“Silence is complicity, and these actions of cowardice not only hide the truth, it makes them part of the genocide that’s happening. It’s about time that people and institutions don’t shy away from standing up for humanity.”
This was the response of Jordanian-Palestinian director Darin J Sallam after a screening of her film, Farha, at Arnolfini as part of the Bristol Palestine Film Festival was cancelled. The gallery said it could not engage with political activity.
Farha centres on the experiences of a 14-year-old Palestinian girl during the ‘Nakba’ in 1948 in which Zionist militias forcibly displaced an estimated 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and killed thousands more during the establishment of the state of Israel. The film has already repeatedly faced boycotts and calls for censorship within Israel for its depiction of crimes committed against Palestinian villagers by Zionist militias.
In late November, Arnolfini announced its decision to cancel two events that were due to take place as part of the Bristol Palestine Film Festival in early December. First, the screening of Farha with a Q&A with Sallam, Palestinian doctor and writer Ghada Karmi and British activist and rapper Lowkey. And second, a spoken word evening with Lowkey.
In light of the cancellations, two other organisations, Watershed and Sparks, stepped up to host the sold-out events last weekend.
‘You can’t hide, you signed up for genocide!’
Arnolfini’s decision sparked a furious response from Bristol residents, many of whom have cited the gallery’s pivotal role in supporting the city’s creative community and in often foregrounding marginalised artistic voices. At the time of writing, an open letter criticising the decision has been signed by more than 2,300 people, including artists, musicians, activists and academics.
Dozens of protestors sat in Arnolfini’s foyer on a chilly afternoon in November to call out the decision. Around 50 to 60 demonstrators chanted slogans like ‘Free Palestine!’ and ‘Arnolfini you can’t hide, you signed up for genocide!’, while waving Palestinian flags and placards.
Other chants include ‘UWE, UWE, shame on you!’, a reference to the fact that UWE (University of the West of England), has owned Bush House, the grade II-listed building that houses Arnolfini since 2019, when the two organisations went into partnership.
Many protesters expressed a sense of betrayal. “I came down today to lend my voice to the other voices here, to express my shock, disappointment, and disgust at the actions of the Arnolfini,” said one, Caroline Hagan. “By not putting these films on, they’re suppressing people’s voices. The aim of the Bristol Palestine Film Festival is to shine a light on the lives of ordinary Palestinian citizens, to help us truly understand what they are like.”
Yazan, another demonstrator, said: “I’ve come here today because I’m Syrian. I grew up in a country that’s also affected by Israel and the occupation. It’s really close to home and what’s been happening for the last 40 days or so is very very sad”.
The protest took place peacefully, with all participants leaving promptly at 6pm. Many Arnolfini staff stood and watched throughout, while the cafe and bar, which is run by Bristol Beer Factory, stayed open. After the protest ended, Arnolfini closed its doors and stayed closed over the weekend “to take care of the team”, according to a statement on its website.
‘There were other reasons’
In another statement released on 21 November via social media, Arnolfini stated that the decision to cancel the events was partly based on the “difficulty for arts charities hosting events that might be construed as political activity”, citing rules set out by the Charity Commission.
But many of the protesters the Cable spoke to, as well as the signatories of the open letter, pointed out the stark discrepancy between the statement and Arnolfini’s previous record of holding politically charged events.
In December 2022, as part of that year’s Bristol Palestine Film Festival, the gallery hosted a screening of Boycott, a documentary made in 2021 exploring the movement in the US to boycott Israel. Over the past few years, Arnolfini has hosted events such as ‘Still I rise: Feminism, Gender, Resistance, Act 3’, which took place in 2019, as well as other events related to identity politics and slavery. In March 2022, the gallery also put on an event exploring threats to the heritage and architecture of Ukraine following the Russian invasion.
Several participants in the sit-down protest said they felt nonplussed by Arnolfini’s decision. “I feel very disappointed, very upset, and pretty confused by their statement that they can’t do anything that borders on political activities,” said Nik Rawlings, a composer and sound artist who had recently performed at Arnolfini, and been in talks about a potential residency there.
“A lot of what they’ve done in the past has certainly engaged in political issues and social justice issues,” he adds. “So this idea that they can’t do anything political is nonsense, and the fact that the Watershed and Sparks, who are both charities, took both events in Arnolfini’s place, completely disproves that theory. So I think it’s a disingenuous statement. I think that there are other reasons, frankly, as to why that statement was made.”
Protesters had a range of views on what they’d like to see happen next. For Yazan, it was an explanation and an apology. “Probably the person in charge of making the decision stepping down and for the Arnolfini to rehost the event. I would also like UWE to explain [why] they have been silent.”
Others simply demanded accountability. “We’d like to know who made the decision at Arnolfini, so they can be held accountable”, said Ian, a member of an activist group called Rise Up For Palestine. “This is an amazing institution, but them silencing Palestinian voices is basically supporting genocide and it’s just intolerable and unacceptable that they’ve made this decision.”
Arnolfini did not respond to the Cable’s request for an interview or to questions about how and why the decision to cancel the events were made.