Israel-Iran relations blur line between art and politics at India film festival

Art is often seen as a bridge between cultures, but a recent event at the International Film Festival of India proves it can be used as a wedge and a weapon—which is exactly how it went when Iran prohibited one of its citizens, the filmmaker Tahmineh Milani, from sitting on a jury panel with an Israeli.

After Danish (Jewish) filmmaker Susanne Bier resigned her post on the festival’s jury for reasons that are unclear, festival programmers replaced her with Israeli director Dan Wolman. But that didn’t sit well among some elements in Iran who reportedly pressured a resistant Milani to step down.


“We are not politicians, and we have no problem working together,” Milani told the Times of India, according to a report in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. “Cinema is not bound by political boundaries; its appeal is universal.”

But an authoritarian regime pays no mind to boundaries—political, artistic or otherwise—and the harshness and intensity of the criticism at home forced Milani to step down. According to reports, the festival cited Milani’s father’s deteriorating health as the reason for her departure, but anyone with a semblance of media proficiency knows it was likely the Iranian regime that stopped her.

In a letter that Milani sent to the Iranian news agency Fars following her withdrawal, she commented, “None of the jury members attending the international festivals are representatives of their country. These jury members are different from athletes who are sent to represent their countries.”

“I still cannot believe why my presence as the jury member beside the independent filmmaker who himself disapproves of his country’s politics provoked such widespread criticism by some in Iran,” Milani said.

Whitewashing Wolman’s presence by depicting him as a critic of the Israeli government didn’t seem to help. An increasingly hostile and increasingly nuclear Iran has raised tensions between the two countries to a boiling point, not to mention, complicated the relationship between Israel and its closest ally, the United States.

During a recent appearance at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta back-pedaled on American assurances to support Israel in the event of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Following a speech in which Panetta said unequivocally that he “would like to underscore one thing that has stayed constant over the past three years of [the Obama] administration” is “[t]he determination of the United States to safeguard Israel’s security. And that commitment will not change.”

But moments later, when he was asked by Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow at the Saban Center, how long a military attack on Iran might postpone its nuclear program, he did not give the impression that he believes a military attack would be very successful.

“(A)t best it might postpone it maybe one, possibly two years, ” Panetta said, adding that his main concern is that a military attack could negatively impact the U.S.

“[T]he United States would obviously be blamed,” Panetta said. “[A]nd we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases. Fourthly – there are economic consequences to that attack – severe economic consequences that could impact a very fragile economy in Europe and a fragile economy here in the United States.”

As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out on his blog:

Panetta is stating fairly clearly the Obama Administration’s belief that an Israeli attack on Iran would hurt the American economy. What Panetta was doing at the Saban Forum was throwing the mother of all brushback pitches. Without saying so explicitly, it seems as if he is threatening Prime Minister Netanyahu with a rupture in relations between the U.S. and Israel, should Israel unilaterally attack Iran.

What’s clear is that the escalating Iranian threat—as it applies to both art and politics—has undermined the ability of allies or those who would-be allies to get along.