Film festival backtracks on condemnation of anti-Israel ‘from the river to the sea’ slogan

After the release of the statement slamming the ‘river to the sea’ slogan, a number of pro-Palestinian producers and the PFI announced their withdrawal from the film festival. This sparked the IDFA to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, accusing Israel of ‘occupation.’

By Shiryn Ghermezian, The Algemeiner

Organizers of the 2023 International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) currently taking place in Amsterdam have walked back their criticism of a rallying cry widely known as a call for the destruction of Israel after a number of pro-Palestinian directors withdrew their participation in the film festival.

The IDFA’s Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday that “around 10” directors have pulled their films from the festival’s lineup. The Palestine Film Institute (PFI) announced on Sunday that it too has withdrawn from all activities at the IDFA film market. The PFI additionally organized a protest outside the main IDFA headquarters on Monday to demand an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, and to criticize the IDFA.

In response, Nyrabia said, “We respect the choices and the decisions of all filmmakers, whether that is to speak their minds on stage or online or to withdraw their films. All forms of peaceful protest, including criticism of our work, we honor and respect.”

The IDFA is the world’s largest documentary film festival. At its opening night on Nov. 8, pro-Palestinian protesters rushed on stage and held a banner that read, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The slogan has been widely interpreted as a call for Israel, which is located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, to be eradicated and replaced by “Palestine.” It has also been used to defend the deadly Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel that took place on Oct. 7.

Last week, the US House of Representatives voted to censure Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) for her use of the slogan. A resolution passed by 22 Democrats and most Republicans called the slogan “a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people to replace it with a Palestinian state.”

A day after the incident at the film festival’s opening night, 16 prominent members of the Israeli film community — including the chair of the Israeli Film Academy, chairwoman of the Israeli Documentary Forum, and chairman of the Israeli Producers Union — wrote a letter to the IDFA. They asked the festival and its director to “clearly and resoundingly distance themselves, reject and denounce these calls for violence and withdraw any platform from those who knowingly incite for the annihilation of Israel, instigating violence and giving rise to antisemitic sentiments against Jews everywhere.”

IDFA organizers afterwards condemned the slogan in a statement released on Nov. 10.

“That slogan does not represent us, and we do not endorse it in any way. We are truly sorry that it was hurtful to many,” the statement read in part. “We understand that the slogan was hurtful, and sincerely apologize for how this happened. There are many ways that people use or read this slogan, and that various sides use it in opposing ways, all of which we do not agree with, and we believe that this slogan should not be used in any way and by anybody anymore.”

Nyrabia added that the slogan is “a triggering statement and an offensive declaration for many, regardless of who carries it. It does not represent IDFA, and was and will not be endorsed.” The Syrian-born filmmaker also denied allegations that he was applauding the banner that featured the slogan on opening night, saying that he did not see the words on the sign until afterwards and “clapped to welcome freedom of speech, and not to welcome the slogan.”

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In a separate statement released on Nov. 10, the film festival called for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

After the release of the statement slamming the “river to the sea” slogan, a number of pro-Palestinian producers and the PFI announced their withdrawal from the film festival. PFI additionally accused the IDFA of engaging in “institutional violence and censorship.” It said that by condemning the actions of the anti-Israel protesters at the festival’s opening night, the IDFA was responsible for the “vilification of Palestinian voices.”

The IDFA responded to the backlash in its most recent statement published on Nov. 12, when it repeated its call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, accused Israel of “occupation,” and clarified its stance regarding the slogan, appearing to somewhat justify its usage.

“Many filmmakers, Palestinians, Israelis, and others, whose work featured at IDFA over the years, showed the world how occupation is the core of this tragedy, and that ending the occupation and respecting all human lives as equal and sacred, are the essential steps,” the statement read.

The festival then said it recognizes that the controversial slogan “is at the heart of the on-going discussion is used by various parties in different ways and is perceived by various people in various manners.”

“We are not ignoring, undermining, nor criminalizing any of these positions, and we fully respect and acknowledge the pain that is going around and the extreme urgency of these discussions while war is still on, and innocent civilians are still dying,” the statement added. “Our aim is to make sure everybody feels welcome and safe to express themselves and to listen openly to others, even when in disagreement. Our hope is that everybody feels entitled to use this platform, seriously and responsibly, lovingly and sincerely.”

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Iranian filmmaker Maryam Tafakory is among the directors to withdraw from the IDFA after it criticized the anti-Israel slogan. She pulled her film Mast-del from the film festival’s lineup and said in an Instagram post that she is “heartbroken, betrayed, and outraged by the damaging slander” of the “from the river to the sea” phrase. In the same social media post, she accused Israel of being an “apartheid state,” of “ethnic cleansing,” and of committing an “ongoing genocide” agains Palestinians.

The International Documentary Film Festival is taking place Nov. 8-19. On Wednesday, it awarded top prizes to a film about a “stateless Palestinian child” living in a refugee camp in Beirut, titled Son of the Streets, and another film titled Coexistence, My Ass! about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but with a comedic twist.

In a statement about awarding Son of the Streets at the IDFA Forum Awards, jurors Zdeněk Blaha and Nada Riyadh explained “with our decision, we would like to support not only a specific aspiring talent but also a cause,” in a clear reference to supporting the Palestinians. “If there was one project that needs support at this moment the most, it is this one. We would like to recognize the struggle of a nation forced to live as ghosts caught between the walls. Without home, without identity, without land.”