TIFF focus on Tel Aviv draws Protest

International group of artists decries festival’s complicity with ‘Israeli propaganda machine’

Michael Posner

Last updated on Thursday, Sep. 03, 2009 02:07PM EDT

An international group of more than 50 prominent filmmakers, writers, artists and academics – including Ken Loach, David Byrne, Naomi Klein, Alice Walker, Jane Fonda, Wallace Shawn and Danny Glover – has signed a letter protesting the Toronto International Film Festival”s decision to spotlight the city of Tel Aviv and the work of 10 Israeli filmmakers.

The letter is to be published online Thursday, with a call for additional signatories.

“As members of the Canadian and international film, culture and media arts communities, we are deeply disturbed by [TIFF”s] decision to host a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv,” the letter begins. “We protest that TIFF, whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.”

The letter, coming on the virtual eve of the festival”s 34th edition, follows Canadian filmmaker John Greyson”s decision last week to pull his short documentary, Covered, from the TIFF lineup to protest the festival”s decision to launch its new City to City program by focusing on Tel Aviv.

John Greyson’s Letter to TIFF

Covered from John Greyson on Vimeo.

“We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City,” the new letter states. “Nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF. However … we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of … an apartheid regime.”

The new missive contends that TIFF organizers have, wittingly or unwittingly, been complicit in a million-dollar “Brand Israel” PR campaign to change negative perceptions of the state of Israel.

The artists allege that the campaign is designed to “take the focus off Israel”s treatment of Palestinians” and refocus it on achievements in medicine, science and culture.

The letter includes endorsements by several Israeli filmmakers and at least one Palestinian-Israeli director, Elia Suleiman, with a film in this year”s festival – The Time that Remains. He is not, however, withdrawing the film.

Last week, responding to Greyson”s protest, TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey insisted that the Israeli government had played no role in developing the new program.

“There was no pressure from any outside source,” wrote Mr. Bailey, in a letter posted on the TIFF website. “This focus is a product only of TIFF”s programming decisions. We value that independence and would never compromise it.” A TIFF spokesman Wednesday declined to add to that statement.

However, two other Canadian filmmakers, producer Robert Lantos and Emmy-award winning documentarian Simcha Jacobovici, weighed in Wednesday.

“[TIFF] deserves applause for its refusal to cater to the agenda of biased individuals with an axe to grind,” Mr. Lantos said in a statement.

Mr. Lantos, currently overseeing production of Barney”s Version, the Mordecai Richler novel, said Mr. Greyson”s “hypocrisy is mind-boggling. Israel is the only state in the Middle East where films are made freely and without censorship of any sort [and] the only country in the region where a gay positive film like Mr. Greyson”s could be produced and freely shown”

Mr. Jacobovici, a Toronto filmmaker who recently moved with his family to Israel, noted in a statement that the Palestinian government in Gaza had recently called a U.N. proposal to teach the Holocaust in Palestinian schools a war crime. “Why does Greyson want to align himself with Holocaust deniers?”

Shmulik Maoz, an Israeli director whose much-acclaimed film Lebanon will play at TIFF, said Wednesday that “film festivals should be above” discussions about boycotts and protests. “Trying to shut people”s mouths is not smart. In any event, most of the filmmakers in the City to City program are as critical of the Israeli government as anybody.”

Many of the voices protesting TIFF”s focus on Tel Aviv are part of a wider campaign, the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Among them is Toronto writer and political activist Naomi Klein who said Wednesday that it “strains credulity” to think that TIFF”s decision to spotlight Tel Aviv was not connected to the Israeli PR campaign. Such a programming decision “feeds Israel”s foreign policy goals and presents Israeli society as more diverse and open than it actually is,” she said.

A more nuanced position perhaps was voiced by Berkeley filmmaker Deborah Kaufman, who said in an e-mail statement that while the Brand Israel campaign “blurs the line between public relations and crass propaganda,” the City to City program included Assi Dayan”s brilliant Life According to Agfa, “which I see as an attack on the entire Zionist enterprise, and Eytan Fox”s The Bubble, a provocative fantasia on failed dreams,” films that allow “audiences to make their own judgments about Israeli politics.”

“I also want to push change,” Ms. Kaufman said. “But I feel our strength as film activists is to promote debate and critical thought through engagement, not silencing.”

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