This 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has been shrouded in controversy this week after a variety of film makers, actors, academics, and activists signed and released a statement called the “Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation” alleging amongst other things that the Festival:
has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.
The protesters loose claims stem from the Festival’s selection of Tel Aviv for it’s City to City Program which showcases 10 films by local filmmakers. In its inaugural year, “the goal of City to City is to take a closer look at global cities through a cinematic lens, especially cities where film contributes to or chronicles social change in compelling ways.”
The protesting group, which initially included Jane Fonda (who has since apoligized for her involvement), Danny Glover, David Byrne, Ken Loach and author Naomi Klein stated that:
“The emphasis on ‘diversity’ in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is that Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada.”
Amongst one of the key signatories, filmmaker John Greyson withdrew his film ‘Covered’ from the Festival. This film, ironically is a short “about the 2008 Sarajevo Queer Festival, which was cancelled due to brutal anti-gay violence” or rather more to the point: censorship.
Making the case that the Festival is being complicit by Israel’s propaganda machine, the group added:
In 2008, the Israeli government and Canadian partners Sidney Greenberg of Astral Media, David Asper of Canwest Global Communications and Joel Reitman of MIJO Corporation launched “Brand Israel,” a million dollar media and advertising campaign aimed at changing Canadian perceptions of Israel. Brand Israel would take the focus off Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its aggressive wars, and refocus it on achievements in medicine, science and culture. An article in Canadian Jewish News quotes Israeli consul general Amir Gissin as saying that Toronto would be the test city for a promotion that could then be deployed around the world. According to Gissin, the culmination of the campaign would be a major Israeli presence at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. (Andy Levy-Alzenkopf, “Brand Israel set to launch in GTA,” Canadian Jewish News, August 28, 2008.)
In 2009, when the TIFF announced that it would focus on Tel Aviv. According to program notes by Festival co-director and City to City programmer Cameron Bailey, “The ten films in this year’s City to City programme will showcase the complex currents running through today’s Tel Aviv. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009, Tel Aviv is a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity.”
Festival organizer, Cameron Bailey directly responded to these allegations:
As the programmer of City To City, I was attracted to Tel Aviv as our inaugural city because the films being made there explore and critique the city from many different perspectives. Furthermore, the City to City series was conceived and curated entirely independently. There was no pressure from any outside source. Contrary to rumours or mistaken media reports, this focus is a product only of TIFF’s programming decisions. We value that independence and would never compromise it.
The goal of City to City is to take a closer look at global cities through a cinematic lens, especially cities where film contributes to or chronicles social change in compelling ways. We believe that the 10 films in our inaugural programme do just that. We encourage everyone to see the films, engage in debate and draw their own conclusions.
In addition to City to City, our Festival lineup also includes other important films from the region, including two films by Palestinian filmmakers and others from Lebanon and Egypt. As these films address the past history and current realities of the region, we hope they will become part of this year’s conversations.
John writes that his protest isn’t against the films or filmmakers we have chosen, but against the spotlight itself. By that reasoning, no films programmed within this series would have met his approval, no matter what they contained. For us, the content and form of films does matter. In fact, when I met with a number of the signatories earlier this week, I encouraged them to see the films before passing judgment on the programme. Regrettably, they chose a different route. We know some of them to be veterans of Toronto’s battles against censorship — all the more surprising to watch them denounce a film series without seeing the films in it.
We recognize that Tel Aviv is not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground. We continue to learn more about the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. As a festival that values debate and the exchange of cultures, we will continue to screen the best films we can find from around the world. This is our contribution to expanding our audiences’ experience of this art form and the worlds it represents.
Further, Bailey in an interview soon after the letter was released:
“It’s important to note,” he says “that the [Tel Aviv Spotlight] was independantly conceived and curated. Entirely. We were looking for a place on the planet where there was new work happening. I was interested in bringing the culture of the city to Toronto to spark debate. There was no influence from any outside sources.”
Does that include cash inducements, I ask? “The only financial element is the Israel Film Fund which funds filmakers travelling to festivals. And that’s all there is.”
In response to the protest, another group of artists have decried these efforts to silence Israeli filmmakers. Amongst them, which include Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jerry Seinfeld, Darren Starr, Jason Alexander, Lenny Kravitz, Lisa Kudrow, Canadians Robert Lantos, Ivan Reitman, David Cronenberg, Moses Znaimer and Patricia Rozema they endorsed the following statement as a response.
“We don’t need another blacklist.
“We applaud the Toronto International Film Festival for including the Israeli film community in the Festival’s City to City program. The visiting filmmakers represent a dynamic national cinema, the best of Israel’s open, uncensored, artistic expression. Anyone who has actually seen recent Israeli cinema, movies that are political and personal, comic and tragic, often critical, knows they are in no way a propaganda arm for any government policy. Blacklisting them only stifles the exchange of cultural knowledge that artists should be the first to defend and protect. Those who refuse to see these films for themselves or prevent them from being seen by others are violating a cherished right shared by Canada and all democratic countries.”
Some have suggested that there are shades of anti-semitism at work here, and it looks as if there some validity in this claim. Since to crea
te an environment in which a religious or ethnic group can be persecuted, it is first necessary to demonize and vilify them to the point that their humanity is in question, which is what this protest intentionally does.
You folks are being criticized for encouraging censorship, whether you admit that you seek such censorship or not. A letter that compares Israel to South Africa and Israel’s actions to South African apartheid in the context of criticizing a slate of films at a film festival, is not a letter that merely seeks to bring up some history. It is a call to action. It is also a warning to any other film festivals and their directors who seek to put on Israeli films that they will encounter fierce criticism in the media.
The targeting of Israeli films shown in a program at a major film festival is also a call to audiences to view those films as your group wishes them to be viewed and not as they would be viewed without your politicization of those films. Your group has set the agenda and nobody who will enter the cinemas to watch those films will be able to disengage your criticisms of Israel from their viewing. You have damaged the work of these filmmakers by doing this.
You have also falsely connected their films to the “destroyed Palestinian villages” upon which Tel Aviv supposedly resides. Never mind that this is highly misrepresentative of Tel Aviv’s history – the bulk of its land was never Palestinian land or was purchased outright – or the manner in which these “destroyed Palestinian villages” fell into Israeli hands (the villagers abandoned them before the ’48 war even began). Anybody reading your group’s letter will enter those films with false impressions.
You have created the terms of the debate, ugly and false terms, but now you wish to present yourselves as victims of those who would respond.
A recent Toronto Star editorial also ponders the odious nature of the protest:
It is tempting to ignore this latest, tedious tiff over TIFF, spawned by a few dozen protesters who signed the petition – Jane Fonda and Naomi Klein among them. The anti-Israel diatribes are becoming a bore: Complaints against the Royal Ontario Museum for showing Israel’s biblical Dead Sea Scrolls; “Israel Apartheid Week” for high-minded student activists; CUPE locals calling for a boycott of Israeli academics; and the latest Pride parade featuring a float that attacked gay-friendly Israel for apartheid policies (ignoring other Middle Eastern regimes that persecute gays).
Now TIFF is the target for those who would treat Israel as a pariah, demonize every aspect of its existence, and smear its supporters in Canada. TIFF, they imply, is in the pocket of the Jews – from both Canada and Israel. Their open letter conspicuously highlights the names of “Sidney Greenberg of Astral Media, David Asper of Canwest Global Communications and Joel Reitman of MIJO Corporation,” noting ominously that TIFF is now “complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.” Cue dark clouds of conspiracy.
Replying to his accusers, TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey says he chose Tel Aviv to inaugurate an annual “City to City focus on films” that will showcase cities through a cinematic lens. TIFF took no Israeli money. The festival will also be showing films by Palestinian, Egyptian and Lebanese filmmakers when it opens this Thursday.
What a strange plot twist: Canadian filmmakers who pay lip service to free expression trying to bring the curtains down on Israeli filmmakers whose art is tainted by their Tel Aviv origins. But if the protesters are applying a litmus test to all world cities, why not castigate city hall for twinning Toronto with Chongqing, given China’s human rights abuses? Or demand that Toronto sever its “friendship” links with Volgograd because of Russia’s political sins?
Tel Aviv, it seems, makes for a more tempting target.
Either way, it is shocking that some would freely make unsubstantiated accusations of this sort. Moreover, even though the protestors didn’t even have the chutzpah to call for a boycott, in fact – the whole protest seems like an exercise in grandstanding to take the focus off the films and create an environment where people would view them, and the festival through a nefarious lens.