Israeli filmmaker banned from Durban film festival
Yakie Ayalon is an Israeli filmmaker who grew up in Nigeria, and makes films based on humanitarian values. With a strong connection to the African continent, he was looking forward to showing his work at the upcoming Durban International Film Festival (DIFF). But that dream came to an end when the festival banned him from participating because of his Israeli origin.
The festival, which will run from 22 July to 1 August, was organised by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Ayalon was born in Jerusalem in 1978. “Social values and human issues play a significant part in my films and work,” he told the SA Jewish Report. I spent most of my childhood in Nigeria. My father worked with an international company on various projects, mainly in agriculture and construction. My family and I lived in Lagos. This experience has served as a formative one for me until today. Even now, I consider Nigeria my second home, and I often visit it and other African countries for various film projects.”
He has directed and produced award-winning films which explore all aspects of Israeli society, shining a light on minorities. “Most of my films try to give a voice to those who aren’t at the centre of social discourse,” he says. “I always try to find the most common ground that everyone can relate to, and give the viewers an experience of optimism, hope, and inspiration.”
For example, in his film, Jirah, directed with Yousef Abo Madegam, “the story is about Hader, an artist. He lives in Rahat with his Bedouin wife and their children. His extended family, mother, siblings, and former wife live in Gaza. The film accompanies Hader’s efforts to visit his sick mother in Gaza. In Studio Varouj, Varouj Ishkinain is the third generation in an Armenian family of photographers. Many know the studio in the old city of Jerusalem. The documentary accompanies Varouj during the last month before he closes the studio. Almost all my films raise questions of identity and belonging: what’s the meaning of home? Is it where you were born and raised? Or is it the place you feel you belong?”
The Durban festival maintains that it’s “committed to being a vibrantly creative enabler and advocate for social justice and democracy”, yet it banned Ayalon from the festival in spite of the fact that his films enshrine these values.
The film that was originally chosen to participate at the DIFF is titled Scattegories. It’s about the Essien children, born in Israel to migrant parents from Nigeria. “In a moment of despair, their mother quickly left with them back to Nigeria. As the children understood, they were travelling to Nigeria for a short visit,” says Ayalon.
“Years passed, and they still felt detached, living for a time on the streets and struggling to survive. Esther, the eldest, took on the role of the responsible adult at home. In spite of the fact that in Israel they didn’t always feel that they belonged, the Israeli experience has played a significant part in their lives, language, culture, and dreams.
“They try to return to Israel. At the heart of their struggle exists a moral dilemma: the mother and her children must part ways. When Esther celebrates her 18th birthday, she is able to return to Israel on her own.
“The film focuses on Esther’s feeling of alienation in Nigeria and Israel,” he says. “Israel isn’t the same home she remembers, and she feels foreign and out of place. She is forced to deal with these challenges without her family, and is sometimes uncertain whether she made the right choice. But she’s determined to bring her family back to Israel and reunite.”
Ayalon says he wanted to be part of the DIFF because he had “heard wonderful things about it, and I know that it usually has a great selection of quality films. It’s important for me to screen my film in African film festivals, reach wide and diverse audiences, and not participate only in European and North American festivals.”
His participation was initially welcomed, but then he was told he could no longer participate. “I was saddened by the cancellation since we were already discussing the final details,” he says. “From my point of view, boycotting and targeting individual Israeli filmmakers isn’t the answer. This is especially since almost all my documentary films deal with issues which aren’t in the main discourse and give a voice to those who are usually not heard.
“My films promote equality and strive against violence of all forms,” he says. “It’s heart breaking that I was denied the opportunity to screen my film and be heard, allegedly in the name of values I have tried to promote in my films. Boycotting individual filmmakers is itself an act of violence.”
He says that in Scattegories specifically, “the film touches upon moral dilemmas and sacrifices. These dilemmas may be private to their family, but they also touch the stories of many migrant families around the world. I believe that whoever sees the film will be able to identify with the ‘other’ that he generally doesn’t encounter in his daily life.”
Ayalon will continue to focus on filmmaking. He hasn’t submitted his film to other festivals in South Africa yet, but hopes to do so in the near future.
He wishes for “a peaceful resolution between Israel and Palestine. It was heart breaking seeing the images of casualties and destruction in Gaza and Israel [in the recent conflict], knowing that most people on both sides wish to live in peace.
“I believe the only way to a peaceful future is by creating dialogue and getting to know your neighbours. As a filmmaker specifically at this time, when baseless hatred and racism are a regular occurrence within our society, only awareness and dialogue can eventually lead to change. This is one of the main reasons I chose film as my profession,” he says.
In a statement, DIFF organisers wrote, “We decided not to screen any films produced and funded by the Israeli apartheid state and its complicit institutions. Our deeply-held principles include the firm commitment to freedom of artistic expression. We are fully aware of the impact this has on individual filmmakers, and would like to emphasise that we didn’t do this against any person or entity based on identity.”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, DIFF media spokesperson Marlyn Ntsele said, “The management team and curatorial team of the DIFF is cognisant of the impact of our decision on individual filmmakers and empathise fully with the filmmaker. The decision wasn’t a personal attack or indictment of any individual filmmaker. Our firmly held beliefs include a solid dedication to artistic independence and a desire for freedom, justice, and equality for everyone. We stand by our decision, and wish the filmmaker well in their future endeavours.”