The Straits Times says

Handling the politics of art carefully

Some Singaporeans might be perplexed by the Info-communications Media Development Authority's (IMDA) decision to ban from public screening a documentary that was due to be shown at the Singapore Palestinian Film Festival. The IMDA gave Radiance Of Resistance a Not Allowed For All Ratings (NAR) classification over concerns that the film may cause disharmony among different races and religions in Singapore. The reason was its "skewed narrative". The film, directed by an American film-maker, explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of Janna Ayyad and Ahed Tamimi, two young female Palestinians living under military occupation in the village of Nabi Salih.

The award-winning 2016 documentary was in the international spotlight recently when Ahed, the daughter of Palestinian activist Bassem Tamimi, was taken into custody for having slapped and kicked an Israeli soldier stationed outside her home. The arrest of the 16-year-old has galvanised pro-Palestinian groups and caused a backlash among hardline Israelis.

Radiance Of Resistance offers a powerful account of Palestinian life by weaving together the themes of childhood, femininity, dispossession and politics. However, it portrays only one side of the story. That approach is its prerogative as a partisan documentary which intervenes in the media war between Israel and Palestine. However, as a friend of both sides, Singapore would not wish to put its official weight behind either side seeking to portray the other as an international villain. Had the IMDA not acted, the Government could have been accused of having sanctioned, if only indirectly, the political demonisation of Israel. In the circumstances, it fell on the authorities to take the decision that they did.

Treading the fine line between art and politics is a challenge that will never go away. In 2014, Singapore film-maker Tan Pin Pin's documentary, To Singapore, With Love, was given an NAR classification because the film's sympathetic portrayal of exiles was faulted for having legitimised violence and subversion in politics. There, again, was an extremely powerful portrayal of one aspect of the Singapore story, but it did not capture the other parts of the story which could have placed events in the contextual perspective that would have helped viewers to make up their minds. All portrayals of reality are subjective to an extent, but they become problematic when they seek to erase other accounts.

All this said, the IMDA wields immense power over the public display of the artistic imagination as it verges on political issues. The NAR must not be used lightly: To do so would be to contest the legitimate place of the arts in society. Instead, the lightest of touches must be placed on the arts as they foster a self-reflective society.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2018, with the headline 'Handling the politics of art carefully'. Print Edition | Subscribe