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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

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.


Comments () | Archives (21)

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If this festival had opened up its arms to an Iranian city, the Fonda/Belafonte/Chomsky axis of moral relativism wouldn't bat an eye.

Doesn't that pretty much say it all?

I think Quentin Tarantino needs to serve a term as Israeli Prime Minister so that he can do for the state of Israel what he did for the stereotype of the meek, submissive, go quietly to your death picture of the Jew. I am thankful every day for that tiny little bulwark of democracy in an unstable area, Israel. And I feel its debatable who the real culprit is in terms of Palestinian displacement. But artistic freedom needs to be upheld always, and kept free of simmering politics. Film and art should be above the fray. I abhor this kind of blatant anti-Israeli propaganda and find the attempt to hijack this festival to further those ends shameful.

The Israeli's government's "Brand Israel" campaign is overt political propaganda. It is no lie and not even a slight distortion to describe it as such. This is exactly what it is.

In other words, it's not Greyson who mixed art with politics, contrary to the accusation this article makes. Israel chose to participate in this festival precisely for the political benefit it expected to gain by associating itself with the festival and its participating films and filmmakers. That some of the filmmakers should object to having a portion of their goodwill hijacked by Israel is absolutely fair ball.

If, say, Iran or Burma tried a similar operation targetting a project Patrick Goldstein had been involved in, he'd react in exactly the same manner.

Hey Patrick

I think that expectedly, you defend TIFF's decision while using the argument that "artistic accomplishment" shouldn't be the reason people subject themselves to the differences of the Isreali/Palestinian fight, however, you fail to answer one HIGHLY relevant question, and that is why all the submissions for the Tel Aviv focus are Jewish, with no Arab directed films?

While you may state that TIFF is not the place to argue the relationship (or lack of) between the Jewish and Arab peoples, I ask another question: when is it right to? There never seems to be an answer to that question, especially in America. I say, if you want to argue that artists have the right to showcase their works, you have to listen to their words as well. They are expressing themselves in another manner, and you can't say "I'll take one without the other". You want freedom of expression, they are giving it to you.

a supprisling well balanced point of view.

I'm impressed, given the hyperbole and character assassinations being hurled at the TIFF protest, by your even-handed, reasonable approach. I'd like to point out that neither John Greyson's letter nor the Toronto Declaration are calling for censorship or boycott. They specifically state that Israeli films should be allowed at TIFF this year, that their protest is against the "spotlight" framing of Tel Aviv, not the films being presented; against the TIFF programmers, not the film makers. This is a very important distinction, because a statement of protest should be seen as a perfectly palatable expression of free speech, not attacked as some kind of crazed, anti-semitic attempt to shut down the film festival.

To further clarify, Greyson et al are disturbed not by the inclusion of Israeli cultural product in the festival, but by the celebratory connotation created by shining a spotlight on Tel Aviv. To relate it to your finely argued, but flawed historical analogy, Paul Simon engaged with South African musicians on "Graceland", but didn't go around trumpeting Capetown's vibrant, cosmopolitan (white) culture. Invite as many Tel Aviv-produced films you want, but don't make a fuss about Israel's liberalism and openness while so many are suffering from a decided lack of these things a mere short drive away, in the territories.

Congratualtions for supporting an end to the occupation of the West Bank and a freeze of on settelments! But the films John Greyson called on the Tornoto FF to boycot can hardly be compared with Paul Simon's Graceland project. The point which the protest makes clear, is that this is not a boycot of Israeli film makers, its a boycot of the Brand Isarel makeover campaign which it has been clearly established is linked to the screening of these films. Its a boycott of the Israeli State. Back in 1984 two Irish shelfpackers refused to handle SA fruit and sparked a world wide boycott of South African product that was singularly effective in contributing to the fall of apartheid. John Greyson may be obscure to you, but he made films supporting the anti-apartheid movement back in 1987 and is considered by many to be the prince(ess) of radical queer filmmaking - perhaps the only inheritor of Derek Jarmen's mantel. But what would an LA times reporter know about all that history!?

Well said, Mr. Goldstein. Israeli artists should not be punished for their country's politics. Besides, it is the artistic communities within nations that usually speak out against injustice, and they are important allies people should not shun for some cheap publicity in Toronto.

There are so many falsehoods and inaccuracies in this article that I've lost count. Let me try to recap.

1. The protest by John Greyson and the people behind the "Toronto Declaration" had no objection to Israeli films being shown in the film festival. This is made explicit in both letters. Their problem was with a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv, the military capital of Israel, just months after the brutal assault on Gaza. The letters also noted the absence of Palestinian filmmakers from the program, which would be like showcasing South African cinema during the apartheid era with only white filmmakers part of the program.

2. I know this is LA, but you should really look outside of your Hollywood bubble if you think that John Greyson is 'obscure'. Try queer cinema or Canadian cinema for a change; it will be refreshing.

3. Ken Loach did not call for a boycott of the Edinburgh Film Festival because an Israeli film was playing in it. He publicly called for the Festival to reject funding it was slated to receive from the Israeli government, to comply with the international boycott of Israel. The festival complied and there was no boycott of the festival. Again, this was clearly stated in his open letter, but for some reason you have failed to state the facts.

4. This is not about Jewish culture or Jewish films. Five of the eight original writers of the Toronto Declaration are Jewish, and one of them is Israeli. Many of the now over 1000 signatories are Israeli filmmakers. They are joining the letter because they also object to a celebratory spotlight designed to portray the Israeli state in a positive way while whitewashing its war crimes and erasing Palestinians from the programming.

5. This is not about freedom of expression. As the letters clearly state (you are encouraged to read here: no one has any problem with the films or the filmmakers in the Tel Aviv spotlight. The problem is with celebrating Tel Aviv (and by extension, Israel) right now. Even Israeli filmmakers have called for the spotlight to be scrapped and for their films to be shown in the festival outside of that program. Freedom of expression does not include the right to do whatever you want and not have anyone criticize it. Criticism is not censorship. In fact, it is the actions of these protesters that have opened up debate on this topic, and it is their opponents like Simcha Jacobovici who are saying they shouldn't have be able to critique the Tel Aviv spotlight.

Besides the inaccuracies in this article, there are many other distortions of fact being circulated out there. The San Francisco-based group Jewish Voice for Peace has responded by putting out a fact sheet to correct this misinformation. You can read it for yourself here:

If Tel Aviv is really a "model city of diversity, freedom of expression and tolerance," why aren't the Palestinian refugees in Gaza, many of whom originated in Jaffa or nearby villages upon which much of Tel Aviv was built, allowed to reclaim their original homes and land in the area?

The comparison of the festival's showcasing Tel Aviv with Paul Simon's Graceland is a disingenuous sophism, almost Orwellian. Paul Simon showcased black South Africans, making unity with victims of South African apartheid. Nowhere in the Toronto Film festival do I notice any expose of Israel's apartheid or military practices, rather, the usual artsy romances and thrillers featuring Israelis. In light of the coldly calculated attacks on Gaza and Israeli soldiers shooting little children and white-flag waving families in cold blood, or just for sport, showcasing a city heavily involved in the system of government that deliberately kills people because of their Palestinian or Arab ethnicity amounts to supporting that activity.

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