As some of you know, my film EXILE, A MYTH UNEARTHED, which examines the myth of the Jewish EXILE and its political impact on both Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, was going to be shown on the BBC Thursday April 25th. It was pulled out of the schedule only a few days earlier.
Since than I was flooded by dozens of emails of angry and concerned viewers asking what happened. To be honest I debated whether to tell the story of what I think had happened. I have worked with the BBC in the past on some programs that were deemed controversial and I never had any political censorship. On the contrary I was impressed by the integrity and fairness of the people I dealt with.
So based on my past experience, I was going to wait patiently until the BBC programming executives would solve the internal drama that apparently has begun to brew inside the BBC. “The film is gorgeous, courageous and fresh, “ I was told several times by the programming executives. I was promised that the cancellation was temporary: “Given the short timescale and your workload, we have decided to delay transmission until we’ve had the chance you’ve had the chance to go through it in detail”.
I naively believed and decided to wait quietly. But things have their own momentum and as I learned more, I realized that the story of “EXILE” in the BBC is far more complex.
Among the dozens of emails I received one caught my attention. It included the official email response from the BBC to the inquiry/complaint sent to irate viewers who contacted the BBC asking why the program was pulled out of the schedule. This email contradicted a private email sent to me by the programming executives. I was intrigued.
I discovered after quick research that while I was contacted by the BBC barely a week before the broadcast asking for my comments about the cut, the BBC have had the film for almost 6 months. So why was this sudden rush which supposedly was the excuse given to me as to why the film was pulled out? Why was I contacted so late in the game? And why was there a discrepancy between what was told to me and the “official” version . I started to dig a bit deeper and to put my findings in a blog, rather than answer the dozens of people who wrote to me privately.
This is not a personal issue. This is ultimately a sad saga of what I believe is a mixture of incompetence, political naiveté, conscious or subconscious political pressure and ultimately, I believe, a lack of courage of broadcasters when they are faced with the complexity of the Middle East issue and the intense emotions, fears and aggression it generates. Once you indeed depersonalize this incident, you gain a fascinating insight on how subtle and complex is the process by which our understanding of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is being shaped and what happens when one dares to raise questions about issues deemed by some as taboos. It is this insight that I think is worth sharing and detailing.
The story begins for me with the name. I discovered only 3 days before the broadcast that the BBC has been using a different name for the film: Jerusalem – An Archeological Mystery Story. It struck me as an odd choice that seems to camouflage the film’s real subject and repackages it as a neutral archeological mystery of sort- like the hundreds of hours one can see on cable and Satellite channels throughout the world.
“ Exile” of course is not about a mystery, neither it is limited to archeology or to Jerusalem. The name and the illusion that one can pretend that this film is just about archeology and its mysteries are at the core I believe of Thursday’s fiasco.
Digging deeper I also learned that this title was established back in November 2012 in the agreement between the National Film Board of Canada (one of the film’s co producers and its int’l distributor) and the BBC. Unknown to me at the time it was also agreed that my name would be removed and the version would be listed as an adaptation. I do remember being approached by the NFB (National Film Board of Canada ) asking me if I would allow the BBC to cut the film down. I asked, and was promised, that the BBC would consult with me on the cut down so the integrity of the longer version (104 min) would be preserved. From my access to some internal documents, it is obvious now that the BBC was not genuinely interested in my getting involved. As the documents suggest, they realized that they could always rely on the solution to have my name removed and list the version as an “adaption”.
So back in November 2012, everything seemed to be on track to produce a cut down of the film without having to deal with the director, broadcast the film under a neutral title and hopefully avoid any serious political debate. A perfect solution! So what went wrong?
Fast forward to Saturday April 20th 2013 when I received an email from a friend in the UK who saw that “my” film Jerusalem; An Archeological Mystery Story was going to be broadcast on BBC 4. He even read a preview of it in the Guardian. The preview promised that the film “ will ruffle some feathers”. Two days earlier I did receive from the editor who cut the film a copy of the cut for me to comment on, but there was no mention of an impeding broadcast date!
On Monday, 3 days before the broadcast, I fired an email to the BBC programming executives complaining that it is unfair to expect me to spend time reviewing the cut and coming up with suggestions of a re cut, when I was given only a few days before a broadcast date that no one bothered to inform me about. I pleaded for more time. It was only when one of the programming executives called me, I realized that there were much bigger issues for her than my complaint about being pushed into an impossible schedule.
The program executive seemed genuinely shocked that a freelance employee hired by the BBC to take part in the re-versioning process called the film “propaganda”. When I asked if this unnamed person had specific examples to support such a sweeping charge, I was told that she claimed that , “Everything was propaganda”. And there was more.
An “unnamed” BBC insider who I was told “liked the film,” claimed that the film props up the myth of Exile “ which we all know did not happen, in order to support his political analysis”. I learned that the cut I was given was now irrelevant, since some internal review deemed one scène with the Palestinians to be “too emotive” and they were asked to cut it down. Realizing that a mini political storm was brewing around the film and attacks lodged against its integrity, I asked and was promised that I would be given at least a summary of the essential charges so I could answer them in length. I am obviously very familiar with some of them and could easily and in detail refute them. I told the programming executive that my reply would help them to defend the film in the Channel. After all, they professed to love the film and seemed genuinely interested to show it. I told them it was very easy for me to prepare a detailed rebuttal with citation of sources for every word of the narration, the overall analysis and for every scene. I told them that some of the academic participants in the program who saw the cut and are reputable scholars in their field did not find any factual errors or misrepresentations of facts or of the historical narrative. In other words, I argued that such a detailed and substantial defense would convince any objective reader and observer of the editorial integrity of the film. I repeated the request several times yet I never got a reply. Instead, I received an email telling me that they decided to pull it out of the schedule, citing the “ short timetable and my work load “( !) A few days later I saw the “official” version that went to the public:
“We originally acquired ‘Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story’ to supplement BBC Four’s season exploring the history of archaeology. However, we have decided that it doesn’t fit editorially and are no longer planning to show it as part of the season. Plans to broadcast the program are currently under review” So Exile, A myth unearthed has begun its own exile within the BBC.
I do believe it is ultimately a sad saga. A saga of well meaning programming executives who acquired the “courageous “ film they claim to love, believing that they can sneak it by with a “neutral title”. When they were “caught”, rather than face the criticism and be helped by the mountains of documents and dates I was ready to send them, they panicked like deer in the headlights not knowing what to do and eventually raised their hands in resignation.
The truth of the matter is that the reaction outside and inside the BBC surprised me too. The film by now has been shown in a Jewish Festival in Toronto, playing in a screening room there for a week. It was shown on Canadian TV with a second broadcast planned for June. Another version of the film is scheduled to be shown in France and Switzerland ,with hopefully screenings in the US later in the year. The response in all the public screenings, some of which I attended, was overall extremely positive. Nowhere did the film generate such a reaction as that of the few individuals inside and outside the BBC.
The temporary success to “exile” the film might prove I believe to be a pyrrhic victory.
EXILE does not deal with contemporary politics in the Middle East, rather, it proposes to examine their ideological and historical underpinnings. EXILE has not contributed to the political stalemate in the region nor to the continued bloodshed, occupation and violence. It is a film born out of the continued violence. Rather than propose a simplistic solution or an aspirational political program , it tries to suggest a possible way out by re examining the historical narratives we all grew up on, suggesting that in this tormented land there are historical models of co existence and tolerance that could replace the dominant conventional nationalist ones. Silencing this film is silencing a possibility of discussion, debate and re examination not of the current political stalemate but of the intellectual stalemate that contributes to it.
I hope that somewhere in the BBC someone will rise above the hysteria and the attempts at self censorship to take a cooler look at the film and realize how it has been profoundly mis-characterized , -viewing it through partisan glasses instead of looking at it for what it is: a film that can and has already in its public screenings generated dialogue and positive, thinking rather than perpetuating divisions and polarization.
So for me this is not the end of EXILE in the UK but only the beginning. I will show the film publically throughout the UK and will challenge the BBC to either broadcast the film or relinquish its rights. I have offered to buy these rights so I could place the film elsewhere in the UK.
The saga of EXILE will continue. Stay tuned!