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BDS Egypt Vs Zawya: A Fight on the Layers of Nuance

After programming The Insult by controversial director Ziad Doueiri, is BDS Egypt right to call for a boycott of the film?

In the Oscar-nominated film The Insult, two equally stubborn but very different protagonists – a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon and a right-wing Christian mechanic -  turn an initially trivial incident into a full blown court room fist fight that consumes an entire nation. What the confrontation reveals is that nuance is drowned in the larger context, condemning the person in front of us to a mere representation of a wider reality. The other is lost in the margins, swallowed by the larger narrative, wickedly reduced to the one unforgiving symbol that gets the blood boiling and the fists clenching. 

The past few days, another confrontation has been taking place: one between BDS Egypt (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and Zawya Cinema. The courtroom here is social media and the point of contention is The Insult’s controversial Lebanese director, Ziad Doueiri. In 2012, Doueiri directed The Attack, a drama about a successful Arab Israeli surgeon whose life is shattered when he learns that his wife was the perpetrator of a deadly suicide attack. Based on the best-selling novel by acclaimed Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, The Attack sparked an uproar and was subsequently banned in Lebanon and several other Arab countries. The reason? The film was based and shot in Tel Aviv. The director – who also holds a Western passport - had bypassed Lebanese laws prohibiting citizens from traveling to or doing business with the Israelis.

To many, Doueiri crossed a red line. His decision to collaborate with the enemy was seen as an act of normalization with Israel and of betrayal to the Palestinian cause. Is nuance again drowned by the larger context here? Is filming part of the film in Israel sufficient in itself to indict Ziad Doueiri for normalization? This is up for debate. What isn’t though is that Doueiri set foot and filmed in Israel. As such, irrespective of the actual plot and subplots of the film, there can be no debate here that the film is - at least partially – an Israeli product. Inevitably, a regional boycott campaign followed. The fact that The Attack was made by an Arab was the ultimate punch, an unredeemable act that made Zoueiri persona non grata to many artists in the Middle East, and his films indigestible to Arab nationalists and Pro-Palestinian activists.

A few years ago, the Panorama of the European Film - an annual festival hosted by Zawya – decided not to include The Attack as part of their 2013 lineup (the film is co-produced by France and Belgium making it eligible for selection) citing their adherence to the core principles of BDS and their refusal to integrate into their selection any title with a link to the state of Israel. 

Fast-forward to the present day and a Ziad Doueiri film is currently playing at Zawya. The difference between The Attack and The Insult can be found in nuance. The grounds for boycott then was the film, the grounds for boycott now is the director. The Zawya team argue that The Insult does not contradict the principles of BDS, because it “was not made with any financial support from the Israeli state, nor is it directly engaged in Israeli propaganda.” They believe that if they succumb to pressure and withdraw the film, they would set a dangerous precedent in which only films from directors they agree with politically can be eligible for selection, a programming criterion they regard as authoritative and going against the values of freedom of expression. 

On the other side of the courtroom, BDS Egypt believe that Zoueiri’s transgression into enemy territory is an unforgivable act of treason that warrants a boycott of his collective body of work. To activists of BDS, artists who support normalization should have no place in Egyptian cinemas, no platform for expression. As such, they regard Zawya’s decision to screen Doueiri’s film as a tacit endorsement of the director’s presumed support for normalization with Israel, and are calling for a boycott of the film. 

And this is the most interesting aspect of this feud. Generally, when it comes to issues pertaining to the general Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the courtroom’s protagonists are on opposite ends of the political spectrum: Pro-Israeli vs. Pro-Palestinian. Here the protagonists are ultimately on the same side. Nobody is disputing the reality of colonization, the pain of occupation or the policies of discrimination. Instead, what is being debated here lies within a tight space; and the danger of tight spaces is that they often generate narrow conclusions. 

BDS is a vital expression of non-violent resistance to oppression and occupation. At times though, it can also be a bit shortsighted. In this particular case, BDS Egypt has stripped away from Zawya the right to nuance, the right to choose how to operate in that tight space. By doing so, they have enclosed a much needed debate in even narrower parameters, unwilling to see that beyond the stubbornness of their positions, lies a bigger field where a more inclusive and sensible approach is needed to move forward towards a more productive and collective expression of resistance. BDS Egypt and Zawya Cinema are on the same boat; what they disagree on is the size of that boat. If we begin to remove nuance from the conversation, the boat will become smaller, and the destination further. 

Personally, although I adhere to the general principles of BDS, I still think that cultural - and to some extent academic - boycotts are a counter-productive element of the movement. Both are spaces for exchange, and punishing artists or academics - even from unsavoury governments - only end up reinforcing the narrative of victimization that Israeli and Zionist hardliners enjoy spinning to justify their continued oppression. Furthermore, it risks alienating those on the other side whose voices are worth listening to. 

And let us be lucid here; Netanyahu is certainly not losing any sleep over the fate of Ziad Doueiri’s films in the Arab world nor is Gaza’s misery going to subside if Lorde plays in Tel Aviv. So why is so much effort targeting the cultural field?  

Perhaps because it is an attainable goal. Israel’s economy and technological innovations are deeply intertwined with global business interests. Convincing countries to halt trade with Israel and pressuring multinationals to withdraw from the country is much harder. And certainly trying to reverse the government’s decision to normalize relations with Israel seems like an impossible task. 

On the other hand, asking someone not to watch The Insult in a small arthouse cinema - even though it contributes in no way to economy of Israel - is achievable. We feel impotent to enact true change so we pick the easy fights. Unfortunately, the easy fights are rarely the ones worth undertaking. They feed the ego of the group more than they drive the objectives of the cause.  

If BDS Egypt eventually succeeds in putting enough pressure on Zawya to withdraw The Insult from their theatre, I truly hope that they won't be oblivious to the irony of calling for a boycott against an entity with no Zionist ties on a social media platform with clear Zionist ties.