IDFA Artistic Director Under Fire After Applauding “From the River to the Sea” Opening Night Protest

Orwa Nyrabia, the award-winning documentarian who has served as artistic director of the International Documentary Film Festival since 2018, is facing blistering criticism and calls for his resignation after being captured on video applauding as protesters interrupted the Amsterdam-based fest’s opening night ceremony on Wednesday while holding a banner proclaiming, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free,” a phrase widely understood to be a call for the elimination of the state of Israel.

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Sixteen high-profile members of the Israeli film community on Thursday signed a letter addressed to IDFA and the international film industry in which they expressed “uttermost dismay, disappointment and concern” at Nyrabia’s conduct on the biggest night of arguably the largest documentary film festival in the world. “We see this as a personal attack against us,” they declared. “We call on the director of IDFA, and on its board of directors, to clearly and resoundingly distance themselves, reject and denounce these calls for violence and withdraw any platform from those who knowingly incite for the annihilation of Israel, instigating violence and giving rise to antisemitic sentiments against Jews everywhere.”

The signatories include Assaf Amir, chairman of the Israeli Film Academy; Hagit Ben Yaakov, chairwoman of the Israeli Documentary Forum; Pnina Halfon Lang, executive director of CoPro — The Israeli Content Marketing Foundation; Adar Shafran, chairman of the Israeli Producers Union; Limor Pinhasov, chairwoman of the Israel Directors Guild; Ayala Sharot, chairwoman of the Animation Guild of Israel; Nadav Ben Simon, executive director of the Screen Writers Guild of Israel; Limor Haaronivtz of the Docaviv International Film Festival; Roni Mahadav of the Levin Jerusalem Film Festival; Yaron Shamir, artistic director of the Haifa Film Festival; Riki Blich, chairwoman of Shaham, The Israeli Actors Organization; Galy Reshef, chairman of ACT — The Israel Association of Cinema and TV Professionals; Tamir Hod of Cinema South Film Festival; Eli Ohana, chairman of Alma — Association for the Production Professions; Guy Lavie, vp, documentaries at yes TV; and Rinat Klein, head of Channel 8.

Numerous other Israeli filmmakers condemned Nyrabia’s behavior on social media. Nitzan Gilady wrote, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. This happened at the opening of the world’s largest documentary festival, with cheers from the audience and fimmakers.”

“This is not the way to express support for the just struggle of the Palestinian people,” said Noam Pinchas. “It’s a way to encourage hatred and death.” And Duki Dror opined, “It’s not just an anti-Israel sentiment from IDFA’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia, but his support for a crime against humanity.”

Meanwhile, Rick Trank, the Oscar-winning documentarian who runs the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films division, is calling for Nyrabia’s resignation. He said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, “The IDFA is supposed to be an international gathering of documentary filmmakers where a diverse range of films expressing the gamut of opinions are presented. It is not supposed to be a partisan event calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. What is even more disturbing is that this call took place in Amsterdam on the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom in Austria and Germany which saw synagogues, Jewish schools and institutions and Jewish businesses firebombed and thousands of Jews arrested, beaten and murdered.”

Trank continued, “Even more concerning is that this occurred at a time when antisemitic incidents in the Netherlands have increased more than eight-fold since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack. Jewish authorities in the Netherlands have cautioned Dutch Jews to be careful about wearing anything in public that identifies them as Jews as antisemitic incidents have been occurring at the most alarming rate since the Holocaust. Many Jews have stopped wearing yarmulkes and stars of David in public and others have removed the mezuzahs from the exterior doorways of their homes.”

Trank closed, “Mr. Nyrabia should step down immediately from his position at the IDFA. He has shown that he cannot be a fair advocate for all documentary filmmakers, especially Jewish and Israeli documentarians. His actions have marred the reputation of a once respected film forum.”

Despite video from the event that shows Nyrabia looking at the three protesters holding aloft their sign, he is insisting, in a statement issued by IDFA, that he did not see the words on it: “As I was moving to the next part of the event, I heard chants from the balcony, and people took the stage. The slogan written on the banner held by the young protesters, which later was reported as very visible to the audience but not to me on stage, is a triggering statement and an offensive declaration for many, regardless of who carries it. It does not represent IDFA and was and will not be endorsed. I apologize for not paying attention to the banner in the moment. I clapped to welcome freedom of speech and not to welcome the slogan. I only learned about the slogan on the banner from the team as I went backstage when the opening film started.”

IDFA, in the statement, added: “That slogan does not represent us, and we do not endorse it in any way. We are truly sorry that it was hurtful to many.”

Nyrabia, a Syrian-born filmmaker who is perhaps best known for producing the 2013 documentary Return to Homs, which was awarded the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, has been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 2017 and a member of the board of the International Documentary Association since earlier this year.

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