SXSW Film Review: Boycott

The real victims of the GOP war on free speech


One never hopes to see their hometown featured prominently in a documentary about anti-speech legislation. Then again, these past few years have been a boon for documentary filmmakers, and as the state capital, Austin is cursed to feature more prominently in the nonfiction scene going forward.

Central Texas features prominently in Julia Bacha’s Boycott, a documentary about anti-free speech legislation viewed through the lens of three government contractors. The issue in question? Whether states can remove business from contractors who refuse to abstain from boycotting Israel.

To its credit, Boycott does not attempt to offer a both-sides narrative regarding the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement. While most films would struggle to navigate the contradictions of anti-imperialism and antisemitism that plague many American conversations about Israel and Palestine, Boycott wisely anchors its narrative on the pain of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, it jumps between communities and countries to offer a wide-ranging perspective on the importance of economic abstention as leverage in foreign policy.

One of the most affecting moments in the documentary is a conversation with Rabbi Barry Block of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock. While Block describes himself as morally opposed to any boycott of Israel, he also speaks out strongly against Arkansas’s attempts to legislate away the right to financial activism. Block also shares that he was not contacted prior to the bill’s introduction, a telling moment that underscores the true intent of the legislation. For all its focus on Palestine and Israel, however, Boycott is a film about American politics and the forces that would choose to influence it.

Much of the film’s runtime is spent demonstrating the links between the boycott bills and the domestic forces – conservative legislation factories, evangelical megachurches – that make bills like this possible. These organizations create and sustain the conditions for oppressive legislation to become the law of the land; the closing chyrons make note of Senate Bill 13, which specifically targets Texas government contractors who divest from fossil fuel companies. In the eyes of the filmmaker, this was the purpose all along.

As a documentary, Boycott does an impressive job of establishing financial abstention as an integral part of American politics. Bacha hones in on a few particular examples, demonstrating the influence that previous boycotts have had on the American civil rights movement or South African apartheid. But while Boycott presents us with positive outcomes – legal restrictions overcome or suspended – it’s hard not to feel unfinished. The same systems of power that allowed these boycott bills to flourish are still in place, and even the small corner peeled back by Boycott leaves it clear that this is merely the opening act of a longer, darker story.

None of this is the fault of Bacha or the subjects of the film; they’ve documented their stories here for posterity. But with so much power and money being unleashed on our legal system, it’s hard to feel like any political documentary offers true closure. Even if these plaintiffs lived to work another day, the film makes it painfully clear that the next court case may not be so lucky. At least there will probably be a documentary there to deliver the horror story in real-time.


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