By Ahmed Habib [Al-Jazeera] 12 September 2009 – Moviegoers who were hoping for world class cinema at this week’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) may find themselves at the centre of a growing controversy steeped in international politics.
Considered to be one of the five most prestigious film festivals, the TIFF this year introduced the City to City programme, a new theme to its traditional programming grid, “that will explore the evolving urban experience while presenting the best documentary and fiction films from and about a selected city.”
Festival organisers say they have chosen Tel Aviv to be the focus of the inaugural edition of the programme.
“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,” a festival press release says.
But by delving into a city that evokes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, organisers have walked headfirst into a global debate that has shifted the spotlight away from the festival’s films.
Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, who has been a regular guest at the festival, decided to withdraw his latest documentary, Covered, in protest at the choice of Tel Aviv as the TIFF’s spotlight.
“From start to finish, the spotlight is a champion of Israeli cinema and an erasure of Palestinian voices. It is something that all of us could not stomach,” he told Al Jazeera.
In an open letter to the Festival’s organisers, more than 65 prominent cultural figures including actors Jane Fonda, Viggo Mortensen, Harry Belafonte, and Danny Glover expressed their discontent that the internationally acclaimed festival, “has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine,” by choosing to celebrate Tel Aviv’s modern history.
They said that celebrating Tel Aviv in such an eminent setting “would be like rhapsodising about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during Apartheid.”
“We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF,” they said in what has come to be called the Toronto Declaration.
“However, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign.”
Greyson accused TIFF organisers of “colluding with Brand Israel”, a public relations initiative launched by the Israeli government to improve its public image around the world, to push the campaign forward.
In an article that appeared in The New York Times since the launch of the campaign in August 2008, Arye Mekel, the Israeli foreign ministry’s deputy director general for cultural affairs, said: “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, [we will use] theatre companies [and] exhibits,” Mekel said.
“This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war,” she wrote.
The campaign has already been carried out in Toronto with billboards and posters at bus stops advertising tourism to Israel.
Amir Gissin, the Israeli consul-general in Toronto, has said that the city’s multicultural fabric made it an ideal test for Brand Israel and that the campaign has already focused on south Asian communities, and has emphasised dialogue with the large East African community.
Speaking to the Canadian Jewish News last year, Gissin said, “that these cultures hold their own weight in North America. I’m very interested in inter-community dialogue.”
He also referred to a “significant presence,” at the TIFF as an important indicator of the campaign’s success.
Despite repeated attempts, officials at the Israeli consulate in Toronto did not return Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Festival organisers, however, have adamantly denied any connections with the Israeli government’s campaign.
“Contrary to rumours or mistaken reports, this [City to City] focus is a product only of TIFF’s programming decisions. We value that independence and would never compromise it,” Cameron Bailey, the co-director of the TIFF, wrote.
“We recognise that Tel Aviv is not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground,” Bailey adds.
Festival director Piers Handling issued a statement on Thursday saying that the films from Tel Aviv are meant to promote discussion.
“If there are issues that have been raised by these films, that’s exactly what the festival should be about, to show work that’s challenging, work that raises questions, work that’s contemporary, work that deals with today’s issues,” he said.
The TIFF communication department referred all Al Jazeera enquiries to a public response on their website.
Greyson, however, says such explanations fall short. “We have to honour the cultural boycott of Israel. We have a responsibility to respond to this call,” Greyson tells Al Jazeera.
In 2005, more than 100 Palestinian civil society groups and NGOs called for an international campaign for Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli institutions modelled on a similar campaign used to end Apartheid in South Africa.
Since then, “Israeli Apartheid Week” has been held annually on several Canadian university campuses.
Anne Marie Jacir, who wrote and directed Salt of this Sea, a feature film telling the story of Soraya, a Palestinian refugee that returns home, also signed the protest letter.
She says Israeli authorities tried to impede production of her film, which was officially selected at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
“I wasn’t allowed to enter the country to film the final scene, so we had to ship the actors and props to Marseilles,” Jacir told Al Jazeera.
“Israeli filmmakers, on the other hand are allowed through any checkpoints they please. They enter areas we cannot, and visit our families while it is illegal for us to do so,” she adds.
She feels the, “idea of boycott is a tactic and a non-violent way to protest gross human rights violations, mass killings, and an Apartheid.”
Resisting through art
Louverture Films is a New York-based production company which promotes and distributes films that focus on themes of social justice.
The firm was co-founded by Joslyn Barnes and Glover, both of whom signed the TIFF protest letter.
“As one of the few producers attending TIFF with a Palestinian film, I felt it is important to address the launch of the Brand Israel campaign,” Barnes told Al Jazeera.
Barnes and Glover are associate producers of The Time that Remains, a comedy directed by Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman which tells the story of the creation of Israel from 1948 to present.
Barnes feels that the inclusion of Suleiman’s film will help “create a space of awareness where war, occupation, and Apartheid are not possible because there is no ‘other’ whose existence is intolerable.”
“All governments practising cultural genocide have a public relations problem. In Israel’s case, increasing dismay and activism within the country and in the Diaspora have the Israeli government worried,” she adds.
‘Highlight the oppressed’
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and a two-time Academy Award winner, is alarmed at the criticism the TIFF has received for focusing on Tel Aviv.
“But the recent decision of more than 65 artists to boycott Toronto’s International Film Festival because it is spotlighting Tel Aviv’s 100th birthday is a new low blow aimed at Israel’s heart and soul that I have not seen for a long time,” Hier wrote in the Toronto Sun newspaper.
Hier has called the Toronto Declaration “intentionally or unintentionally, nothing more than a recipe for Israel’s destruction”.
He said that until Arab-Israeli peace was achieved, movie-goers should enjoy the Festival and “salute Tel Aviv, amongst the freest cities in the world, on its centennial”.
But Udi Aloni, an Israeli filmmaker and writer, also signed the Toronto Declaration.
His films, which include Forgiveness, a surreal look at the what Palestinians say were massacres of Arab civilians in the village of Deir Yassin in 1948, are internationally recognised for their critical examination of Israel’s identity.
“I felt it was a betrayal for the film community or festival to celebrate the oppressor, as opposed to highlighting the lives of the oppressed,” Aloni told Al Jazeera
“If the Palestinians ask us to follow a cultural boycott of Israel, while they remain voiceless, then it is our obligation to do it.”