Controversial documentary sparks campus dialogue

SU administration responds to backlash after filmmaker Shimon Dotan was disinvited from film festival, prompting conversation about freedom of expression on college campuses.

Art is a platform for political and cultural controversy. Syracuse University has recently received backlash due to taking back the invitation it offered to filmmaker Shimon Dotan, who was scheduled to visit campus to present his film, “The Settlers,” as a part of “The Place of Religion in Film” conference in March 2017.  

“I think the campus should be a place where a wide range of views and opinions can be shared."
- Kevin Quinn

But Dotan was disinvited in June after Professor Gail Hamner, the event’s organizer, got word from colleagues that there may be protests from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), a group united against Israel’s attacks on Palestine.

Transmedia professor Boryana Dragoeva noted that film is a powerful weapon when it comes to swaying opinions.

“Art, in general, is very impactful because it affects emotions of people,” Dragoeva said, “It connects immediately through images or sound, which is captivating. It is made up of many different elements, so it works with all of our senses.”

SU’s decision has been highly criticized, including an article in the The Atlantic’s called “How Political Correctness Chills Speech on Campus.” The article called SU’s decision “strikingly anti-intellectual,” and criticized the administration for withdrawing the invitation based on “fear of ideologically motivated retaliation.”

Chancellor Kent Syverud released an email with his plans to revise the freedom of speech policy on campus in early September. The policy stated that “respectful protests and counter-protests are part of the exchange of ideas and should be fiercely defended on campus” and that “protests should not be used to silence or disrupt speakers on our campus.”  

Following the email, Vice Chancellor Margaret Wheatley re-invited Dotan to speak and present his film.

Professor of religion Ken Frieden felt that the film should be shown to encourage the campus to consider the complexity of the Middle Eastern conflict. After watching portions of the film, he found it to be even-handed, saying that Professor Hamner should have watched it herself instead of cancelling it based off of rumors.

“It’s better for everyone to have the discussion, and in this case, the content is actually probably something BDS approves of, because it’s critical of the settlers,” Frieden said. “That’s why the whole thing is so twisted. The threat of boycott is a hazard, because people don’t understand it. It just creates this blanket negative impression.”

Hamner never requested to screen the film before disinviting Dotan, which was a source of confusion and frustration for the filmmaker.

“I don’t think that any academic, or artist, or thinker or thinking person should bow to political pressure of this kind,” said Dotan. “If you bow to the crowd that is pressuring you, you deprive the crowd of being exposed to something. Let your crowd decide if it’s valuable or not.”

Though a handful of professors felt that the film would create a negative reaction on campus, others spoke out in favor of debate.

“I think the campus should be a place where a wide range of views and opinions can be shared,” said Kevin Quinn, senior vice president for public affairs at SU.“Rather than, in this case, opposing those opinions from being heard on campus, provide a counterpoint. Instead of trying to stop it, engage with it and have a debate. I think that happens everyday on our campus and we don’t hear about it.”

Professor Dragoeva expressed a similar sentiment, also suggesting that the conference invite filmmakers from other perspectives.

“If the idea is really to create a debate, it seems to be important to show equally strong expressions of these ideas,” she said. “If I want to show a variety of views and varieties of identities, I’m going to be more inclusive and create a more similar representation of them as opposed to just having exposed one side.”

“I care about all those individuals looking the issue in the eye, rather than surrendering to some pressure that will deprive them from understanding what’s at stake,” said Dotan. “To reject it because of fear of pressure from a political entity is very dangerous.”

While people are divided on whether or not the film will cause protests, the controversy surrounding it has already caused campus administration to reevaluate what it means to be politically correct and academically inquisitive. Syracuse has chosen to wade into the throng of Middle Eastern politics, establishing a forum for discussion for better or for worse.

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