An Open Letter to Our Community

The following was originally published in June 2015…

Out On Screen’s mandate is celebrating, illuminating, and advancing queer lives through film, education, and dialogue. Whether in cinemas or in classrooms, our role is to make space for people to see and engage with diverse, intersectional representations of gender and sexuality that reflect the diversity of our communities. Our work aims to make visible our communities’ experiences and to foster acceptance, belonging, and connection.

As a queer organization, we are an inherently political organization. We recognize the multitude of intersecting oppressions affecting queer peoples. As such, we value an intersectional and anti-oppressive approach to social justice and social change. We recognize anti-oppression frameworks originated from anti-racism organizing, scholarship and practice; we understand the current and broader concept as they intersect with gender and sexual diversity. We know that this requires ongoing work to ensure that we do not perpetuate other forms of oppression in our organization and programming.

Over the past 3 years, and in 2014 especially, Out On Screen has been urged by our community members to a place outside our comfort zone and into a period of intense reflection, investigation, and humility.

The issue that is of paramount importance to some members of our community is the Festival’s stance on Israel. There has been incredible, and polarized, debate regarding our choices when we’ve presented queer Israeli film, or when we’ve published advertising from a local group that presents the Israeli flag alongside a Pride flag.

Community response—from activist groups to festival artists and members—has urged us to consider the viewpoint that whether we have been doing so intentionally or not, the dissemination of Israeli cultural products serve the efforts of Israel’s Brand Israel tourism strategy, and is a form of pinkwashing that ignores the growing international movement in support of Palestinian civil society and UN resolutions against the state. They urge us to show solidarity with the people of Palestine by rejecting art or academia from Israel. They understand it to be counter to our mission to allow the Israeli flag to appear in an ad in our festival guide.

From the other side of the debate, response has been impassioned. National and local organizations, festival artists and members have cautioned against excluding art or advertisers based on their nationality or national affiliations. Doing so, they say, is not a boycott; it could even be fuelled by anti-Semitism. Why Israel?, they ask, and not Iran, China, the U.S., or even Canada for our colonial history and legacies? They urge us to maintain a strong commitment to free speech, and take an ongoing stand against censorship of any form, especially since queer history knows the weight of censorship all too well.

This larger debate is an enormous one, an entrenched legacy of the 20th century. Many of our families, networks and communities are shaped by our views and allegiances to this part of the world. This issue is so much larger than our regional community or even our queer and media communities. It could be easy to fall into the malaise of wondering if, in fact, there is anything that we can contribute to a process of peace and justice in Israel and Palestine from our vantage point as a queer film organization in Vancouver, Canada.

This is where we at Out On Screen have come to a broad consensus that we must articulate our position so we can better serve our communities. As an organization committed to social justice, we are being called on to be better than neutral, to step up as more than a film festival and media educators. There are times when neutral inaction is a form of action, and we have been reminded of ACT UP’s powerful call to action in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, “Silence=Death.”

Over the past three months we have worked to come to agreements that can guide the organization when working with this highly charged issue. Aftab Erfan (PhD) facilitated a process rooted in deep democracy that extended over a period of 6 weeks. While these sessions were challenging and charged, members of Out On Screen’s staff and board worked to reflect on the voices of community members, their own positions, and the mandate of the organization. While there still exists divergence of opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli occupation, through extensive and careful deliberation we have developed a deeper understanding of what we believe will best serve the organization and our mission.

As a queer organization, Out On Screen does not support pinkwashing—when the promotion of gay rights is used as a way to advance an identity of human rights leadership in order to obscure human rights violations. Additionally, these concerns extend to homonationalism—the promotion of gender and sexual rights when used as a way to demonstrate a nation state’s societal superiority in relation to other nation states; and corporate pinkwashing—when queer culture or identity is used by a corporation or brand to distract from its labour or environmental practices, or more. Out On Screen does not support political or corporate pinkwashing or homonationalism and will strive to be accountable to this position.

Out On Screen supports a just and peaceful solution for both Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Out On Screen recognizes that the Israeli occupation is understood differently by many people. We understand that this conflict is an asymmetrical one; we recognize and agree with international law which recognises the Israeli occupation’s systemization of control, dispossession, and violence.
We also recognize that Jews throughout history have suffered extensive persecution and Out On Screen does not support anti-Semitism in any form. We recognize the difficult fact that anti-Semitism takes many shapes and is often hidden within many critiques against the state of Israel; however, we also strongly believe that criticism of the state of Israel is healthy, even necessary, as it is for any state. In fact, we have heard from Israelis and Jewish queers and allies who believe it is a mitzvah (a good deed) to be active in the fight for the state they want, and for the just and lasting peace they would like to see the kernels of in this lifetime.

Some members of the community have urged us to join the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott. Members of our organization hold differing views on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as a whole and various elements of the Cultural Boycott. While we understand the boycott as a non-violent movement with a broad base of support in Palestinian civil society, we have decided to guide our future advertising/sponsorship processes and film curation on our own anti-oppression framework rather than joining the BDS call. Our strong consensus is that our role as curators is stronger as we remain focussed on convening around films that have the power to inspire change and celebration—while remaining true to our analysis that acknowledges and rejects pinkwashing.

Within our broader curatorial practice, we aim to convene critical, open dialogues around films that reflect our values of intersectionality, anti-oppression and social justice. When working with films from Israel and Palestine, we will work with films, filmmakers and community partners that are interested in critical dialogues about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli occupation. This includes Israeli filmmakers interested in participating in such dialogues. We are committed to the power of art to hold complexity and paradox, to surprise and cast issues in a new light, to enlighten, add nuance—and, importantly—to spark critical thought, action and engagement.

Additionally, we have developed a more robust advertising policy that will help us to work with advertisers who are aligned with the values of our organization. The main elements of which are as follows (the full policy can be read here).

Given the power of national symbols and the complexity of their legacies, we will no longer accept ads that include overt expressions of nationalism, either in the forms of symbols (e.g. national flags) or in wording (i.e. directly promoting the superiority of a nation or state), nor will we accept ads from organizations with the primary mandate of promoting nationalism.
With the exception of Canadian funding, we will not accept funding from governments, consulates or embassies except in the occasion that they may cover travel expenses for filmmakers in order to enrich the dialogue around critical issues highlighted in their films.
We will not accept advertising that conveys a negative religious message that might be deemed prejudicial to religious groups.
We will not accept hate speech or demeaning or derogatory portrayals of individuals or groups.

As an organization that stands up for queer and trans rights and values an intersectional and anti-oppressive approach to social justice and social change, we strive to create spaces in which our community members with opposing views and identities feel welcome and included. We will continue to stand strong as allies against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and the manipulation of any religion’s tenets as supposed justifications for violence.

Developing and outlining our position has been the result of a necessarily extensive and lengthy process. We have learned, through our guided process, that disagreement does not need to lead to alienation, though we recognize the risks. We wish to underscore our deep commitment to creating spaces that continue to inspire discussion, investigation and critique—and celebration. Yes, the fusion of art, queerness and social change can make for charged environments. This is the discomfort that comes with pluralism and healthy discourse. When, inevitably, we disagree, we urge our membership, allies and communities to remain aware of both our differences and our many points of connection.

Out On Screen—including the Vancouver Queer Film Festival and Out In Schools—will continue to lead and participate in the vitality of our queer movements and in making space for art to reflect and catalyze change. We hope you join us. There’s room for us all.

About the Process
Aftab Erfan (PhD) has worked in urban and regional planning for more than 10 years and currently teaches the Negotiation, Facilitation and Conflict Resolution class at the School for Community and Regional Planning at UBC among other classes and training. Aftab’s facilitation practice is the Deep Democracy methodology which works with tensions and conflict in order to engage broader sets of stakeholders in challenging and charged issues. Her dissertation was a community-based action research in a small Indigenous community on Vancouver Island. She has worked with multiple municipalities throughout the Lower Mainland as well as with varied non-profits, social entrepreneurship organizations, and social change groups.