ACTION: Please write to Shnit and Olivier van der Hoeven in protest at the film festival’s decision to support homophobic informer Mona Iraqi: email@example.com
The International Short Film Festival is based, along with its director, Olivier van der Hoeven, in the placid Swiss capital of Bern. The festival has branches or “playgrounds” in Argentina, El Salvador, Japan, Russia, South Africa, and Thailand. Oh, and Cairo, Egypt. The festival goes by “Shnit” for short, a semi-acronym ugly but calculated to grab attention. As director of its Cairo playground, Shnit chose someone also skilled at doing ugly things that grab attention. Shnit’s Egypt representative is the infamous TV presenter, gay hunter, homophobe, and police informer Mona Iraqi.
A splendid French blogger discovered this four days ago. But let’s be fair: Shnit chose Mona Iraqi before her full penchant for depredations was known. She only revealed herself wholly last weekend, when — doing her bit for a massive government crackdown on Egypt’s LGBT communities — she led a police raid on a Cairo bathhouse. 25 or more men — beaten and bound, paraded naked and humiliated into the cold night, their faces shown on Mona’s own Facebook page — now face charges of homosexual conduct as a result of Iraqi’s work, with prison terms of up to three years. Since then, she’s been boasting about this for a domestic audience, and lying about it for a foreign one. This poses PR problems for an international cultural klatsch like Shnit, which — as its name shows — has an fine ear for publicity. They’ve had a week to decide: how do they deal with their wayward Egypt employee?
By lying. Amazingly, Shnit hasn’t distanced itself from Mona Iraqi’s collusion with Cairo’s gay-chasing, torturing police. They endorse what she did while parroting her deceptions. That’s disgraceful. Shnit owes LGBT people, in Egypt and around the world, an apology; they owe one to Egypt’s whole embattled human rights community. And, for the sake of their reputation, they need to scrub Mona Iraqi from their credits now.
The first thing Shnit did post-debacle was to change its website to cover its tracks. Now, when you open the site, you get this:
So very pro-queer! The ad’s for a Dutch movie about a trans* teenager. You might get the impression from the context that it has shown in Shnit’s Cairo festival. That’s misrepresentation number one: So far as I can make out, it never has.
The context is what counts here, and it’s all about justifying what Mona Iraqi did. When you click on the image, you get some boilerplate:
Shnit International Shortfilmfestival has a proud, long-standing history of support and inclusion of films, filmmakers and audiences of all sexual orientations, of all races and walks of life, from every corner of the world. We strongly believe in freedom of lifestyle and expression.
But then comes the good part:
This is complete bullShnit, and surely Olivier van der Hoeven knows it. Mona Iraqi wasn’t looking for evidence of “sex trafficking” — which is not, of course, the same thing as “sex trade for money” — nor did she find any. She was looking for evidence of homosexual conduct, because the police have been arresting alleged gay and trans people by the dozens or hundreds for a year now. (Olivier van der Hoeven can read about that here and here.) The men are being charged under an Egyptian law against men having sex with men; the provision says nothing about the exchange of money. (Olivier van der Hoeven can read about that law here.) Mona Iraqi collaborated with Cairo’s gay-hunting cops in planning and executing the raid: a perfect paradigm of what indignant Egyptians call “informer journalism.” Iraqi wrote on her Facebook page the day after the raid (complaints later got the post taken down):
Today is a beautiful day … Our program was able to break up a place for perversion between men and to catch them flagrantly in the act … My God, the result is beautiful.
As for filming “to ensure the police act in accordance with the humanitarian standards” — this makes me so sick I can barely breathe. If Mona Iraqi cared about “humanitarian standards” she would protest how police led the men stripped onto the street, humiliated and degraded, or about the forensic anal exams — a form of torture, repeatedly condemned by Human Rights Watch and other rights groups — that the victims have been forced to endure. About those grotesque abuses, the “humanitarian” Mona Iraqi hasn’t uttered a sound.
Neither will Shnit. In regurgitating Mona Iraqi’s hypocritical lies, Shnit and de Hoeven excuse or deny homophobia, prison terms, police brutality, and torture. On the other hand, Mona Iraqi’s footage of the raid should make an exciting short film. Shnit can rake in dollars showing it in Cape Town, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, or Bern.
Iraqi’s allusions to “sex trafficking” are simply a stab at explaining away these horrors. (If the men are victims of trafficking, why are they facing three years in prison?) She and Shnit evidently share the certainty that sex workers have no human rights. That parallels Iraqi’s mortifying invocation of HIV/AIDS as a reason for the raid. The arrests she supervised, Iraqi told the Egyptian press, “confirm the strong relationship between the spread of AIDS and sexual practices between men.” She was actually saving lives for World AIDS Day, she insists. These fictions only further the transmission of HIV/AIDS: by increasing the stigma attached to men who have sex with men, by driving vulnerable communities further underground, by furnishing heterosexual partners a false feeling of safety. In giving Iraqi’s deceptions a free pass, Shnit deals a further and disgusting insult to Egyptians actually trying to combat the pandemic.
It gets worse. Today a Shnit staffer, researcher and project coordinator Ekaterina Tarasova, started tweeting in Mona Iraqi’s defense. The blogger who initially discovered the Mona – Schnit connection reproached her. In reply Tarasova cited the statement on Schnit’s website:
I tried to give Tarasova and Shnit the benefit of the doubt: maybe they actually didn’t know that any sex between men is an “unlawful action” in Egypt, or that a police crackdown has been expanding for a year. I wrote:
Georges Azzi, distinguished Lebanese activist and head of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, weighed in:
Ekaterina Tarasova’s job with Shnit is “research,” and I think she could use some lessons on how to do it. You might also suppose that, at some point, a staffer in a sensitive situation like this would decide the better part of valor was to shut up. But not Shnit, and not Tarasova. The thing is, they truly love Mona Iraqi. They’re truly eager to defend her against any and all evidence. And her victims, rotting in a Cairo jail, can go to hell — except they’re already in it.
Once again: you can write to Shnit at firstname.lastname@example.org. They surely should explain how they square their support for Mona Iraqi’s police raid with their supposed endorsement of equality; how their equanimity about jailing gay men (or torturing supposed victims of “trafficking,” for that matter) fits with their pieties about human rights. The arts aren’t there to make torture and hate honored guests at a champagne reception. As one activist put it: