peaceful protest and undermines the struggle against anti-Semitism."

In another statement, signed by those who had withdrawn from the festival — including artist and filmmaker Laurie Anderson — rejected the notion that "institutions, in any way, should have the power to demand of artists to renounce their political principles in exchange of participating in their programs." 

It added that any decision to disinvite an artist from a festival based on political stances "constitutes a punitive response to a position of conscience."

The growing BDS movement is a highly sensitive subject matter in Germany, which has traditionally avoided any criticism of Israel, with opponents branding it as anti-Semitic. Even in re-inviting The Young Fathers, Carp said, "as a German, it is of course difficult for me to be linked to a movement that boycotts Israel.”

As a BDS activist told The Hollywood Reporter, "Germany is finally waking up to the cultural boycott."

The open letter comes just months after a similar statement was made in defense of New Zealand singer Lorde, who in November cancelled a decision to perform in Israel, saying she had received an "overwhelming number of messages and letters" from her fans asking her to reconsider. 

Following attacks against the star — including a full-page advert in The Washington Post that branded her a "bigot" (a similar message was sent by Roseanne Barr via tweet) — a number of figures, including Mark Ruffalo, John Cusack and Julie Christie signed a letter defending Lorde's "freedom of conscience."