UK Israeli film festival to go ahead despite calls for boycott

<span>The interior of the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, one of the venues that Artists for Palestine UK urged to boycott Seret. </span><span>Photograph: PA</span>
The interior of the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, one of the venues that Artists for Palestine UK urged to boycott Seret. Photograph: PA

The organisers of an Israeli film festival that is due to open in the UK on Thursday have pledged to push ahead with the event despite pro-Palestinian artists urging venues to boycott it.

The Seret international film festival, now in its 13th year, will run from 16-23 May with a mission to “promote Israeli culture through cinema”. Odelia Haroush, its co-founder, said it had been a “very challenging” few months for organisers.

“I feel very frustrated,” she said. “But we are not going to cave and we’re not going to cancel the festival. Some people told us ‘maybe you will skip this year’ but for us it’s not even an option.”

Seret is a registered charity with sponsors including the Israeli culture ministry and the Israeli embassy in the UK, according to its website. The film festival is also held in Spain, the Netherlands, India, Germany, Chile and Argentina.

Protesters have called for boycotts over Israel’s military assault on Gaza, leading to a number of cancellations. Seret’s host cinema in Barcelona, Cinemes Girona, cancelled screenings a day before the event was due to begin.

“The owner told us he had received threats from pro-Palestinian groups who said they would make sure that none of the pro-Palestinians who live in Barcelona will come to his cinema again,” Haroush said. “He said his wife and daughter were very shaken about it. So in 24 hours we needed to find new locations for our festival.”

In Amsterdam, two of the main cinemas the festival had worked with cancelled screenings “because they were afraid for demonstrations and for their workers”, Haroush added. At one screening in the city, “one of the demonstrators succeeded to get in the cinema hall, stood up with a Palestinian flag and started to shout. There was an Israeli guy in the cinema from Kibbutz Be’eri [one of the kibbutzim targeted in the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel] who was really shaken and upset from this.”

In the UK, Picturehouse and Curzon cancelled Seret screenings this year over safety concerns. Other screenings will have increased security in place. “We’re going to have in each and every single screening a lot of security, and if there’s a demonstration there will be police as well,” Haroush said.

On Tuesday, Artists for Palestine UK, a network of artists and cultural workers who advocate for Palestinian liberation, wrote to venues including the Phoenix Cinema, Everyman cinemas in Hampstead and Barnet, and JW3 urging them to boycott Seret.

“We write as film-makers, arts workers, London and Brighton residents and audiences who are ardent supporters of independent cinema,” they said. “We are disturbed and horrified to find that Seret, the UK-Israeli film festival, is being held at several cinemas, co-sponsored by the Israeli government. In light of the gravity of the charges against the Israeli state and the scale of suffering being inflicted on millions of Palestinians, particularly but not limited to Gaza, we strongly urge you to cancel the forthcoming Seret events.”

The group said Seret was “part of a broader art-washing strategy” by the Israeli state using “culture to whitewash and cover up its crimes against the Palestinian people”.

Haroush expressed her belief that politics should be kept separate from culture. “Film-makers do not have to suffer because of the political situation,” she said. “Everyone should have the right to screen whichever films they want – Ukrainian films, Palestinian films, Israeli films, Syrian films, Russian films.”

She added: “From culture you can understand and learn so much about a country that actually it could act as a bridge. We don’t choose our films based on politics, we choose them purely for their artistic quality. Most of the film-makers are leftwingers, so you can see a lot of films that actually criticise Israel. It’s not about admiring Israel. It’s just about showing the cultural and social diversities within the Israeli society through film.”