The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) recently found itself embroiled in a controversy as several filmmakers – including Sky Hopinka, Miko Revereza, Maryam Tafakory, Charlie Shackleton, and Basma al-Sharif – withdrew their documentaries over allegations that the festival was stifling Palestinian activists. The turmoil unfolded during the festival's opening night when three activists took the stage, showing a banner bearing the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The incident has since sparked debates about freedom of expression and the festival’s perceived alignment with a particular political stance.
On IDFA’s opening night, activists from Workers for Palestine made a statement by displaying the slogan, accompanied by a call for a ceasefire. Their brief presence on stage was met with applause from both the audience and IDFA’s artistic director, Orwa Nyrabia. The slogan itself is considered contentious by many Israeli, with Israeli producers and filmmakers condemning Nyrabia’s actions, asserting that the slogan implies a call for violence, genocide, and the destruction of the Israeli state. In August, however, a Dutch court ruled that the slogan is to be given legal protection on free speech grounds.
In response to the backlash, IDFA issued an apology on 10 November, expressing regret for Nyrabia’s applause. Nyrabia claimed he couldn't see the slogan on the banner and justified his applause as a support for freedom of speech. However, this apology has been interpreted by many as an attempt to silence Palestinian activists, leading to further discontent among filmmakers, activists, and Palestinians.
The Palestinian Film Institute quickly responded with a statement on 11 November condemning IDFA’s actions, demanding they acknowledge “that their statement unjustly criminalizes Palestinian voices and narratives.” Critics accused IDFA of adopting an “Israeli frame” by condemning the use of certain words, alleging that this approach aligns with an Israeli stance and contributes to the “criminalization of activism.” Those who withdrew their films argue that the slogan is not a call for violence but a plea to end the violence, occupation, and oppression faced by Palestinians at the hands of Israel.
A number of filmmakers followed in protest and have now withdrawn their films from the festival in solidarity with Palestine. Sky Hopinka, one of the filmmakers who withdrew, read out a public statement issued by Palestinian filmmaker Basma al-Sharif after her own withdrawal from the festival. Hopinka however later also expressed support for Nyrabi, showing understanding for him being in “an impossible position as the director of the festival, as an Arab, as a Syrian, and as a friend to so many of us.”
On 12 November IDFA issued a second statement, addressed to the documentary community as a whole. The new statement read that the organisation hoped to “respect and acknowledge the pain that is going around and the extreme urgency of these discussions while war is still on, and innocent civilians are still dying.” It also tried to redress its controversial position to the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” saying they “understand that the slogan that is at the heart of the on-going discussion is used by various parties in different ways and is perceived by various people in various manners.”
Welcoming this revision, the Palestinian Film Institute’s program curator, Mohanad Yaqubi, has not called for a boycott of IDFA, instead encouraged participating filmmakers who still chose to participate to “use their platforms to talk about the continuous atrocities in Gaza.”