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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Israel gets a punch in the schnoz from Toronto Film Fest protesters

September 11, 2009 |  1:48 pm

Whether you're a film festival director, a college president or a secretary of state, you know that you've landed in Media Hell when Noam Chomsky, Jane Fonda and Harry Belafonte start signing open letters complaining about your policies. Artists and politics always make for a combustible mix, so it's no surprise that the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has suddenly become embroiled in a volatile, not to mention tragicomic, uproar over whether the festival should be spotlighting Tel Aviv in its new City-to-City Spotlight program designed to celebrate international film culture. In today's divided universe, anything involving Israel and Middle East politics is bound to provoke a storm of controversy.

Tiff The latest tizzy began when John Greyson, a little-known Canadian documentary filmmaker, withdrew his doc short "Covered" from the festival to protest the fest's showcase of Israeli filmmaking. He contends that the festival's celebration of Israeli cinema is a tacit endorsement of the country's Brand Israel campaign, which is designed to improve Israel's tattered international image. Greyson views that as a travesty, especially at a time when much of the world has been vocal in its opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. He also cites a number of other Israeli black eyes, including the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and a Gaza massacre that resulted in a large number of civilian deaths.

In a letter to the festival, Greyson added: "Your TIFF program book may have described Tel Aviv as 'a vibrant young city of beaches, cafes and cultural ferment ... that celebrates its diversity,' but it's also been called a kind of alter-Gaza, the smiling face of Israel apartheid (Naomi Klein) and 'the only city in the west without Arab residents' (Tel Aviv filmmaker Udi Aloni). To my mind, this isn't the right year to celebrate Brand Israel or to demonstrate an ostrich-like indifference to the realities (cinematic and otherwise) of the region."

Whether you agree or disagree with Greyson's point--and we'll get to my thoughts in a moment--the one thing absolutely assured is that under normal circumstances, it's hard to imagine anyone paying the slightest attention to an obscure filmmaker who couldn't get Ari Emanuel to return his calls even if he promised to do a loving documentary about Endeavor's merger with William Morris. But coming on the eve of the Toronto Film Festival, one of the largest gatherings of international writers and filmmakers--and hence an especially combustible media environment--Greyson's beef with Israel has spread like a prairie fire.  

Seemingly overnight, a protest group materialized, drafting a letter titled: "The Toronto Declaration--No Celebration of Occupation." Signed by the usual suspects--Fonda, Belafonte and Chomsky, along with such well-known artists as David Byrne, Julie Christie, Viggo Mortensen, Wallace Shawn and British director Ken Loach--it claimed that the festival, "whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine."

The protests, of course, have been met by counterprotests. Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Marvin Hier has weighed in, telling a hastily arranged news conference that "Tel Aviv is one of the freest cities in the world, warts and all: a model city of diversity, freedom of expression and tolerance, for Arabs and Jews." He added: "It is the height of hypocrisy to single out Tel Aviv. These protesters cannot masquerade their hatred toward Israel."

A number of Canadian-born filmmakers, including David Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman and Norman Jewison, joined the fray, charging the anti-Tel Aviv protesters with censorship. "Film is about exploring the complexities and contradictions of the human condition," said Reitman. "Any attempt to silence that conversation, to hijack the festival for any political agenda in the end, only serves to silence artistic voices." 

Simcha Jacobovici, a Canadian filmmaker who was born in Israel, was more blunt. He suggested that Greyson test his sympathy for the Palestinians by screening his controversial short film about the Sarajevo Queer Festival in both Tel Aviv and on the West Bank. Convinced that Greyson would get a rude reception on the West Bank, Jacobovici quipped: "He should document the experience on video and then enter it into next year's [festival]--posthumously."

The festival pooh-bahs have stoutly defended their City to City embrace of Tel Aviv. "We want to connect to other urban cultures around the world as a way of expanding debate and opening conversations, not shutting them down," festival co-director Cameron Bailey said Friday. "We would hope that each time we touch down in a different city, no matter the political situation on the ground, that people are at least open to seeing what filmmakers have to say about the city."

So why has one obscure filmmaker's quarrel with Israel prompted an international outcry?

First off, the protests are a bracing reminder that America is not always in sync or even in touch with the rest of the world, even when it comes to film culture. In today's Hollywood, signs of Jewish ethnic pride are everywhere. Judd Apatow's recent "Funny People" was populated with a host of openly Jewish comic characters, as is the new Coen brothers film "A Serious Man," a drama (debuting this weekend in Toronto, of all places) that is, in part, about a troubled Jewish man who looks to his rabbi for guidance. And of course, one of the biggest hit films of the summer was Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," which features as its heroes a scrum of tough-talking, baseball-bat wielding, Nazi-scalp-taking World War II-era Jewish soldiers.

So it may come as a surprise to Americans, who have been steady supporters of Israel since its birth as a country in 1948, that the Jewish state--largely because of its messy role in Middle East politics--has been treated as something of a pariah in international circles. Earlier this year, for example, Ken Loach, one of England's most venerated filmmakers, urged a boycott of the Edinburgh International Film Festival because the festival was slated to premiere a movie by an Israeli filmmaker and was paying his way to the festival.

His complaints had nothing to do with the film's politics, or lack of them. Loach's beef was with the Israeli government, saying "the massacres and state terrorism in Gaza make this money unacceptable." He urged everyone to "show their support for the Palestinian nation and stay away." 

In other political circles, abortion or healthcare is the great divider. But in artistic circles, it is Israel. David Cronenberg recently directed Viggo Mortensen in the amazingly intense film "A History of Violence." They were able, instinctive collaborators, seeing eye to eye on all sorts of artistic choices. But on the subject of Israel, the two men are on opposite sides of a huge chasm, one man seeing the country as a bastion of freedom, the other seeing it as a cruel oppressor. Norman Jewison and Danny Glover have been arm-in-arm supporters for years in the struggles of the civil rights movement, yet on Israel they are light years apart.

As for myself, I always try to take the side of free expression, which is why I think it's especially unhealthy to shun a filmmaker, as Loach did in Edinburgh, or accuse a festival of being a propaganda vehicle, as the Toronto protesters have, just because it is promoting another country's film culture. Even though I happen to agree with Greyson that the Israeli occupation and the spread of illegal settlements is a terrible thing--both for the Palestinians and, in the long run, for Israel--I can't imagine a less auspicious forum for belittling any country's artistic accomplishments than a film festival.

At the height of apartheid in South Africa, Paul Simon made "Graceland," an album of glorious music with South African musicians. He was criticized at the time for breaking a worldwide cultural boycott,  but Simon believed that exposing the musicians' gifts to the world far outweighed any tacit endorsement his use of South African musicians would have provided for the country's repressive regime. History has long ago proved him right. The same openness should apply to a film festival. Everyone has a right to disapprove of and even scathingly criticize a country's politics. But I don't see how Israel's artists and its film industry are any more complicit in its treatment of the Palestinians than, well, American artists were complicit in our government's use of torture against suspected terrorists. 

In his complaint to the festival, Greyson asked if "an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now" wasn't akin to "celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973 ... or South African fruit in 1991?" My answer would be: no way. Wine and grapes and fruit are agricultural products. Films are a product too, for sure, but they are also expressions of art and intellectual ferment. And once you begin to close the door in any way on artistic freedom, even if it simply involves pressuring a film festival to shun a country whose politics you abhor, you might discover someday that it's a lot easier to shut the door to a free exchange of ideas than it is to open it up again.

   

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