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Mike Leigh cancels visit over ‘Israeli policies’


“Since flotilla attack, your gov’t has gone from bad to worse,” British director writes in letter to Jerusalem film school.

Hannah Brown, 17 October 2010

It’s happened again.

British director Mike Leigh, who was scheduled to visit Israel from November 20-27 to teach a master class in Jerusalem as part of the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School’s “Great Masters” program, canceled due to political reasons.

In a letter announcing his decision, Leigh, the director of such films as Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake and the upcoming Another Year, cited several of Israel’s policies, including the proposed loyalty oath, as the reason for his change of heart.

In a letter addressed to Renen Schorr, the founding director of Sam Spiegel, Leigh wrote that “as you know, I have always had serious misgivings about coming, but I allowed myself to be persuaded by your sincerity and your commitment. And it is because of those special qualities of yours that I am especially sorry to have to let you down. But I have absolutely no choice. I cannot come, I do not want to come, and I am not coming…

Eight weeks after our lunch, the Israeli attack on the flotilla took place. As I watched the world very properly condemn this atrocity, I almost canceled. I now wish I had, and blame my cowardice for not having done so…

“Since then, your government has gone from bad to worse. I need not itemize all that has taken place… I still had not faced up to the prospect of pulling out until a few weeks ago, but the resumption of the illegal building on the West Bank made me start to consider it seriously. And now we have the Loyalty Oath.

This is the last straw – quite apart from the ongoing criminal blockade of Gaza, not to mention the endless shooting of innocent people there, including juveniles…

But in any case, I am now in [an] untenable position, which I must confront according to my conscience.”

Leigh added that “if you and I should live long enough to see peace, a just solution for Palestinians, and Gaza restored to humanity, I will be first in line to visit the school. But for now, this is my position.

It is, of course, non-negotiable and I’m truly sorry.”

Leigh had agreed not only to teach at Sam Spiegel, but also to participate in a long list of special events. He was scheduled to have made appearances at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa cinematheques and to give a lecture at Cinema Jenin to Palestinian film students.

Schorr fired off a strongly worded response, which read, in part: “The students, teachers, artists and various professionals from these institutions who are waiting to hear you are not the elected government of Israel, nor are they responsible for its policies. By this boycott that you are effectively imposing in canceling the visit, you are creating an association between the cultural-artistic genre and the policies of the government and the military – an exceedingly disturbing, sad generalization.”

Schorr continued, “We agreed to convene a press conference where you had an open platform to express your sharp objections to Israeli policy, should you have desired. The reverberation of the words you spoke here –from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jenin – would have been heard so much differently. Here, too, you were presented with the genuine opportunity to speak to hearts and minds, and have a direct influence upon public awareness and opinion. To touch the future. To try to change the realities. Yet now you have chosen to stay distant.”

In a statement, Schorr added, “I am greatly saddened by Leigh’s cancellation.

We were quite excited about his upcoming visit.

While the political situation is isolating us more and more in the international arena, I shall continue attempting to bring the greatest international cinema personalities to Israel.”

Schorr noted that the “Great Masters” program had recently hosted such renowned directors as Wim Wenders and David Lynch.

In recent years, a number of prominent artists and academics have planned visits to Israel and then canceled them in response to current events.

Recording artist Elvis Costello suddenly chose not to come last spring. The boycott movement has made increasing inroads in the film-making community, spurred by director Ken Loach, who refused to attend the Haifa International Film Festival several years ago. In 2009, several prominent actors and filmmakers, among them Danny Glover and Jane Fonda, threatened to boycott the Toronto International Film Festival to protest a week of screenings of Israeli films to mark the Tel Aviv centennial.

The irony is that Israeli filmmakers, whose films are often government-funded, have been the staunchest and most outspoken critics of government policy. The cinematheques and film schools at which Leigh has refused to appear have been at the forefront of social criticism, and have nurtured and helped develop Palestinian filmmakers.

Israeli films continue to win prizes all over the world, but fewer foreign filmmakers in the past few years have seen fit to make their way here.

At press time, the Sam Spiegel Film School had not yet announced a replacement master class teacher.

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