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TIFF’s Tel Aviv Tiff

In an earlier TIFF post, we joked that the film Five Hours From Paris won our award for the “worst summary we’ve ever seen from TIFF” with: “In a suburb of Tel Aviv, an Israeli cab driver who longs to fly and a Russian music teacher who is soon to board a plane find out that romance is only a cab ride away.”
Little did we know at the time that the city—Tel Aviv—would form the flashpoint of a debate currently raging. Since noted local filmmaker John Greyson decided to pull his short, Covered, in protest to the city being the spotlight of the Toronto International Film Festival’s first “City to City” programme (a programme that, we must state, Five Hours From Paris isn’t part of—it’s part of the Discovery programme) there literally hasn’t been a news post on a website that hasn’t formed a furious argument as part of its comment thread. Some websites, such as the Globe and Mail, quickly shut down their article‘s comments due to the amount of “offensive statements.”

Greyson’s withdrawal letter [PDF] concentrates specifically on his disagreement with the spotlight. Opening with the specific statement that the Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin has described the Spotlight as the “culmination of his year-long Brand Israel campaign,” Greyson says his protest is not against the “films or filmmakers chosen” but specifically against the spotlight’s “smug business-as-usual aura [that] promotes a ‘vibrant metropolis’…seemingly untroubled.”
What’ll be of interest to those who read the full letter —something we urge you to do—is how conciliatory its tone is, admitting that many could see his statements as “inflammatory rhetoric” and that boycotts can be seen as preventing “much needed dialogue between possible allies” (also revealing that he is programming Israeli filmmakers, funded by the Israeli state, as part of the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival). Ultimately, Greyson states, what informed his decision to pull out was his short film, Covered, which concentrates on the violence that surrounded the first queer film festival in Sarajevo. Available for free online for the duration of the festival, and embedded above, Torontoist must admit it is a real loss for the festival; it would already be one of our favourite films of the fest, as its thematic completeness is remarkable. But, based on Greyson’s feelings, with so much of its weight placed on criticizing those who “remained silent” in the face of the anti-gay violence at the Sarajevo Queer Festival, it would be impossible and dishonest to have been included as part of the screenings.
In response, TIFF’s Co-Director Cameron Bailey (who we interviewed at last year’s TIFF over earlier controversy, but who was not available for comment on this issue) posted an open letter on the TIFF website regarding the “City to City: Tel Aviv” spotlight. “Obviously we are disappointed by John’s decision to withdraw his film,” Bailey wrote, “[but] that said, we were surprised that he took this action given the facts of the situation,” which, Bailey states are: that “there was no pressure from any outside source”; that the “Festival lineup also includes other important films from the region, including two films by Palestinian filmmakers and others from Lebanon and Egypt”; and, most interestingly, that “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.”
It’s this part that feels at least slightly disingenuous, considering that Greyson seems to suggest in his letter that his problem with the spotlight is not the city itself but the questions that remain about its selection—specifically stating that he’s “sorry” he can’t feel positive about the Tel Aviv spotlight but “many questions remain…about its origins, its funding, its programming, its sponsors.”
Indeed, the open letter doesn’t answer his most damning question directed at TIFF: if the festival isn’t officially part of Brand Israel, “why haven’t you clarified this publicly?” And this is a question that does remain open. If TIFF is aware, as Bailey states in his letter, “that Tel Aviv is not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground,” then why would they allow themselves to, conceivably, be used as part of a branding campaign that, as Greyson notes, could feel to many like “propaganda”?
Since the two letters, the situation has become more visible internationally, with a group of worldwide filmmakers—including widely respected figures such as Ken Loach and David Byrne—signing the “Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation.” More strident than Greyson’s personal letter, the letter claims that TIFF “intentionally or not” has become “complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.”
“The emphasis on ‘diversity’ in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program,” the letter continues, but does note, “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.”
The full letter can be read here, with further statements from Ken Loach, Rebecca O’Brien, and Paul Laverty available at The Guardian.
Streams of informed and uninformed commentary seen in comment threads aside, which throw accusations of everything from antisemitism to publicity stunt around with abandon, for people who love the Toronto Film Festival and its history of clever programming—screening, as Bailey states, “the best films we can find from around the world”—the question remains why the festival would place itself in this position.


  • bunnykin

    Thank you for a very well-informed and well thought-out article. Since hearing of Mr. Greyson’s protest, I have been giving much thought to the situation. I believe that ultimately, TIFF is (or should be) a cultural festival which celebrates the best in cinema, and not a place for politics. But then, if a city such as Tel Aviv is allegedly being misrepresented, then perhaps the act of spotlighting it is in itself political.

  • TokyoTuds

    (Cross-posted and edited from the discussion at BlogTO)
    In this interview with Cecilie Surasky (the deputy director for Jewish Voice for Peace), the author and self-described diaspora Jew Naomi Klein & Israeli publisher Yael Lerer, the value of the BDS “boycott” of Israel is very well explained. They clearly address the questions of why Israel and not other countries, and so on.
    Those (at BlogTO) side-tracking this issue by focussing on gay rights just because Greyson is a gay filmmaker need to come back to the discussion raised by Greyson himself: that of joining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction strategy (BDS).
    This OpEd in the LA Times by Neve Gordon (Ben-Gurion University) is also very relevant reading to this whole topic. It seems to me that we are witnessing the uptake of the BDS action and a year or so from now, we will wonder why we weren’t all in earlier (as with the boycott of South Africa in the 1980s).
    Please read these 2 links and let me know what you think.

  • http://undefined Jack V

    Perhaps John Greyson should also direct BDS at the City of Toronto’s culture office. Rita Davies (ED) went to Israel last year, around the time of the Gaza attacks, to discuss the City-to-City program. Would it be possible to find out more about that? and why the municipal government thought it was a wise thing to do. especially at that horrendous time.

  • http://undefined newuser2k9

    Mr. Greyson has lost my respect. The fact that Israel (in whatever form) is participating in this event should never be a reason for a boycott. The Israeli government, however deeply involved with the Palestinians, does support very free and open media (government-sponsored movies, like Waltz With Bashir, have been very critical of Israel). Boycots like this squander peace movements within Israel, by tarnishing smart and even-headed film makers.
    The Israeli-Palestinian issue is very complex and decidedly grey. Not even allowing for debate or engagement hurts the situation by hurting the very voices of reason.
    The peace movement within Israel needs worldwide support, just like the Palestinian movement. Since the death of Yitzhak Rabin, the situation has only worsened. We now have multiple war-like entities, boycotts or not, supported by foreign powers, fighting and destroying the lives of the very people they ‘fight’ to save.
    I would have much preferred to see a dialogue between the two camps rather than just allowing the Israelis (or the pro-Palestinians) to show their side of the issue. It’s this total lack of dialogue that’s instigating the conflict.