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.”
Let my people in – how Israel slammed the door on diaspora Jews
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel chose to prevent the entry of foreigners including our brothers and sisters, the members of Jewish communities, into the country.
So, many couldn’t attend a family Barmitzvah or be with family to sit shiva for a loved one. Although the ban has mostly been lifted, the damage has been done. However, Israel could change its policy before the next wave of COVID-19 (G-d forbid) to prevent exacerbating the problem.
The state of Israel is strengthening and growing, while many diaspora Jewish communities are shrinking and declining. For a generation that grew up in Israel, it’s difficult to internalise that there are many Jews living in the diaspora who actually believe Israel is their second home.
There is a sense of belonging not only in a spiritual, deep, or biblical way. These Jews don’t necessarily plan to make aliyah to Israel in the future. They have a good life in their countries. Yet they believe they have another home, a true motherland.
In some cases, this may be because they have family in Israel. They might even have a son who is a lone soldier serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
These same Jews, who live thousands of miles from Israel, go to shuls on Shabbat and pray every week for the well-being of Israel and its soldiers.
These Jews are loyal to their birthplace countries though they have another home that they care about. They’re interested in everything going on in Israel. They get upset about any criticism of Israel. They defend the Jewish state in every social-media post and stand by our country in any discussion or argument. They attend rallies in support of Israel, and send donations whenever they can.
These are Jews who visit Israel on holiday and send their children to study there or on various educational and gap-year programmes. These are our Jewish brothers and sisters, who share our homeland even without an Israeli passport.
Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel opted for a strict policy of intermittently blockading its borders. This right cannot be challenged. The policy of giving preferential treatment to its citizens – those who live in Israel – sounds reasonable.
Although in the past few days Israel was reopened to vaccinated people, we cannot ignore the suffering and frustration of blood brothers within Jewish communities.
We also have to prepare for the possible next wave, when Israel will again close its borders and Jews will again feel locked out from the Holy Land. Or will it be different? Will it have learnt a lesson and change the rules for certain people?
In the recent period when South Africa was red-listed, a South African family who came to comfort the mourners of terror victim Eli Kay was denied entry into Israel.
A grandmother who so wanted to be at her granddaughter’s wedding was denied entry. She can fly in now, but the wedding is long over.
A South African father couldn’t attend his Israeli son’s Barmitzvah.
A South African mother of one of the olot chadashot (new women emigrants) wasn’t able to be there for her daughter when she gave birth. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event that she missed. She can go there now, but the moment has passed.
A mother was delayed in being there for the urgent surgery for her daughter, who suffered a stroke in Israel.
A son couldn’t support his father on his deathbed. Fortunately, his request to be at the funeral was granted, but he will never be able to say those last words to his dying father.
A student who was on her way to start her university studies in Israel was sent home.
Israeli consulates around the world received instructions, and these were frequently changed, which only elevated the level of tension and confusion.
Contacting Knesset members influenced the discretion of the decision-makers and opened their hearts and the gates of the Holy Land. A few more days, more pressure, more discussions, and more letters created a bit more relief, reducing restrictions.
But it was too late for most people. They missed lifetime opportunities.
The special committees for exceptional cases collapsed under the pressure of the large number of applications, including those whose affinity to Israel is easy to prove. These people aren’t casual tourists who wanted to come on a holiday in the middle of a pandemic. They have family in Israel – first-degree relatives. Their foreign passport is packed with entry stamps to Israel. They had a one-time family special event, which has now passed.
After two years of coronavirus, it’s not too late to design regulations that apply to this group of people who knock on Israel’s doors. They’re willing to go through every test and isolation, any vaccination, as well as hotel costs just to be able to be allowed into Israel, their other home.
After the devastating tsunami of Omicron in Israel, we’ll hopefully have enough time to be prepared for the next cycle and set new rules – not an exhausting exceptions committee.
Don’t get me wrong, according to Israelis, Israel made no mistake in shutting its borders. They agree with the clear and transparent policy to minimise at all costs the importing of COVID-19 into Israel.
However, Israel needs to hear the voices of Jewish communities and consider future steps to avoid its conduct causing unnecessary frustration within world Jewry.
The stubbornness and procrastination in response to humanitarian requests have had a deep impact on those Jewish communities that believe Israel is also their home. Israelis have successfully managed to prove to their diaspora brothers and sisters on a daily basis how wrong they are.
Jewish communities are still Israel’s “home front” and defenders, who have ancestral rights to the establishment of the state of Israel. They also play a role in strengthening the country and in the ongoing moral justification for Israel’s existence. It was in their faces that Israel slammed the door.
Israelis don’t understand how much the arrogant, bureaucratic process can hurt a lonely soldier who needs to go to South Africa. He might be serving in integral and powerful units in the IDF, and is then refused the right to go and see his family. This is unacceptable.
It’s such an unnecessary but deep and painful hurt, yet very simple to heal with some care and kind attention. Our leaders need to consider this going forward.
- Advocate Zvika (Biko) Arran is a social entrepreneur. He lives in South Africa with his wife, Liat, who is the Jewish Agency representative in South Africa, and their children.
Tenacious Miss SA returns to hero’s welcome
In spite of being crowned Second Princess in the Miss Universe pageant held in Eilat, Israel, last month, Miss South Africa admits to having felt nervous about returning home to South Africa afterwards.
Lalela Mswane flew to Dubai and then Israel without the support – or knowledge – of the South African government, which had been pressurising her not to go for weeks beforehand.
“I didn’t know what was awaiting me [in South Africa]. I was anxious but optimistic at the same time. I had a warrior-princess attitude. I had been to hell and back. I felt like, ‘Bring it on!’,” she says.
But the 24-year-old need not have worried. A hero’s welcome awaited her as ordinary South Africans showered her with pride.
During a press conference at OR Tambo International Airport, she expressed disappointment and anger at the government’s decision, and the mass criticism she had received in the lead-up to the contest.
“I felt abandoned,” she said. “I’ll never comprehend what I did to make people feel justified in their actions. You don’t have to be for me, but you don’t have to be against me. You don’t have to, certainly, wish death upon me because I made a choice.”
The starlet recognised the situation for what it was. It reminded her of the years of bullying she’d endured while growing up.
“I’m tenacity personified,” she quips. “I believe in standing for something. Even if you have to stand alone, or stand with very few people, be strong in your convictions.”
Born in Richards Bay and raised in Pretoria, the beauty queen discovered her love for ballet in the Jacaranda City, and went on to complete a Bachelor of Law at the University of Pretoria. Her passion for humanitarianism and creating positive change is what ultimately steered her towards competing in Miss South Africa.
“The dream [of being Miss South Africa] was planted in my heart when I was about seven,” she says. “I saw my predecessors do so many amazing things and the impact they could have.”
As a devout Christian, the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem was a dream come true.
“It was emotional. We went to the Western Wall and heard a prayer. I literally felt a sense of renewal and rebirth, and said to G-d, ‘Let your will be done.’ I was at peace from that moment on. For me, spiritually, that trip was everything and more.”
Mswane describes Israelis as “extremely friendly, very welcoming”, and even picked up a little Hebrew. “Todah”, she says perfectly. “The first thing I asked when I arrived was how to say thank you because I say thank you a lot!”
No trip abroad would be complete without sampling the country’s cuisine, and this journey was no exception. “Oh, the food! I think I gained weight. No, I know I gained weight,” she laughs. “I’m not a bread girl, but I couldn’t get enough of the bread there. It was so fresh! You could just get the sense that it was made with love.”
She’s even become a fan of Israel’s most famous dish – hummus.
“I’ve been converted. I had it the other day at a restaurant [in South Africa] but it didn’t hit the spot.”
Now that she’s back on home soil, Mswane is serious about placing the entire ordeal behind her and focusing on how she can help South Africa overcome unemployment.
“I don’t regret my decision one bit. I’m so happy I went. Israel was everything and more and I’ve often said that I would have gone regardless of the location. My stance was never political; it was me going to pursue a dream that I have always had.”
The battle has now turned to the courtroom where last month, nongovernmental organisation Citizens for Integrity (CFI) brought a case over the government’s withdrawal of its support to the high court as a matter of public interest. Although it failed to get the urgent hearing it anticipated, “no merits of the application were discussed. The only aspect discussed was urgency. The case continues,” says CFI founder Mark Hyman.
The application by Africa4Palestine (formerly the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions group) to be amicus curae (a friend of the court) wasn’t even heard by the judge, who asked it to leave.
The department of sport, arts and culture falsely claims on its website that the case was struck from the roll. Minister Nathi Mthethwa argues online that, “Our position is rooted in the responsibility to encourage a culture of moral stewardship amongst all who carry the South African name.” He has yet to respond to an open letter by CFI saying it isn’t too late for him and the government to apologise to Mswane.
Says Hyman, “We remain steadfast in the belief that only when the government is held accountable for its unacceptable conduct toward its own citizens, and the courts make such orders, can we say that we are making South Africa a better democratic society. This is what we seek to do by fighting for the rights of South Africans in this case.
“CFI remains convinced that the government has avoided its obligations and has failed to respect the rights of its citizens, and needs to be taken to task because of it. We believe that the government had no constitutional right to interfere in legitimate private business affairs in the first place or to bully such a party into submitting to the government position and to publicly sanction her for refusing to comply with its demand. We also believe that the government has unconstitutionally impaired Miss South Africa’s dignity by detailing to the public, in emotive terms, the nature of private discussions simply in order to justify a decision which it imposed on her.”
Mswane, though, has already put it behind her.
“I definitely cannot say I’m the same person. Before, I was searching for validation and support from everybody. Post everything, I feel like if something resonates with me deeply, I don’t need validation. Resonating with me should be enough.”
It’s often said that a person’s name has the ability to shape them. Mswane’s parents must have known this when they named her “Lalela” which means “listen” in isiZulu.
The greatest lesson she’s taken from the experience is to listen to her heart.
“If you know that you have found peace in a decision, do it, because you need to stand for something in life. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and that’s fine, but you need to back yourself all the damn time.”
Miss SA shines as local boycott goes to court
It’s just days before the Miss Universe pageant in Eilat, and Miss SA Lalela Mswane has been soaking up the sights and sounds of Israel and making friends with dozens of fellow contestants ahead of the glamorous event.
Beauty queens from at least 70 countries have toured a number of popular destinations such as Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, where they smothered themselves in healing black mud.
Over the past few days, they have been in the coastal city of Eilat posing in swimwear.
The deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, hailed Miss SA for her bravery in deciding to participate in the pageant in spite of Israel-haters’ attempts to stop her from taking part.
Hassan-Nahoum thanked Mswane for “speaking truth to power”, and for participating in spite of the South African government and the minister of sport, arts, and culture withdrawing support for her in November because the contest was taking place in Israel.
Following a fashion event hosted in Jerusalem, she tweeted, “I thanked #MissUniverse South African contestant Lalela Mswane for speaking truth to power and not just being a beautiful but a very brave lady.”
Meanwhile back home, Africa4Palestine, an anti-Israel lobby group aligned with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, this week submitted an application to the High Court Gauteng Division to be an amicus curiae (an impartial adviser to a court of law in a particular case) in a case brought before the court by Citizens For Integrity (CFI).
CFI has accused the government and the minister of sport, arts, and culture of acting unconstitutionally and irrationally in its “bullying” of Miss SA.
The non-governmental organisation has filed papers in the high court taking the government and Minister Nathi Mthethwa to task for withdrawing its support for the local beauty queen in November, and for calling for her to withdraw from the 70th Miss Universe pageant to be held in Israel at the weekend.
It has demanded an apology and an immediate retraction of the statement withdrawing support for the Miss SA Organisation and Mswane.
Although Mswane is already in Israel, the CFI launched an urgent application to have the government’s statement declared unconstitutional, said Sibongile Cele, the deputy chairperson of the African National Congress Women’s League Johannesburg.
“We aren’t changing our stance, we will give Miss SA our full support. She is being victimised by these people,” said Cele.
In papers before the court, the anti-Israel group asked to be amicus curiae to assist the court in making its decision. It wanted to provide the court with information on alleged atrocities perpetrated by Israel as well as to provide information on reports by human rights bodies drawing parallels in Israel to apartheid in South Africa.
The organisation said the government had adopted a longstanding stance on the Palestinian-Israel conflict, and submissions by the CFI attempted to challenge its policy and stance on the “Israel occupation” and its right to act in accordance with those principles.
“In doing so, it attempts to allege that the government’s stance is one which has been adopted with the intention of allegedly violating the constitutional rights of Miss SA. This stance is blatantly false and misleading”.
Mthethwa, in his heads of argument, accused the CFI of making “wild generalised statements and unsubstantiated allegations” which should be dismissed on the basis they are “hearsay and irrelevant”.
The court papers stated that the minister’s statement was made in “good faith”, and was in line with legitimate government purpose in its “commitment to the advancement and protection of fundamental human rights, not only within the borders of the Republic of South Africa, but also extra-territorially”.
“This commitment is immediately apparent in the Bill of Rights, which is the cornerstone of the constitutional democracy of the Republic and affirms democratic values of human dignity, equality, and freedom,” the papers say.
The minister “Simply reiterates the policy by government in that South Africa will not tolerate the senseless and continued Israeli bombardment of the Palestinian people and denial of their right to self-determination. Accordingly, the egregious violation of human rights by the Israel people towards Palestine weighs more than the support that South Africa should show for Miss Universe pageant to be held in Israel.”
It was heavily argued that the matter was not urgent and should be dismissed.
Willie Hofmeyr, the retired head of the asset forfeiture unit at the National Prosecuting Authority and one of the founders and directors of CFI, was present during the proceedings and was unable to comment at the time of going to press.
Cele, who is also the spokesperson for the CFI, insisted that Miss SA’s rights had been infringed upon. “As a committed Christian, I felt it was important to look at her rights as a woman and her rights as Miss SA. The protesters can jump and scream, but we will stand up against this injustice. As Christians, we believe Israel is the apple of G-d’s eye, and we will continue to pray for peace between Israel and South Africa.”
Anti-Israel lobbyists staged a small protest outside court on Wednesday, 8 December. They have accused CFI of being “a front company for the Zionist lobby” and in an online poster advertising the protest, they said, “Israel keep your dirty hands off our government.”
Throughout Miss SA’s short reign, lobbyists have attempted to harass and bully her into withdrawing from the pageant, but she has stood her ground.
Beautiful pictures of her in a white bathing suit enjoying the sun at Coral Beach in Eilat were posted on the Miss SA Instagram page. The Miss Universe organisation has challenged contestants to speak about sustainable fashion and according to the Miss SA Organisation, Mswane has embraced the challenge by using special outfits worn by her predecessors.
She has consistently thanked everyone who has supported her in the run-up to the competition.
The CFI opposed the application for amicus curiae. At the time of going to press, court was still in progress.
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