Talking Israel, Jews and anti-Semitism at Amsterdam film festival

Talking Israel, Jews and anti-Semitism at Amsterdam film festival

AMSTERDAM — A hushed crowd filed into a standing-room-only space above the Escape Club in Amsterdam last week to hear the Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Maziar Bahari describe the four months he spent in a Tehran jail.

Bahari was arrested without charge in June following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In tones of compassion and respect for what he had endured — physical abuse, interrogations, solitary confinement — he was peppered with questions: on the prospects for real democracy in Iran, on the fate of his comrades in the struggle for reform, even about his grandmother.

Hours later, no less than 30 people were turned away from a sold-out Nov. 22 screening of “the definitive documentary” about leftist professor Norman Finkelstein, an aggressive critic of Israel who was denied a tenure bid at DePaul University despite the support of much of his department.

And the following day, a similarly large audience was generally respectful in its questioning of several left-leaning Israeli filmmakers who, despite the session’s topic being the media and the Middle East, veered into a wide-ranging and critical discussion of Israeli state policy.

But politeness has its limits at the world’s largest documentary film festival, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, a 10-day cinematic extravaganza that draws filmmakers and enthusiasts from around the globe. The general tendency toward supportive and constructive questioning fell away at a Q&A session following the world premiere of “U.N. Me,” a Michael Moore-ish critique of the world body’s failures, starting with its inability to prevent genocide in Rwanda and condemn genocide in Sudan.

“The first guy got up and yelled out, ‘Bush puppet,'” co-director Ami Horowitz said.

Still, Horowitz insisted, the attendees provided plenty of positive feedback. And at least his film made the cut — it was rejected by three American festivals.