Ten days before it’s set to kick off, the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival has found itself in the midst of some controversy. Canadian filmmaker John Greyson (“Lilies,” “Fig Trees”) has withdrawn his short film “Covered” – a doc about the 2008 Sarajevo Queer Festival, which was cancelled due to anti-gay violence – from this year’s lineup due to a disagreement with the festival’s program spotlighting films from Tel Aviv.
“I’ve come to a very difficult decision,” Greyson said in an open letter addressed to Toronto’s Piers Handling, Cameron Bailey and Noah Cowan. “I’m withdrawing my film Covered from TIFF in protest against your inaugural City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv.”
City-to-City is a new program intended to showcase works from a specific world city. “We’re going to look for cities where there’s interesting work happening, and perhaps an interesting group of young filmmakers coming up that are making films that are really expressing something about the changes that are happening in that city,” TIFF Co-Director Cameron Bailey told indieWIRE last week. “That’s why Tel Aviv seemed like the perfect choice for us this year, because it is one of those cities where there is an incredibly diverse mix of cultures.”
Greyson’s issue with the program partially stems from the festival’s perceived involvement with the Brand Israel campaign, an attempt to give the state a new international image. Greyson notes an article in the Canadian Jewish News, where Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin described “the culmination of his year-long Brand Israel campaign,” which includes “a major Israeli presence at next year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with numerous Israeli, Hollywood and Canadian entertainment luminaries on hand.” Gissin said that Toronto was chosen as a test-city for Brand Israel by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and thanked Astral, MIJO and Canwest for donating the million-dollar budget (Greyson noted that “Astral is of course a long-time TIFF sponsor, and Canwest owners’ Asper Foundation donated $500,000 to TIFF”).
Greyson feels this is “not the right year to celebrate Brand Israel” due to an unfortunate set of events he lists that have occurred in the country in the past twelve months. Paraphrasing Greyson’s letter (though some of these facts have been disputed by Amnesty International): The Gaza massacre that occurred last December, which resulted in 1,000 civilian deaths; the election of a Prime Minister earlier this year that has been accused of war crimes; the extension of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands; the destruction of Palestinian homes and orchards; and the growth of a totalitarian security wall, and the further enshrining of the check-point system.
“Such state policies have led diverse figures such as John Berger, Jimmy Carter, and Bishop Desmond Tutu to characterize this ‘brand’ as apartheid,” Greyson said. “Your TIFF program book may describe 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 Israeli 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, or to pointedly ignore the international economic boycott campaign against Israel.”
Greyson made clear his protest was not against the films or filmmakers chosen to participate in the program, noting he’s seen “brilliant works of Israeli and Palestinian cinema at past TIFFs, and will again in coming years,” but against the Spotlight itself, “and the smug business-as-usual aura it promotes of a ‘vibrant metropolis [and] dynamic young city… commemorating its centennial,’ seemingly untroubled by other anniversaries, such as the 42nd anniversary of the occupation.” He asks, “Isn’t such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now akin to celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973, Nestles infant formula in 1984, or South African fruit in 1991?”
Cameron Bailey – the programmer of City to City – responded to Greyson with an open letter posted on the festival’s website last Friday. Bailey states in his letter that there was no pressure from any outside source in the program’s conception, and that it’s “a product only of TIFF’s programming decisions.” “The open letter I posted captures my response to the protest,” Bailey told indieWIRE this morning. “The most important parts for me are that we curated the series independently, without coercion from ‘the Israeli propaganda machine,’ and that I’d be grateful if people could watch the films — many of them offering social critiques of Tel Aviv — and bring whatever points of view they may have on the films into the discussions in the theatre.”
Bailey also notes how Greyson writes that his protest isn’t against the films or filmmakers that the festival chose, but against the spotlight itself. “By that reasoning, no films programmed within this series would have met his approval, no matter what they contained,” Bailey said in the letter. “For us, the content and form of films does matter. In fact, when I met with a number of the signatories earlier this week, I encouraged them to see the films before passing judgment on the programme. Regrettably, they chose a different route. We know some of them to be veterans of Toronto’s battles against censorship — all the more surprising to watch them denounce a film series without seeing the films in it.”
The controversy has ignited a divisive arguments across Twitter, Facebook and the blogophere. Bailey’s Twitter feed announced, before he wrote the aforelinked letter: “Boycotters: CTC films were chosen independently, to open conversations about TA. Anyone still believe in seeing and deciding for yourself?” While a batch of commenters on popular Toronto blog Blog TO went back and forth on a story discussing the protest. “It’s hardly brave or courageous to play into fashionable causes that have no time for nuance or complexity,” one writes, while another argues against multiple suggestions that Greyson’s letter is simply a publicity stunt. “He’s a much respected and critically acclaimed filmmaker, he’s not looking to break into Hollywood or something,” they write. “He’s repeatedly used his position to take courageous and principled stands- he also pulled his film ‘fig trees’ from the tel aviv queer film fest, for example.”
Earlier this year, programmers at the Edinburgh International Film Festival found themselves in a similarly themed controversy. A few days after the film festival slated the international premiere of Israeli writer-director Tali Shalom Ezer‘s “Surrogate,” Ken Loach urged for a boycott of the fest because organizers had accepted money from the Israeli government to pay for Shalom-Ezer’s travel costs.
“The massacres and state terrorism in Gaza make this money unacceptable,” Loach had said. “With regret, I must urge all who might consider visiting the festival to show their support for the Palestinian nation and stay away.”
As a result, Edinburgh gave back the money, but kept “Surrogate” in the lineup, funding Shalom Ezer’s travel from their own budget. “Clearly we didn’t appreciate enough that our festival cannot keep itself entirely detached from very serious geopolitical issues and I am instituting a review of our procedures to enusre there can be no repeat incidient,” EIFF Chair Iain Smith said in a statement.
With TIFF a little more than a week away, Greyson and Bailey are unlikely to come to any compromise. The City to City program begins on September 11th with Raphaël Nadjari’s “A History of Israeli Cinema Part I,” while Greyson has made “Covered” available on the internet now through the duration of the Toronto International Film Festival. “The film focuses on the bravery of the [Sarajevo Queer Festival] organizers and their supporters,” Greyson wrote regarding the film, “and equally, on the ostriches, on those who remained silent, who refused to speak out: most notoriously, the Sarajevo International Film Festival and the Canadian Ambassador in Sarajevo. To stand in judgment of these ostriches before a TIFF audience, but then say nothing about this Tel Aviv spotlight — finally, I realized that that was a brand I couldn’t stomach.”