Israel’s culture dictator

April 7, 2017
Sarah Benton

Still from the documentary film Megiddo about Palestinian political prisoners, condemned by the culture minister Regev. Image from YesDocu

How Israel’s culture minister threatens national film industry, democracy

Culture Minister Miri Regev is examining state funding of Israeli films with the intention of withholding support to productions she considers anti-Israeli.

By Akiva Eldar, trans. Ruti Sinai. Al Monitor, Israeli Pulse

April 06, 2017

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev probably has not found the time to see “Mephisto,” adapted by Hillel Mittelpunkt and directed by Omri Nitzan, currently on stage at the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv. The energetic minister is most likely too busy imposing economic sanctions on theatres and mounting attacks against the “leftist media.”

In any case, anyone who boasts of never having read a Chekhov play is unlikely to have heard of Klaus Mann or seen the play based on his 1936 novel. “Mephisto” tells the story of Hendrik Hofgen, an actor who sells his soul to the Nazi regime to get ahead and is appointed the manager of the National Theatre. The character is based on the real-life Gustaf Grundgen. “I’m just a normal actor,” Hofgen says, offering up one of the most charged lines of self-defence in theatre history.

Regev and her boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, want Israeli playwrights along with producers of movie and TV documentaries to be just like Hofgen — submissive. The same goes for news editors and reporters. After all, public funding is effectively being used in the service of Israel’s creeping annexation of the occupied West Bank. Why should it not serve the annexation of the cultural sphere, too?

“It’s unacceptable that the communications minister doesn’t have any control,” Regev railed during a Cabinet debate last July on the future Public Broadcasting Corporation. “If we have no control, why should we give it money?” she asked. Indeed, why should it be any different from any other sphere controlled by government ministers?

Scene from Mephisto at the Cameri theatre, Tel Aviv

Regev has long been threatening Israeli artists with an initiative that would transfer to her the Finance Ministry’s current authority to deny state funding to institutions that produce works that question Israel as a Jewish and democratic state or present Israel’s independence day as a day of mourning, or the Nakba, Arabic for “disaster,” as many Palestinians call it.

To make the point, Regev’s office froze her ministry’s funding for the Arabic-language Al-Midan Theatre in response to “A Parallel Time,” a play it presented that portrayed Walid Daka, convicted of terrorism in the murder of an Israeli soldier 21 years ago, as having carried out a legitimate act of opposition to the Israeli occupation. Regev’s message got through, and how. At the end of March, the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts, one of the country’s leading film funders, which in turn is fully funded by the state, added a clause to its contracts with movie producers similar to a “loyalty law” that Regev is seeking authority to enforce.

The foundation’s director, Giora Eini, who introduced the new clause, is not a member of Netanyahu and Regev’s Likud, nor is he a friend of Regev. In fact, he has been a confidant of Labour Party Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. To paraphrase Klaus Mann, Eini is “just a normal official” who was promptly rewarded. Regev wrote on her Facebook page that she had called Eini to congratulate him on his action. A committee she recently established to examine the activities of movie foundations, she wrote, “was designed, among other things, to ensure that all the foundations do exactly as Eini did.”

Regev is not satisfied with censoring movies and plays and supervising the work of foundation heads and producers. The Culture Ministry is now demanding that the movie foundations hand over information about lectors who discussed movie-funding proposals over the past five years and the reasons they gave for their decisions. The issue came up following the airing of “Megiddo,” a television documentary series that examines the lives of Arabs imprisoned by Israel on security-related offences and their relationships with their jailers.

The New Fund for Cinema and TV, which helped produce “Megiddo,” was told to immediately supply information on the approval process. In a letter to a forum of bereaved families who have had relatives killed in terror attacks, Regev admitted that she had not watched the documentary, but promised that if it contains “offensive content,” she will withdraw all state budgets for the New Fund. “I stand by my belief that a distinction has to be made between freedom of funding and freedom of expression,” the minister wrote. “Anyone who wants state support would do well to protect its values and symbols.”

The antisemitic recommendation to “hit the Jew in his pocket,” espoused by some supporters of boycotts against Israel, is proving itself. The carrot and stick approach adopted by the government toward the theatres, in a bid to get them to stage their plays in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, has pushed the Habima, Cameri and Gesher theatres and the Israeli Ballet to the West Bank settlement towns of Ariel and Kiryat Arba to entertain.

“The decision to perform for the first time in Hebron [Kiryat Arba] exemplifies the national theatre’s being a central pioneer in treating all citizens of the state as equal in their right to experience culture,” Regev crowed. The woman who has become a major boycotter herself lashed out, “[I’m] sorry to see elements in our land act as the lowliest of BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] bullies.”

A caricature of Regev, equipped with cigar and loud-speaker, calling CUT! By Leo Atelman

A March 22 threat by Regev to defund the municipal library in the suburban Tel Aviv town of Kiryat Ono convinced Mayor Israel Gal to cancel a planned speech at the library by the anti-occupation Breaking the Silence organization, sponsored by the left-wing Meretz. On April 4, only some 200 anti-settlement Peace Now activists attended a protest event held near the library. Several months prior, hundreds of activists demonstrated against the cancellation of another event planned by Breaking the Silence after a similar threat against the Barbour Gallery in Jerusalem. This is how Regev scrounges for more headlines and a few more votes from Likud supporters ahead of the party primaries. This is how she adds a bit more fuel to the fire that the right-wing Netanyahu government is using to burn Israeli democracy on the altar of the occupation.

Habima actor Shlomi Bertonov, who refused to appear at Kiryat Arba, told Haaretz in November that he knew he would pay a price for his intransigence. “It will come back to bite me, for sure,” he said. “But that’s OK, I stand behind this 100%.”

History shows that most people, even justice-seeking artists with morals, eventually give in to threats to their bread and butter. The role of Hofgen in “Mephisto” is played by Itay Tiran, one of Israel’s best-known actors. Tiran has long refused to go onstage in the occupied territories.

Megiddo high-security prison. The prison in northern Israel was recently expanded to take 6,000 Palestinian prisoners, partly by replacing the 6.5 square metre cells with cells measuring only 3.5 square metres. Photo by Itzik Ben Malki

Israel’s Most Controversial New TV Series Reveals the Lives of Palestinian Inmates

The creators of ‘Megiddo,’ a film that outraged Culture Minister Miri Regev, spent a year and half at a huge security prison documenting the tense reality there.

By Itay Stern, Haaretz premium
April 02, 2017

The new documentary series “Megiddo” is rocking Israel’s culture world now that the Culture Ministry has demanded that Israeli film foundations reveal who has approved or rejected scripts in recent years. The demand, made by a committee set up by Culture Minister Miri Regev, called out the series, which documents the lives of Palestinian security prisoners in Megiddo Prison.

The ministry demanded that the New Fund for Cinema and TV provide without delay information on the process which resulted in the approving of funding for “Megiddo.” Among other things, the representatives of the fund were told to provide the names of the lectors who supported the production of the series, including the raw materials provided with the application for support and the amount of funding that was ultimately given to the project. A source familiar with the details says the demand to provide information on the lectors is the first stage in attaining government control of films critical of its positions.

What makes “Megiddo” so controversial? During the shooting of the series Director Itzik Lerner’s film crew spent a year and half at the huge prison, where more than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners are held, documenting the tense reality there. The result is a three-part series, which reveals the complex dialogue between the prisoners and the warders, and especially between Fatah and Hamas commanders in the prison and the commanders of the prison itself. Some of the prisoners have killed Israelis; others are under administrative detention for security reasons.

From Megiddo, image from YesDocu

One of the great achievements of the film – and perhaps the source of the criticism it is receiving – is that even in the most difficult moments depicted in it, nothing is black and white. All the people in it have a face and a voice. And all of them hold suppressed anger in them. On the one hand, there are the appalling deeds of the terrorists, some of whom see themselves as freedom fighters and present a world view and a life story to which it is difficult to be impervious. On the other hand there are the prison personnel and commanders, who prove to be attentive people, conducting an open and humane dialogue with men perceived as the most dangerous of evil-doers.

Administrative detainee Abed al-Basat is one of the main characters in the film, in large part because he was head of Hamas in the prison. In a conversation with Haaretz, Basat, who has since been released, explains why he and his colleagues chose to cooperate with Lerner, an Israeli filmmaker who served in the Israel Defence Forces.

“Inside the prison, the Hamas prisoners maintain the position that they do not co-operate with the Israeli media because they always distort the things we say,” he says. “What we wanted to achieve this time was to show a somewhat different picture, so people would understand the angle of human rights and prisoners’ rights.”

For example, he relates, he fought for two and a half years to receive a chart of the food prisoners are entitled to receive. “I did not succeed in obtaining it. They said it’s prohibited. Why? After all, it is a prisoner’s basic right to know what he is allowed and what he isn’t allowed to get to eat.”

What would you want a Jewish and Israeli viewer to think after he watches the series?

“That we are human beings and we have a right to independence. You talk about yourselves as the only democracy in the Middle East or the middle of the forest or the jungle,” he laughs, “but we wanted to say that we too have a life and children and you don’t need to see us as terrorists. We are freedom fighters. You too had periods of struggle with the British Mandate, and you had violent resistance. The Arabs, too, fought against the British in that same period. This is quite an amazing paradox that should be remembered. We are fighting for our liberty, and in every war there is violence. Even if you don’t want it, that is the situation. I hope that despite everything we will be able to preserve our humanity.”

He relates that in the prison, the prisoners are allowed to watch only Israeli television Channels 2 and 10, and one channel from abroad that broadcasts only films and series. “When they make me watch Israeli news, this is a problem because a situation develops in which I have no connection with my own society. The newspapers they brought us were also only Israeli newspapers. With respect to internal Israeli matters, your media are pretty objective but when it concerns Palestinians you don’t really succeed in being objective. I know that there are differences between the newspapers Yisrael Hayom and Haaretz but even you, as a reporter, won’t be able to define me as a freedom fighter – because you are an Israeli. I will not agree to a definition of us as murderers or terror activists. We have different positions on this issue.”

Gaining the prisoners’ trust

Guy Lavie, the director of the YesDocu channel and the person who commissioned the series for broadcast, with the support of the New Fund for Cinema and TV, relates that even before the series went on the air its makers were bombarded on the social media with posts by people who opposed the series, which gives centre stage to Hamas prisoners. “People asked us why we were even giving them a platform. All of it was accompanied of course by a stream of curses and invective. The picture we bring is a whole picture, if not one that is easy to digest. Looking away from what is happening on the ground isn’t going to change the reality. It is hard for a lot of people to look at these men, who kill us, but if we don’t get to know them and we don’t dismantle those demons, we will not understand what we are facing,” he says.

“Itzik’s camera,” he adds, “isn’t a journalistic camera but rather a documentary camera. Lerner doesn’t ask a prisoner who was involved in shooting at settlers whether he sees himself as a terrorist or as a freedom fighter. And he doesn’t ask the commander of the prison whether he thinks it is right to give the prisoners LCD televisions. This is also the power of documentary television – it deals with people and not slogans.”

Lerner received authorization to film inside the prison, which is located in the Jezreel Valley, after many years of trying. He was given the green light in 2013 by Prison Service director Brig. Gen. Aharon Franco and the Prison Service spokeswoman at the time, Sivan Weitzman, who recognized that such a series had the potential to be of benefit to the Prison Service. The beginning was difficult. Lerner wanted to gain the prisoners’ trust but they were not about to open up to him easily.

“I realized that in order to gain access to the prisoners, I would have to go to their leader and win his trust,” relates Lerner. “I got to Abed al-Basat and he made it happen for me. We clicked with each other. I felt that I could work the way I like to work, without limitations.”

The director makes it clear that this was not a simple task. “He checked me out and wanted to know what I had done before this series. I was a bit leery that he had found out that my last film was about settlers but the unmediated meeting one-on-one did the job. They kept asking me where I was coming from and for whom I had voted and I didn’t try to whitewash anything. I was myself. I am not a fervent left-winger and I don’t think the State of Israel can conduct itself according to the codes of B’Tselem,” he says, referring to The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. “Absolutely not. And on the other hand, I’m a person who believes in the middle path. And I told them this.”

Lerner also filmed three raids into the prison by the elite unit of the Prison Service, Massada. “I showed up at 2:30 A.M., alone. I didn’t want to come with a crew, so that I could fade into the background and not stand out. I didn’t know how the prisoners would take this, because they saw that I was on the side of the Prison Service with my camera but I defined to myself that I wanted to be on both sides. To be ambivalent. To show these two worlds that share a single fate. Like gears that spin inside one another. In the end, the prisoners too understood me and weren’t angry at me for documenting these raids by the warders.”

The prisoners are so humiliated in these raids. The prison service forces hold rifles to their heads, lower them to their knees and bind their hands. How did you feel while filming all that?

“The truth is that for me too it was difficult to be present during those raids. When I went back to the materials to edit them, I realized that they weren’t at all uncomplicated.”

When asked if he found himself identifying with the security prisoners at such moments, Lerner aptly invoked the Rashomon principle that guides him. “You take a side but with the prison staff, too, I tried my own way to reflect and illuminate the reality and I hope the viewer will see this and understand this without unnecessary manipulations.”

Saying prayers in Megiddo. Image from YesDocu

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