The Free Thinking Film Festival: It Ain't Sundance

A film festival that really makes a difference.

Last year at around this time, I wrote here about Ottawa's Free Thinking Film Society (FTFS), founded a few years ago by music producer Fred Litwin.  His idea: to bring to the Canadian capital documentaries and other worthwhile films whose content, for one reason or another, pretty much guarantees that they'll be politically anathema to the people who decide which documentaries get to be seen in mainstream and “alternative” venues.  The annual highlight of the FTFS's schedule is the Free Thinking Film Festival (FTFF), which this year was held last weekend. I was lucky enough to attend.

Among the films I saw was Israel Inside (2011). When the popular author and Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar returned to his native Israel after fourteen years, he found a country that “had not only joined the twenty-first century,” but “was in many ways leading the way.” Israel is second only to the Silicon Valley in IT start-ups. With only eight million people, it has more firms listed on the NASDAQ exchange than any country except for the U.S. (pop. 315 million) and China (1.34 billion).

Why this disproportionate success?  Ben-Shahar provides a convincing answer, listing six factors, or “actualizers.” First, family: “Israel feels like a big, united family,” which breeds interdependence and independence. Second, a knack for turning adversity into advantage. (Example: Israelis broil in the hot sun – but that hot sun also makes for great solar power, which they've used since the 1950s.) Third, chutzpah: “not taking no for an answer, challenging the status quo.” Fourth, education: “no people,” Israel's chief rabbi explains, “put education so much at the top of their priorities.” Fifth, taking action: in Israel, “it's almost like there isn't a barrier between theory and practice.” Sixth, tikkun olam, or “repairing the world” – meaning “striving to exemplify and promote goodness wherever we can.”

Ben-Shahar effectively illustrates the reality of these factors in Israeli life, and shows how they spur creativity and ingenuity – leading to such innovations as “drip irrigation” (which waters 40% more crops with half as much water, helping to make once-arid Israel the world's top exporter of fresh fruits and vegetables). He also reminds us of Israel's remarkable readiness, despite all its own problems and the worldwide eagerness to demonize it, to extend a helping hand to other countries – Haiti after its earthquake, Japan after its tsunami. All in all, Israel Inside is an impressive rebuke to glib, mendacious anti-Israel propaganda – and a moving reminder that the Jewish state is, indeed, an oasis of advanced and humane civilization in a desert of barbarism.

If only I could screen Israel Inside to the reality-challenged members of Queers against Israeli Apartheid (QUAIA), who were the subject of Why Is It Hate?, a documentary by gay Toronto lawyer Martin Gladstone, who, as Litwin noted in introducing the film, has waged a “one-man campaign” against the group. Gladstone shows QUAIA members marching in Toronto's gay-pride parade, chanting idiotic anti-Semitic slogans and wearing t-shirts equating Israel with Nazi Germany. At a hearing considering the question of QUAIA's right to take part in the parade, a city-council member asks a QUAIA spokeswoman: “What's the status of the gay community in the countries that surround Israel?” The QUAIA member is indignant: “What does that have to do with anything!...The question is disingenuous and manipulative. Personally I don't know how gays are treated in Arab countries.” From which Gladstone cuts, without comment, to that now-iconic picture of two gay teenagers being hanged in Iran.

QUAIA members could also learn a thing or two from The Invisible Men, a touching documentary by Israeli director Yariv Mozer about three gay Palestinians who live illegally in Israel to keep from being murdered by their families. Louie has a scar on his cheek because his father “almost slaughtered me, like a lamb, like a goat,” for being gay. Abdu tells about being beaten by Palestinian Authority cops who accused him of being a Mossad agent (a charge often leveled at gay Palestinians by PA officials). When we meet Faris, he's in Ramallah, on the run both from his father, who has sworn to kill him, and from the PA cops, who are also hunting him down for being gay. Watching this film, I found myself wishing I could duct-tape the fatuous lesbian Sarah Schulman, that proudly pro-Palestinian, Israel-hating fool, to a chair and force her to watch it.

Israel wasn't the only topic addressed at the FTFF. There were films – by all accounts stirring and illuminating – on China, North Korea, the Baha'i in Iran, the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin, the Romanian revolution, Rachel Carson, Winston Churchill, “the politics of food,” and much else. Many were obscure works that you might otherwise never get to see; others (Atlas Shrugged, Part One; Andrew Breitbart's eye-opening look at the Occupy movement) were more high-profile. And there were non-film offerings. I gave a talk about my new book, and Tuvia Tenenbom served up a lively and powerful presentation about I Sleep in Hitler's Room, his alternately grim and hilarious account (here's my review of it) of a six-month journey around Germany, during which he discovered that Aryan anti-Semitism is alive and well – a conclusion at which a dapper, slippery bully of a reporter for Deutsche Welle took loud and obnoxious umbrage.

Some of the films screened at the FTFF can be ordered online and watched in the comfort of your own home –  and I encourage you to do just that.  But the FTFF is about more than just individuals sitting in the dark and watching a movie or two.  It's about a community of, yes, free-thinking people who've long recognized that their major news media, from the Canadian Broadcasting Company on down, are feeding them a highly slanted picture of the world – and who are determined to do something about that.  Thanks to Litwin, they've found each other, and the excitement of that discovery is palpable, both in the Q&A sessions that follow some of the events and in the lively, urgent conversations during the intermissions. For these folks, attending the screenings and other events, which have opened their eyes to a whole world of sobering phenomena that the MSM have either ignored or misrepresented, aren't an end in themselves – they're calls to action. “What do we do about this?” people kept asking.

Some leftists, told about the FTFS, would doubtless imagine an assemblage of resentful middle-aged straight white working-class men. On the contrary, the attendees were strikingly diverse –  in age, race, religion, class, profession, sexual orientation, you name it. But the whole point was that they weren't there to assert their group identities; at least in part, they were there in reaction to a mainstream culture that's encouraged them to center their identities on superficial attributes. They were individuals – inspiringly intelligent, thoughtful, and curious, deeply concerned about multiculturalism, political correctness, the demonization of America and Israel, and the appeasement of Islam, and determined to safeguard their freedoms (and their children's freedoms) against all threats foreign and domestic. Why, I kept wondering, as I have on previous visits to Litwinland, can't this dynamic gathering be replicated all over North America?

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