SA director pulls out of Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival

“It is impossible to look past the fact that the festival could serve as a diversion from the human rights violations being committed by the state of Israel”

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Photo of John Trengove
John Trengove. Photo from IMDB by Dean Hutton (copied for fair use)

A South African film director has pulled out of the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival, citing Israel’s human rights violations as his reason.

John Trengove is a South African film director, whose movies include Hopeville and Inxeba. He is a past winner of the Golden Horn Award for Best Achievement in Directing in a TV Drama. He is also the son of well-known advocate Wim Trengove.

Trengove has provided his correspondence with the film festival to GroundUp, which we have published below. His movie The Wound was going to be shown at the Tel Aviv festival. It premiered at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals earlier this year. Trengove describes it as “a queer film set in the context of the Xhosa initiation ritual”. He told GroundUp: “I do think the conversation with the festival is a meaningful one. I don’t see this as an attack. I appreciate their complex moral position.”

Edited Letter from Trengove to the organisers of the festival

Dear Yair

It is with sincere regret that I have to inform you that I will not be attending TL​V​fest next week. In the last few days I have been approached by activist organisations as well as members of the South African film community​,​ urg​ing​ me to respect the cultural boycott against Israel, and specifically TLVfest​.​ With the pain of the apartheid struggle still fresh in our collective consciousness, the issue is, as you can imagine, a very sensitive one for many South Africans.​

The issue of pinkwashing has also been underscored to me. While I appreciate that the organisers ​of TLVfest ​may be well intentioned and progressive, it is impossible to look past the fact that the festival (and my participation in it) could serve as a diversion from the human rights violations being committed by the state of Israel. 

I understand that it is very late for me to make such a decision, and for this I am sincerely sorry. It is out of naivety, and a desire for my film and the human issues it promotes to be seen as far and wide as possible, that I accepted your invitation several weeks ago. Unfortunately, knowing what I now know, I feel it is imperative that I withdraw myself from attending.

I also understand that the film has already been sold, not just for screening but also for Israeli distribution. ​I therefore accept that t​his is a situation that is out of my hands​,​ though my wish is that the film not be shown in Israel while current conditions persist.

I hope that you will accept my decision in the spirit that it is intended, which is not a personal attack on you or your team, but motivated by realisation of what deeply personal and political convictions require of me. 

Letter from Yotam Cytter in response to John Trengove

Dear John,

My name is Yotam and I am part of the TLVFest team. Yair is at the Cannes Film Festival and he asked me to respond to your mail on his behalf.

I am sorry to hear that you want to withdraw your participation in the festival.

I am well aware of the BDS status against us. I am also well aware of the fact that our festival has no bias against Palestinian filmmakers. The festival does not “pinkwash” or represent the policy of any government. We strive toward equality and tolerance regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, or political view.

The festival’s staff tries very hard throughout the year to screen LGBT films outside of Tel-Aviv, and we will be more than willing to screen them in Palestinian cities if this would have been possible.

Our one and only goal as a film festival is to expose the Israeli and Palestinian public to cinematic LGBT content.

We, also, screen films about the issue. Our opening film last year was Oriented, and this year we have Israeli-born Palestinian jurors who prefer to be presented as Palestinians. The festival has received a lot of criticism over the choice of opening the festival last year with a film that deals with Palestinian LGBT people.

We are searching each year for films about Palestinian LGBT people, made by Palestinians, just like we are searching for LGBT films of other minorities. This is not to say that we, at the festival, think that the situation of the Palestinians is in any way normal. 

Although we have heard that the leaders of the BDS think that art has no power to change reality, we believe that art is the way to change the politics of this complicated place we’re living in. If art didn’t have this great power to change people’s views there wouldn’t be such outrage over films dealing with politics.

The claim that TLVFest is pinkwashing the suffering of the Palestinian people disregards the contents of the festival films. We do not deny being partially sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, but no international film festival in Israel can be held without their support. Unlike other countries it is impossible to have a festival without government support.

We also give the stage to our guests to express their opinions about the political situation between the Palestinians and Israelis and don’t shut down the criticising voices. 

With all this in mind, we do respect your decision not to attend the festival. However, the program of the festival has already been printed, and we cannot withdraw the film from the festival.

In regards to the flight ticket, Sonya (cc here) will be in touch with you about the price of the ticket. 

We wish you the very best and hope that in the future you will be part of our festival.

Enjoy your stay.

Response by Trengove to Cytter​

Thanks Yotam.

Let me reiterate that I have no doubt that your festival is a progressive and open-minded one. I have however come to believe that as long as current circumstances in Israel prevail, a rigorous boycott against ALL government funded initiatives is necessary. If nothing else, they are a way to signal to Israelis that the international community cannot condone what is being done in their name. As a South African, I have first hand experience of how boycotts helped bring about democratic transformation and therefore have decided to add my name and voice to the boycott Israel initiative.

If I may be so bold, would you consider NOT playing the film next Thursday night as advertised in your program and screening a video message recorded by myself instead? This, I believe, would send a clear message that TLVfest is tolerant of protest and not an instrument of pinkwashing as you say.

Thank you for responding, and hope to hear from you soon.

TOPICS:  Human Rights LGBTI

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

Dear John Trengrove - I think you have had ample time to objectively evaluate your participation or non- participation in this festival. Your last minute withdrawal from this event comes across at best, as badly planned. As a highly analytical person you've had enough time and information to evaluate the political climate. Surely that's step nr. 1. Withdraw then, but making further demands appears to inflate media hype. Many may question your last minute motives and naivety seems an optimistic conclusion. Non-participation has merit, but you've lost much moral high ground due to delaying your decision. Making further demands appears to disrespect your hosts who have invested considerable time and resources. Festivals of this kind keeps our rainbow spirit alive.

Dear Editor

In the US, President Trump has attempted to restrict immigration and travel from seven Islamic states with a history of terrorism. Because of his campaign rhetoric, this has been declared to be an illegal "Muslim" ban, even though travel is unrestricted for the other 50 Islamic states plus India.

Omar Barghouti is the founder and driving force of BDS. His stated rhetoric is the destruction of Israel as the homeland of the Jews. As you know, during WWII, Jews were denied entry in almost every country on Earth despite the knowledge of the discrimination, danger, and death they faced in Germany, merely because of who they are, having committed no crimes. Israel's law of return is intended to keep that from ever happening again. Destruction of Israel, as proposed by Barghouti, ends that safety net.

As the LBGT community faces the same dangers in every Islamic state in the Middle East, including what will be Palestine. How dare you attack Israel, the only state in the Middle East with a thriving LBGT community!

Dear Editor

Similar to when there is discontent in a marriage. The each ones quarms and the truth - reality. Same applies to the Israeli and Palestinian situation.

Nowhere in the article is there mention of the civil rights violations practiced by Palestinians against the Israelis. Even Palestinian woman and young people are encouraged to inflict harm against Israeli citizens. Palestinians do not encourage 'pink ' ideas or practices.

No acknowledgment is made as to the humanitarian assistance, employment or any positive relationships between the two peoples.

Nobody can claim that there haven't always been 'angles'. Both sides need to talk truthfully and find a peaceful means, learning trust and urgently cease hateful deeds and slander. Dishonest propaganda is the cause of the conflict.

Dear Editor

What a pity that a talented, gifted director is influenced by a knee-jerk reaction to the Palestinian-supporting pressure.

Yes, sure there is much merit in the hardline Palestinian rhetoric. And Israel is clearly out of line in their settlement policies and disregard of agreed borders. But where are the UN sanctions against human rights violations in so many so-called Islamic states?

Why pass up an opportunity to present your work and promote discussion and dialogue? And what chance of screening would Mr Trengove's film stand in the majority of the homophobic Islamic states?

Dear Editor

Mr Trengrove

While Israel is not perfect, it is the only gay-friendly country in the region. While gays are being thrown off rooftops a stone's throw away from Tel Aviv you have the temerity to judge Israels human rights record without considering human rights abuses and disputed territories around the world. BDS is terrorism against the Jewish people. This makes you complicit and an outright antisemite. Gay Palestinians seek refuge in Israel for obvious reasons. You are a hypocrite.

Dear Editor

As a member of the LGBTI+ community, I thank you for your action.

As South Africans we are well aware of the power of boycott. As a teenager and young adult I travelled between South Africa and Europe during the cultural boycott era, so I've heard all the arguments for, and against.

Yes, art is a powerful tool, but so is boycott. Both have their merit and we are informed and empowered by both. If the festival organisers believe they are pro-active in this regard, they will embrace your boycott and screen your video explaining why.

What has happened to the Palestinian people since Israel was first established is deeply familiar to the majority of South Africans, and the majority of its LGBTI+ community. We feel its brutal grip in the murder, rape, harassment and assault of our fellow community members to this day – burying their brutalised bodies every single week across our country.

Actions like yours remind us that we have a duty as artists to tell our story, and to choose carefully where our stories are told, and how, and by whom.

None of these choices are ever neutral.

Dear Editor

The reason that John is so quick to boycott Israel is because he needs to prove his political correctness in order to divert attention from his own exploitation of holy Xhosa rites.

John is a white man in Africa who made a film that exploits Xhosa culture to advance his career. He's a ruthless cultural colonizer who plunders the sacred rituals of poor black people to turn into a commercial product for the international market, just as his forefathers plundered the minerals and the land.

We want to see films about the Xhosa that are made BY the Xhosa. Not another white colonizer.

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