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Posted August 25, 2014 at 1:33 pm

I am an Arab, Palestinian and citizen of Israel— I have the right to define my own identity

Film maker Suha Arraf replies to critics who demanded her film be identified as “Israeli”. As Palestinian-made films earn awards and international acclaim, it’s not the first time that Israel has muscled in to try and take the plaudits

 Over the past few weeks, I have been under attack by the public and the media. I suffered this defamatory attack for defining my film Villa Touma as a Palestinian film even though most of the funding came from public foundations of the State of Israel. When the attack was at its height, I refused to comment because I felt that no one cared to listen to me anyway, and that they would only use my words against me. Now it seems to me that the time has come to explain my position.

Films belong to those who create them – the producer, director, screenwriter. They never belong to the foundations that helped to fund them, and they certainly never belong to countries. I define my film as a Palestinian film because I am first of all a Palestinian, and its story is told from my point of view, which is a Palestinian point of view. It’s a story about four Palestinian Christian women living in Ramallah. Only Arabic is spoken in the film, which has no Jewish-Israeli characters.

The Israeli foundations that support filmmakers impose no condition that any film be submitted under a particular identity. Even if I had chosen to submit my film as a Palestinian one, this does not mean that it received funding from the Palestinian Authority or from the “State of Palestine,” nor does it contradict the fact that the film’s producer is an Israeli citizen.

I am an Arab, a Palestinian and a citizen of the State of Israel. I have the right to emphasize my nationality as I present my film to the world, and there is no law in the State of Israel that forbids me from doing so. As far as I am concerned, a film’s identity is that of its creator.

Incidentally, there are opposite examples. While many films by Jewish Israelis are funded by European foundations, they are identified as Israeli. Would it ever occur to anyone in the German Culture Ministry to claim that Shmuel Maoz’s film Lebanon was a German film only because German foundations provided more than 70 percent of its funding?

Despite all that, in the wake of the uproar about me, as if I had committed a crime, I decided to compromise by dropping the word “Palestine” from the definition of my film and present it at festivals under my name only. Of course, all the Israeli foundations that funded the film receive the credit required, at the beginning and end of the film, together with the accompanying advertisements, such as the poster and press kit intended for the international press.

Yes, the film is listed as stateless, a “refugee,” as best reflects my complex status in this country – a Palestinian with a national identity and citizenship that are neither pertinent nor desired.

In his Hebrew essay entitled “And taking money from Israel is all right?” (Haaretz, August 11, 2014), Goel Pinto contends that if I accepted money from a country, I am obligated to show gratitude by defining my film as Israeli and representing Israel with pride. But Pinto forgets that the Israeli government is not doing us, the Palestinian citizens, any favors by giving us scholarships or budgets. About a million and a half Palestinians live in the State of Israel and pay taxes as the law requires. So we have a right to benefit from 20 percent of the public budget, in accordance with our proportion in the population.

If anyone should be complaining here, we are the ones who should be doing so, since Arab-Palestinian cultural institutions receive less than two percent of the cultural budget, and we receive less than one percent of the cinema budget. Jewish filmmakers, not we, are the ones who get the most benefit from our tax money.

The State of Israel never accepted us as citizens with equal rights. From the day the state was established, we were marked as the enemy and treated with racial discrimination in all areas of life. Why, then, am I expected to represent Israel with pride? Do I, as a filmmaker, automatically become an employee of the Foreign Ministry’s public diplomacy department? When the foreign minister issues a call, without shame, to boycott the owners of Palestinian businesses, to say nothing of his transfer plan, am I expected to work for him?

The Palestinian minority in Israel has a right to cultural autonomy. We have a basic right not only to make films that reflect our cultural identity, but also to define them as such. If the State of Israel sees itself as a democratic and pluralistic state, it must allow us this liberty and stop the campaigns of incitement against Palestinian artists who succeed in breaking out beyond its borders and dare to lift their heads.

Suha Arraf was born in the Palestinian village of Miliya, near Lebanon. She is the director, scriptwriter and producer of Villa Touma, her debut feature film, which tells the story of three Christian sisters in Ramallah during the early days of the Israeli occupation, and has been shortlisted for the 2014 Venice International Film Festival’s 29th Critics’ Week. Her latest documentary: Women of Hamas, received 13 awards at international film festivals. Suha’s first two screenplays, The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree, both directed by Eran Riklis, received international acclaim, with the latter winning Best Screenplay at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, and a Best Screenplay nomination at the European Film Academy Awards.

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