Decision to ban pro-Palestine films engulfs Documenta 15 exhibition in another censorship row

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A censorship row continues to engulf Documenta 15 in Kassel, Germany, after an advisory group responsible for overseeing programming recommended censoring a series of films focused on the turbulent history of Palestine. The move was, however, condemned by both the curatorial group behind the latest edition—the Indonesian collective ruangrupa—and the Finding Committee for the Artistic Direction, which selected ruangrupa as curators.

The advisory council for the Documenta 15 exhibition, which continues until 25 September, said earlier this week that “the most urgent task” was to stop showing Tokyo Reels, a set of restored films by the cinema research and production collective, Subversive Film. The collective aims to shed light on “the overlooked and still undocumented anti-imperialist solidarity between Japan and Palestine”, the Documenta website says.

But Documenta 15’s artistic direction committee says in a statement issued today that it “expresses its support for the recent statement of ruangrupa, lumbung members and contributing artists. The pressures that media and politicians have placed on the entire Documenta team have become unbearable. We want to defend their extraordinary hard work and commitment with this statement.” Members include Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, and the South African curator Gabi Ngcobo.

The committee adds: “We believe their voice [ruangrupa] should also be heard. We applaud the artists who have been resilient in the face of attacks on their integrity and have remained true to the principles of lumbung. We ask the supervisory board to ensure that Documenta 15 can remain open in its entirety until the planned end of the exhibition. We believe any failure to do so, and a capitulation to political interference, will be judged very harshly by history.”

The films in the Tokyo Reels series, including Reel 21, were shown on 14 September, confirmed Mohanad Yaqubi, a co-founder of Subversive Film. A final decision on whether the films will be banned will be taken later this week, Yaqubi tells The Art Newspaper.

The advisory council says, however, that the work is “pro-Palestinian propaganda… made between the 1960s and the 1980s”. Calling it “highly problematic”, the panel said the film is “filled with antisemitic and anti-Zionist set pieces” that are presented as objective fact. Council members include Angela Dorn, the Hessian Minister for higher education, research, science and the arts, and Susanne Völker, the head of the cultural department of the City of Kassel.

More than 100 individuals in Documenta 15’s “lumbung community” condemned the report in an open letter signed by ruangrupa, the Palestinian artist collective the Question of Funding, and Subversive Film. “We do not accept the allegations of their preliminary report, which unashamedly reproduce poorly researched claims from the media; likewise, the report lacks scientific proof, academic references, rigorous argumentation and integrity,” the open letter reads. The letter is headed: “We are angry, we are sad, we are tired, we are united.”

The signatories say: “This report represents a new line crossed, and we categorically refuse it: This line marks a racist drift in a pernicious structure of censorship. We denounce the vicious attempt at censoring the presentation of the Tokyo Reels.” A spokesperson for Documenta says that “ruangrupa, as the artistic directors of documenta 15, have the sole right to decide and do not wish to follow the recommendation to temporarily remove the work Tokyo Reels by Subversive Film from the exhibition.”

Allegations of antisemitism have plagued Documenta 15 since January, when German media and local politicians began taking issue with the pro-Palestine and pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions stances of a number of participants in the exhibition.

In July, Documenta’s supervisory board released a statement expressing “profound dismay” at the presentation of works which contain “antisemitic content”. As a result, Sabine Schormann’s contract as the head of the quinquennial exhibition was terminated.

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