In Protesting MQFF, Queer Palestinians Are Holding Storytelling Institutions Accountable

Melbourne Queer Film Festival had an opportunity to be part of a story we will one day be able to tell: the story of a free Palestine.

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When I was 18, I moved back to Australia for university, having spent the previous decade living in the Gulf.

For the first few years after my return, I lived in Naarm/Melbourne and didn’t talk about my background or identity. Instead, I listened.

I heard people talking about refugee ‘queue jumpers’ on the tram; I sat at dinner tables and was told that violence was ‘part of my religion’; and I heard Palestinian human rights being debated in my university lecture halls. I learned what the narrative of White Australia had sold to people, and that my story as a stateless Palestinian refugee and queer Muslim woman had been coopted by those in power for political gain.

In 2014, during the second year of my undergraduate degree, I went for a walk with a First Nations friend, Indi. It was around the time that there had been backlash in Bendigo surrounding the development of a local mosque, and I told Indi how I was feeling about the way Muslims were being talked about in the news. I told her about the conversations I’d been overhearing, and the things that had been said directly to me at the residential college we were living in. I told her my story — how a refugee, displaced by the creation of another settler colony, came to be a citizen of this one.

Indi and I shared our experiences of White Australia and, in that moment, realised the power of storytelling — how it can be an impetus for change, help us reclaim our narratives, and allow us to reimagine an alternate reality. That realisation opened my eyes and, since 2018, I’ve been involved with, and led, a grassroots non-profit that’s focused on storytelling.

The Power Of Storytelling In Social Justice Movements

Many social justice movements throughout history were, at their core, battles of stories. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a critical social protest campaign that was part of the civil rights movement against racial segregation in the United States; the Irish National Land League sought to abolish landlordism and enable tenant farmers to own the land they worked on; the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which is a permanent protest site that began in 1972 calling for Indigenous Land Rights — these stories are timeless because they illustrate the universality of our values, how intertwined our struggles are, and how necessary it is for us to come together in the pursuit of justice.

This year, Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF) had an opportunity to be part of a story we will one day be able to tell: the story of a free Palestine.

In March, MQFF produced MQFF Together, a smaller festival that aimed to bring people together after the cancellation of the 2020 festival due to COVID.

Eytan Fox’s film Sublet was included in the lineup, along with a retrospective of the director’s previous films. Fox’s films have been widely criticised for engaging in pinkwashing, which is the practice of promoting an image of Israel as a queer-friendly idyll and Palestinians as inherently intolerant and backward people. Stories that pinkwash Israeli apartheid erase the atrocities committed against queer Palestinians, and all Palestinians, including the theft of our land and resources, and the denial of our human rights. To this day, Israel threatens to out queer Palestinians who do not cooperate with the occupying forces.

In response to MQFF’s March program, Muhib Nabulsi, a queer Palestinian, raised their concerns of pinkwashing with festival organisers. Nabulsi was told that pinkwashing is a ‘matter of personal opinion’. So, a social media campaign was subsequently launched and a counter-screening of Dean Spade’s Pinkwashing Exposed was organised. At the time, we had hoped that MQFF would consider our concerns in future programming.

However, a few weeks ago, MQFF released the programme for their 2021 festival. Again, they included a film that pinkwashes Israeli apartheid, The Swimmer, which had also received government funding from the apartheid State.

Again, queer Palestinians raised their programming concerns with MQFF. In response, MQFF released two statements — the second of which claimed that the festival ‘strives to curate queer content and feature stories that represent the diversity of LGBTIQ+ communities’ and ‘change lives through the experience of shared stoties’.

The festival’s statement and actions erase the intersection between queer liberation and the liberation of Palestine.

However, the statement referred to queer Palestinians and our allies as ‘BDS supporters’ and referred to those who want the film to remain as programmed as ‘community members’. In doing so, MQFF isolated and externalised queer Palestinians, and our allies, from MQFF’s community. Festival organisers went on to claim that they strive to be ‘apolitical’, disregarding the fact that queerness is inherently political.

The festival’s statement and actions erase the intersection between queer liberation and the liberation of Palestine. Politicisation is not a choice that a festival or an individual can make — it is the product of living in a society in which everyday systems and structures are not built with communities like ours in mind.

A Shifting Balance Of Power

In May this year, we saw Palestinians take to social media as they fought to save their homes, villages, and lives. Social media provided an opportunity to amplify our stories on our own terms. We no longer had to beg storytelling institutions to include our voices — we had all the tools we needed to share our unfiltered and uncensored truth. As platforms become increasingly accessible to us, the power and relevance of storytelling institutions wanes. The balance of power is shifting.

The power that institutions once had when deciding which stories were to be platformed and which were not is dwindling, while the power individual community members have to share their stories on their own terms is rising. And this is not limited to Palestine. Activists from Sudan, Kashmir, East Turkestan, and Tigray, among others, continue to take to social media, using their stories to inspire people to action. Yassmin Abdel-Magied took to social media in light of the coup in Sudan. Subhi Bora has been continuously and tirelessly shedding light on the Uyghur genocide. Apryl Day, through founding Dhadjowa Foundation, supports and platforms the voices and stories of the family members of Aboriginal people who have died in police custody.

Activists and storytellers around the world will continue sharing the stories of our communities through the growing power of our own platforms. Storytelling institutions like MQFF need to align themselves with the values of the communities they claim to represent. More so, they need to be brave enough to pursue values and share stories that subvert hegemonic and colonial narratives.

Storytelling has a long history of catalysing social justice movements, and queerness is historically underpinned by radical and progressive politics.

In response to the campaign calling on MQFF to adopt a cultural boycott, more than 10 filmmakers have pulled their films from the festival’s program in solidarity with queer Palestinians. Two MQFF board members, Molly Whelan and Nayuka Gorrie, have also resigned in solidarity. In Nayuka’s resignation letter, they said ‘as an Indigenous person of this place, allowing myself or any organisation I’m part of to be used in the propaganda machinery of a settler state makes me sick and sad’.

In Molly’s resignation, they stated that ‘if MQFF is to survive and thrive in the coming years’ it is ‘imperative that the festival stays true to its rich history and to the spirit of queer liberation by supporting the protest actions of those in our community who face ongoing persecution’.

Storytelling has a long history of catalysing social justice movements, and queerness is historically underpinned by radical and progressive politics. It’s time both of these histories are embraced by MQFF.

Junkee has reached out to MQFF for comment.

Jeanine Hourani is a queer Palestinian activist, organiser, and storyteller. She is the director of Road to Refuge, an organisation that aims to change the narrative around refugees and people seeking asylum.