palestine

'Pro-Israel Pinkwashing': Melbourne Queer Film Festival Rocked by Community Backlash

"It is not too late to be on the right side of history and to listen to your community.”
November 18, 2021, 2:48am
Crowds walking at a social festival
Crowds walking at an event – Suman Bhaumik

For the last 30 years, The Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF) has presented itself as a beacon of diversity, inclusion and radical change for Australia’s queer community. This year, however, has proven to be tumultuous. 

In the lead up to the 2021 festival, multiple board members – including the co-president – have stepped down amid calls from the Palestinian queer community and their allies to boycott the event, hindering what was initially planned to be a post-pandemic celebration of international film.

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The protests began in early November, when allegations of “pinkwashing” began to surface on social media. “Pinkwashing” is a term often used to describe the use of queer issues to distract from the behaviour of larger entities, such as governments or companies. In the context of MQFF, queer Palestinian activists took to Instagram and claimed the festival was set to promote “an image of Israel as a queer-friendly idyll, and Palestinians as inherently intolerant and backward people.”  

The origin of these protests can be linked back to MQFF Together, a smaller festival held in March which promoted the screening of Israeli film “Sublet.” 

“I went through the whole programme and [there was] not a single film from Africa or the Swana region,” writer, filmmaker and community organiser Muhib Nabulsi told VICE. “It was then that I noticed that there was this film by Israeli Director Eytan Fox, whose films are held up in academic literature, and by activists, as some of the most prominent examples of pinkwashing.”

For Fox, these allegations are not new. In June, the director told The Times of Israel he had been familiar with the criticism for years.

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“It can be the most left-wing, pro-Palestinian Israeli film ever made and some say they will still boycott,” he said. “I have been accused of being part of a ‘pinkwash’ system. And maybe it has happened...But this doesn’t take away from the fact that the LGBT community in Israel is in such a wonderful place.”

This year’s main festival remains the focus of the most recent protests – specifically the planned screening of Israeli director Adam Kalderon’s The Swimmer. Many complainants are calling for the film, which follows the story of a rising competitive swimming talent who experiences a sexual reckoning, to be removed from the festival’s program.

Throughout November, those leading the movement– headed by Palestinian activists from Melbourne and Brisbane – urged the public to submit letters to the head of MQFF’s board, Spiro Economopolous, asking him to remove the film before its screening on November 19. The group also sought an acknowledgement of accountability for programming Israeli films, as well as an adoption of a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) policy, meaning there would be a blanket ban on Israeli content in the future.

On the November 9, MQFF released its first public statement.

“We recognise that we won’t always get this mix of diversity right for everyone in our community,” it said, “which is why we welcome feedback and input”. 

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“Melbourne Queer Film Festival has recognised that whilst our program is diverse, we can do better in making sure that the diversity of these stories is being seen by our communities.”

“We also look forward to seeing further stories from the State of Palestine, or that depict the stories of LGBTIQ+ Palestinians, at MQFF”.

Facing a rising wave of pinkwashing allegations, the organisation also noted that another short film that was featuring in this year’s event, Borekas, was from the State of Palestine, as well as, Flee, a story chronicling a gay man’s perilous journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan.

Though the statement was a welcome first step for the Palestinian queer community, activist and writer Lujayn Hourani told VICE that their objectives hadn’t changed: namely, getting MQFF to cancel the screening of The Swimmer and sign up to BDS.

“As a queer film festival, they have a duty to queer people who are still, to this day, having their human rights violated,” Hourani said, “And that should just be their responsibility as a film festival that spreads queer narratives.

“The fact that they didn't put that work in... that's all just really negligent programming where they don't realise the power that they have.”

A few days after the festival’s initial statement, Molly Whelan, co-president of MQFF, stepped down from their position. In their resignation letter, which has been seen by VICE, they stated their values and visions were no longer in line with those of the board.

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“It’s important for me to note that this last week is not the sole reason for my decision, rather it is a catalyst for it,” the letter read, “I have felt the weight of representing trans and non binary communities in an organisation where power is so firmly in the hands of white, cis men.

“I don’t see a willingness to make the changes that are necessary for MQFF to stay relevant and respected in LGBTIQA+ communities.”

In correspondence with VICE, Whelan said that though they believed great effort was put into curating a diverse program to showcase the experiences of the LGBTIQA+ communities, the organisation “must listen to the voices of those in our community who face ongoing persecution, and be open to doing better.”

“They could start by cancelling The Swimmer,” they said.

When asked about Whelan’s resignation, MQFF’s head of publicity and media, David Micallef, told VICE  he “immensely” enjoyed working with Whelan and that the festival “is in a stronger place thanks to [their] contribution.”

Shortly after Whelan’s resignation, another board member, Nayuka Gorrie, also stepped down. 

“As an Indigenous person of this place, allowing myself or any organisation I’m a part of to be used in the propaganda machinery of a settler state makes me sick and sad,” read Gorrie’s resignation letter, supplied to VICE.

“I too officially resign and call on you all to cancel the film screenings of The Swimmer. It is not too late to be on the right side of history and to listen to your community.”

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On Wednesday, November 17, three days after the dual resignation of two board members, MQFF released a second statement addressing the continued calls for a boycott.

While they expressed concerns for the Palestinian LGBTQIA+ community, festival organisers noted that they did not consider the film The Swimmer to contain content focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The statement also said that a blanket ban on Israeli films would go against the MQFF mission “to change lives through the experience of shared stories.”

“The MQFF Board considered that even with this small snapshot of community feedback, that views within LGBTIQ+ communities are mixed and both keeping or removing the film is likely to go against the views of some within our communities,” the statement read. “It also considered that there are other parts of the community who have not had an opportunity to be consulted on this issue.” 

In short: The Swimmer was staying on the bill.

“We were hopeful that they would be open to discussion,” Nabulsi told VICE, adding that the board agreed to meet them after the festival. “But by that time it’s too late.”

With the festival set to commence this week, activists leading the calls for boycott are now planning a physical disruption of the screening of The Swimmer on Friday. 

“We're essentially asking the Melbourne Queer Film Festival to adopt the [BDS] policy and set the landscape for Australian film festivals, particularly the queer ones,” Hourani told VICE.

“We're hoping that it’s the first domino, because it's such a big festival. If they were the ones to set this landscape, a lot of other places would follow too.”