How dare you, Ken!

Ken Loach has endorsed a threat to boycott the Edinburgh Film Festival over an Israeli film. Fellow director Gary Sinyor cries foul

Saturday 30 May 2009 00:00 BST

The Edinburgh Film Festival holds a special place in my heart. It was where the world premiere of Leon the Pig Farmer took place. Nervous beyond words, paranoid that no one would buy tickets, we walked through the doors of the Film House. The place was packed to the rafters; the film went down a storm, and a couple of days later, Vadim Jean and I were the proud recipients of an engraved heavy chunk of metal – the Charles Chaplin Award. Winning in Venice a week later was stylish, but nothing compared to that first, surprising, Scottish accolade.

Yet today, I am writing to the Edinburgh Film Festival and asking for my name to be taken off their records. I am removing Winner, Best British Film, Edinburgh 1992 from my CV. If I could cut the award in half and send half back I would. And here's why.

Last week, The Scotsman printed a story about an Israeli film invited to Edinburgh for this year's festival. The Israeli embassy had agreed to pay £300 for the director, Tali Shalom Ezer, to fly over. Festivals are often strapped for cash and so government bodies step in and help out.

There doesn't seem to be any dispute about what happened next. A Palestinian campaign group called Socialist Unity launched a campaign to have the money returned – or else it would boycott the whole festival. EIFF managing director Ginnie Atkinson told them where to get off in a strong and coherent statement (according to The Scotsman) in which she said not accepting support from one particular country "would set a dangerous precedent by politicising a cultural and artistic mission".

So far, so much agreement. Enter Ken Loach.

Ken Loach took it upon himself publicly to endorse the boycott of the entire Edinburgh Film Festival. And hey presto! The EIFF suddenly decided to give the money back to the Israeli embassy. According to The Scotsman, the EIFF said: "Although the festival is considered wholly cultural and apolitical, we consider the opinions of the film industry as a whole and, as such, accept that one film-maker's recent statement speaks on behalf of the film community, therefore we will be returning the funding issued by the Israeli embassy."

I've tried making sense of that but I can't. It's possible that Ken was speaking on behalf of all film directors/writers and producers worldwide, but my phone never rang so at best it would be the entire global film community minus one. If someone at the EIFF made an absolute howler of a comment to The Scotsman, it should admit the mistake publicly. It hasn't.

We can only assume, therefore, that Ken Loach exerted sufficient pressure on the festival that one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world actually caved in.

It's a shame that Ken feels particularly strongly about not having anything to do with Israel or Israeli money.

It's shame because clearly Israelis obviously like Ken. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (dir Ken Loach) was distributed in Israel in 2006. Ae Fond Kiss (dir Ken Loach) in 2004. Perhaps he insists his films only get shown in Gaza. Even then, though, he is supporting the Israeli economy and, therefore, the government. Is he happy to take the money or does the thought that it may have paid for a tank, or a bullet, keep him awake? When a two-state solution comes, will Ken rejoice, or will he stamp his feet in frustration along with the President of Iran, because Israel is allowed to exist?

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There is a much more serious point here than one film-maker's hypocrisy. To argue that Israeli money, or Israeli government money, is tainted, and shouldn't be accepted as legitimate currency by a third party, is to equate Israel with a solely terrorist entity, rather than a country. It's a little thing, I know, to get worked up about, £300. But the principle is beyond huge. Type in the words "Israel", "rescue" and "earthquake" into Google. Peru, China, Turkey. Should they all should have said no to the Israeli government's offer of help? Is there nothing redeemable, no help worth accepting, from the entire country? Support for film-makers, schools, hospitals, Israel does all this as well as buying weapons. It's what countries do. If Jordan and Egypt can work with the Israeli government, why can't the Edinburgh Film Festival?

The charge of extremism, whether extreme anti-Zionism or extreme anti-Semitism, for it makes zero difference, must be firmly laid at the door of those who single out Israel as the global pariah state.

Loach's argument ignores the fact that Israel is a country. Like Britain, it's a modern democracy that suffers from political corruption. Like Britain, a country that can dazzle across the spectrum of human achievement. Like Britain, a country of rich and poor. Like Britain, a country that can be very tolerant of diversity and yet still harbours its fair share of racism. Like Britain, it has gone to war of late, with superior firepower to the enemy – although one could argue that Hamas is more of a direct threat to Israelis than Saddam ever was to the UK.

Look around you, before deciding as Ken and his supporters have, that only the shekel is non grata.

To repress the freedom of a film festival, to blackmail it, because it has accepted £300 from a government body to fly over a film-maker is petty and outrageous. Ken may as well call for Heathrow to be closed because British Airways flies to Tel Aviv.

Critically, though, to acquiesce to this blackmail is more outrageous still. The very job of Heathrow is to fly people around. The job of the EIFF is to be a film festival. Film festivals worldwide take money from countries to fund film-makers.

The EIFF needs to think hard and publicly. To be seen to give in to extremists is simply not an option.

Behind the camera

Gary Sinyor is a Manchester-born film director who shot to prominence in 1992 as the co-writer, co-producer and co-director of Leon the Pig Farmer, a comedy about a Jewish estate agent from London who discovers that, thanks to a botched artificial insemination attempt, his real father is a Yorkshire swineherd.

The film won numerous awards at the Venice and Edinburgh film festivals, saw him named as the best newcomer by the London Critics' Circle and established him as a purveyor of British whimsy and broad romantic humour. Since then, Sinyor has directed a slew of rom-coms, including Stiff Upper Lips, a parody of the Merchant Ivory classic A Room with a View starring Peter Ustinov and Prunella Scales, and The Bachelor, a Hollywood wedding caper starring Renée Zellwegger and Chris O'Donnell.

In 2007, he was executive producer on In the Hands of the Gods, a documentary film about five British football fans travelling across Argentina in search of their hero, Diego Maradona.

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