From The National Post.
Artists, authors sign letter protesting Israeli spotlight at TIFF
Mark Medley, National Post Published: Thursday, September 03, 2009
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images Actor Danny Glover is one of more than 50 people have added their name to what’s being called The Toronto Declaration, a letter condemning the Toronto Film Festival’s complicity in “the Israeli …
TORONTO — The signatories of a new letter accusing the Toronto International Film Festival of becoming “complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine” run the gamut from an Oscar-winning actress to a rabble-rousing author to a Talking Head.
More than 50 people have added their name to what’s being called The Toronto Declaration, including musician David Byrne, actors Danny Glover and Jane Fonda, and author Alice Walker.
The letter, drafted by a committee that includes Canadian writer Naomi Klein and Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, is the latest move in a controversy that began when Canadian director John Greyson withdrew his short documentary, Covered, from the festival last week. The veteran filmmaker is protesting the festival’s inaugural City to City Spotlight on Tel Aviv, a 10-movie program that TIFF’s website promises will “explore the evolving urban experience while presenting the best documentary and fiction films from and about a selected city.” This year is Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary.
Greyson penned an open letter to festival co-directors Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey, as well as to Noah Cowan, artistic director of the under-construction Bell Lightbox, blasting the initiative.
The declaration states that while the signatories are not protesting the individual filmmakers participating in the program and do not seek to exclude Israeli films from the festival, “in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime.”
The protesters say that the City to City Spotlight is connected with the Israeli government’s “Brand Israel” media and advertising campaign, which was launched in 2008.
Both Greyson’s letter and the declaration mention an August 2008 article in the Canadian Jewish News in which Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin says Israel would have a major presence at this year’s festival. Gissin was not available for comment.
It is a charge Bailey denies.
“The City to City series was conceived and curated entirely independently,” Bailey writes in a letter posted on the festival website. “There was no pressure from any outside source. Contrary to rumours or mistaken media reports, this focus is a product only of TIFF’s programming decisions. We value that independence and would never compromise it.”
The protesters’ efforts are misguided, say critics of the protest.
“I think some of these people are well-meaning, some of these people are less well-meaning,” said Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, when reached in New York City. “Frankly, I think there’s no other word but anti-Semitism. I don’t know if they’re doing it consciously or unconsciously, I want to make that clear, but the idea that anything that Israel does is by definition illegitimate, and anything that the other side does is by definition legitimate, what do you call that?”
The Emmy Award-winning documentarian, who divides his time between Toronto and Israel, says Greyson’s original letter was “full of lies” and says the festival “shouldn’t be intimidated by this coalition of lies.”
Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Toronto Chapter of the Friends of the Simon Wiethensal Centre, says he found the decision “ludicrous.”
“For him to have pulled his film, and for the 50 signatories to have done that, what they’re in fact doing is just using the International Film Festival … as a forum, a vehicle, to delegitimize the state of Israel.
“I think Cameron Bailey’s response is to be applauded,” he adds. “It’s not branding and it has nothing to do with politics.”
Canadian filmmaker Mike Hoolboom, who has signed the letter, says the protest isn’t an attempt to hijack the festival.
“No one is calling for a boycott of the entire festival,” he said, “only for a boycott of the program.”
In his letter, Greyson maintains his protest “isn’t against the film or filmmakers” chosen but against the City to City program, specifically, and “the smug business-as-usual aura it promotes.”
He compares the “uncritical celebration” of Tel Aviv to “celebrating Montgomery (Ala.) buses in 1963” or “South African fruit in 1991.”
Bailey counters that “[Greyson] 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.”