David Koff speaks to an audience during a film festival event. (Submitted photo)
David Koff speaks to an audience during a film festival event. (Submitted photo)
Saturday May 11, 2013

WESTMINSTER WEST -- Back in 1981, when David Koff released his documentary film "Occupied Palestine," about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, political unrest in Northern Ireland, South Africa and the former Soviet Union inspired fellow filmmakers to tell those stories.

And while films and books based on those troubled spots are now viewed and read for their historic value, the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians rages on.

So when the directors of the London Palestine Film Festival called Koff, 73, earlier this year at his Westminster West home to let him know that his 88-minute film was going to open the 2013 festival, it was with a mixture of pride, frustration and sadness that he accepted their invitation.

"People were expecting to see an historical artifact from a time capsule of 30 years ago," Koff said. "But, unfortunately, it is just as current as the day we made it. People were surprised, but also dismayed, that so little has changed in 30 years. The driving forces that started this are still in play. The process is not over yet and no one can say how it will end."

Koff's film explores the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it was one of the first films to tell the story from the Palestinian point of view.

The 2013 London Palestine Film Festival called the film a "rarely seen masterwork of political cinema," which was "boldly ahead of its time.


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"'Occupied Palestine' remains a singular work of engaged filmmaking and a unique record of an overlooked chapter in the course of the conflict," festival organizers wrote.

For the past three decades Koff has been distributing copies of his film to colleges and political groups that wanted to discuss the struggle of the Palestinians to secure a homeland.

And, as far as he knows, the film has been viewed and discussed by professors and students with little controversy over the past 30 years.

It has been a long time since the film was shown commercially.

"I distributed it and if someone asked for a copy I'd send it out," Koff said. "It has had a life below the radar screen."

Back in 1981 when the film premiered in San Francisco a bomb threat caused an evacuation of the theater.

And in 1986, public television stations in New York and Washington D.C. refused to air the film.

The controversy forced film houses to shy away from showing the documentary, and when he saw it again in London, it was the first time in more than 30 years that Koff viewed the film in a theater with a large group of people.

He said there is much more understanding now, adding that a 2011 Academy Award nominee, "5 Broken Cameras," tells the story from a Palestinian point of view.

Koff grew up in California and produced a number of documentaries in Africa before directing "Occupied Palestine."

He moved to Vermont about 10 years ago to be with his girlfriend, who was taking over a family home in Westminster West.

Koff still makes films, working with digital editing software out of his Westminster West studio.

Over the past few years he has been producing documentaries on union and labor issues.

His 2002 film, "Windows," told the stories of the restaurant workers who died in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, and his most recent film, "The New Haven Raids," explored U.S. immigration policy and features the music by Ry Cooder.

The London film festival staff first contacted Koff last year, requesting a copy of the film and then telling him his work was being considered for the 2013 festival.

Earlier this year he received a second call, learning that his film was chosen to open the festival at a gala opening and asking if he would fly to London to discuss the film.

He got back to Vermont last week.

"It was very exciting. The film received a lot of attention and was mentioned in every article on the festival," Koff says. "The response was fantastic. It got more publicity in the space of a week than it has since it was first released in 1981."

Koff is working on a remastered DVD edition of "Occupied Palestine."

For more information go to www.davidrkoff.com.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.