The Savior and the Vandal: Jerusalem Film Festival and Religious Fundamentalism

Earlier this year, Alesia Weston was hired as the new Executive Director of the Jerusalem Film Center in Israel; this is the body that hosts the annual Jerusalem Film Festival, now in its 29th year (it ran from July 5-14.)  It was hoped by many that Weston’s impressive and long history at the Sundance Institute would be a boon to the Jerusalem Film Festival.  This was evidenced by several articles in the papers and magazines.   She arrived in Israel in April, and so excited by the prospect of what she would bring to the table, the newspaper Haaretz went so far as to refer to her as “Jerusalem’s cinematic savior.”  Weston now leads an institution which was founded, along with the Jerusalem Cinematheque, by Lia Van Leer, a woman referred to by some media as the Israeli film industry’s ‘first lady.’  Expectations are very high for Weston.

Alesia Weston

This brings me to a sad point in what seems to be an exciting new chapter for the festival, which, according to an article in Variety (see below), has been somewhat plagued by problems over the past few years.  There have been several instances of Jerusalem Film Festival’s poster being vandalized.  The design includes a woman in a dress riding a bike (see below for image).  The reasons for the vandalism are based on Jewish religious fundamentalist beliefs which oppose the display of women’s images in public.    (Also worthy of a mention is that the festival has also been a venue for protests calling attention to alleged torture of Palestinian prisoners by Israel during interrogations, a topic rarely discussed, at least in U.S. media.   For a story and slideshow on this, please visit this link.)  These instances of vandalism of the poster are sad for the obvious reason that under this type of fundamentalist practice and lifestyle, women do not exist in the public sphere.  That’s over half of humanity who are told that they have no place within the world outside of the home, and what’s more, are actively prevented from venturing outside of it, in part through this type of vandalism which expresses oppressive attitudes.


But this act of defacing posters is also sad, and of course, disturbing, because the new director of the festival is a woman.  The festival poster features a woman, and the festival clearly wants to attract women through this type of marketing.  The defacing of the poster represents more than just a religious objection to women’s images in public, it represents an effort to “de-face” (read: remove) the presence and existence of women within the public sphere (read: masculine domain) as well as within a festival that celebrates cinematic achievement and storytelling which includes women as performers and as filmmakers.  (I wish I could show an example of a vandalized poster, but my time spent looking for one didn’t result in anything.  If any reader can locate one, please send me the link.)

The defacing and vandalizing of the film festival’s posters has happened within about two months of the arrival of Alesia Weston to Israel, and during the wake of frenzied excitement about what her presence means.  Her being named head of the JFC/JFF was a topic covered within major media such as Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post in Israel, and Variety, Filmmaker magazine, and The Hollywood Reporter in the U.S.  (See below for a timeline.)

Lia Van Leer

Is Alesia Weston “Jerusalem’s cinematic savior”?  Would her face, too, on a poster in public be defaced based on religious oppposition to her mere presence within that public space? Sadly, there is little coverage of the vandalism.  Even on Twitter, most mentions of the festival have to do with filmmakers’ screenings, individual films, or the occasional mention of Weston’s new position there.

What I am most interested in is something that I will likely never know: how is Alesia Weston going to deal with the religious opposition to the representation of the Israeli cinematic institution she now leads?

Below is a timeline of articles surfacing about Alesia Weston taking up her new position in Jerusalem as well as an article on the defacing of the JFF poster:

April 5, 2012
Screen Daily
“Alesia Weston to Head Jerusalem Film Center”

April 9, 2012
Filmmaker Magazine
“Alesia Weston Named New Head of Jerusalem Film Center”

April 11, 2012
Jewish Journal
“From Sundance to Jerusalem”

April 16, 2012
The Hollywood Reporter
“Alesia Weston Takes Executive Director Role at the Jerusalem Film Center”

June 25, 2012
Haaretz
“Film festival posters depicting a drawing of a woman vandalized in Jerusalem”

July 5, 2012
Haaretz
“Jerusalem’s cinematic savior ready for her close up”

July 10, 2012
Jerusalem Post
“The Jerusalem Film Festival So Far”

July 14, 2012
Variety
“Femme Filmmakers Battle Intolerance:
Jerusalem Film Festival faces religious fundamentalists”

About Alesia Weston:  

She is a member of the Advisory Committee — International (United States) of the Jerusalem International Film Lab. Her experience in the industry includes stints at Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street Productions, Imagine Entertainment and the American Film Institute.  She has been with Sundance since 2003 and has run the Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award for emerging filmmakers, has overseen the year-round Feature Film Program, and led the Screenwriting Labs in Turkey and South Africa.

About the Jerusalem Film Festival:
Visit the website at http://www.jff.org.il/.

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