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Fonda, Loach and Klein Among Those Joining Protest Against TIFF

Director John Greyson (right) is in Berlin for the world premiere of his "Fig Trees." He's pictured here with his boyfriend artist Stephen Andrews. Photo by Brian Brooks.

A protest of the Toronto International Film Festival has found some considerable support from international group of more than 50 prominent filmmakers, writers, artists and academics – including Ken Loach, David Byrne, Naomi Klein, B. Ruby Rich, Alice Walker, Jane Fonda, Wallace Shawn, Eve Ensler and Danny Glover – who have each signed a letter protesting the festival’s decision to spotlight the city of Tel Aviv and the work of 10 Israeli filmmakers. On Monday, indieWIRE reported on Canadian filmmaker John Greyson's decision to withdrawn his short film "Covered" from this year's Toronto International Film Festival lineup due to a disagreement with the festival's program spotlighting films from Tel Aviv. Now The Globe and Mail is reporting that Greyson has found allies in the aforementioned, who have published the online, with a call for additional signatories (you can view it in its entirety on the second page of this story).

"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 letter is particularly significant in that it includes endorsements by several Israeli filmmakers and at least one Palestinian-Israeli director, Elia Suleiman, who has a film in this year’s festival – "The Time that Remains." He has decided not to withdraw the film.

The protest stems from an open letter addressed to Toronto's Piers Handling, Cameron Bailey and Noah Cowan that John Greyson wrote late last week. Greyson's issue with the program had partially stemmed from a belief that the festival's organizers had - to some degree - been associated with a million-dollar "Brand Israel"’ campaign to "change negative perceptions of the state of Israel." 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." Essentially, Greyson felt 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.

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 earlier this week. "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."

Numerous comments met indieWIRE's initial article, both passionately in support and against Greyson's decision (though more predominantly against it).

Read Greyson's letter in its entirety here, and Bailey's response here. Continue to page two for the letter published today.

An Open Letter to the Toronto International Film Festival:

September 2, 2009

As members of the Canadian and international film, culture and media arts communities, we are deeply disturbed by the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to host a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv. We protest that TIFF, whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.

In 2008, the Israeli government and Canadian partners Sidney Greenberg of Astral Media, David Asper of Canwest Global Communications and Joel Reitman of MIJO Corporation launched “Brand Israel,” a million dollar media and advertising campaign aimed at changing Canadian perceptions of Israel. Brand Israel would take the focus off Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its aggressive wars, and refocus it on achievements in medicine, science and culture. An article in Canadian Jewish News quotes Israeli consul general Amir Gissin as saying that Toronto would be the test city for a promotion that could then be deployed around the world. According to Gissin, the culmination of the campaign would be a major Israeli presence at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. (Andy Levy-Alzenkopf, “Brand Israel set to launch in GTA,” Canadian Jewish News, August 28, 2008.)

In 2009, TIFF announced that it would inaugurate its new City to City program with a focus on Tel Aviv. According to program notes by Festival co-director and City to City programmer Cameron Bailey, “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.”

The emphasis on 'diversity' in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is that Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada. Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city’s past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto.

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. However, especially 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.

This letter was drafted by the following ad hoc committee:

Udi Aloni, filmmaker, Israel; Elle Flanders, filmmaker, Canada; Richard Fung, video artist, Canada; John Greyson, filmmaker, Canada; Naomi Klein, writer and filmmaker, Canada; Kathy Wazana, filmmaker, Canada; Cynthia Wright, writer and academic, Canada; b h Yael, film and video artist, Canada

Endorsed by:

Ahmad Abdalla, Filmmaker, Egypt

Hany Abu-Assad, Filmmaker, Palestine


Mark Achbar, Filmmaker, Canada

Zackie Achmat, AIDS activist, South Africa

Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, Filmmaker, Jerusalem

Anthony Arnove, Publisher and Producer, USA

Ruba Atiyeh, Documentary Director, Lebanon

Joslyn Barnes, Writer and Producer, USA

John Berger, Author, France

David Byrne, Musician, USA

Guy Davidi Director, Israel

Na-iem Dollie, Journalist/Writer, South Africa

Igor Drljaca, Filmmaker, Canada

Eve Ensler, Playwright, Author, USA

Eyal Eithcowich, Director, Israel

Sophie Fiennes, Filmmaker, UK

Peter Fitting, Professor, Canada

Jane Fonda, Actor and Author, USA

Danny Glover, Filmmaker and Actor, USA

Noam Gonick, Director, Canada

Malcolm Guy, Filmmaker, Canada

Mike Hoolboom, Filmmaker, Canada

Annemarie Jacir, Filmmaker, Palestine

Fredric Jameson, Literary Critic, USA

Juliano Mer Khamis, Filmmaker, Jenin/Haifa

Bonnie Sherr Klein Filmmaker, Canada

Paul Laverty, Producer, UK

Paul Lee, Filmmaker, Canada

Yael Lerer, publisher, Tel Aviv

Jack Lewis, Filmmaker, South Africa

Ken Loach, Filmmaker, UK

Arab Lotfi, Filmmaker, Egypt/Lebanon

Kyo Maclear, Author, Toronto

Mahmood Mamdani, Professor, USA

Fatima Mawas, Filmmaker, Australia

Tessa McWatt, Author, Canada and UK

Cornelius Moore, Film Distributor, USA

Yousry Nasrallah, Director, Egypt

Rebecca O'Brien, Producer, UK

Pratibha Parmar, Producer/Director, UK

Jeremy Pikser, Screenwriter, USA

John Pilger, Filmmaker, UK

Shai Carmeli Pollak, Filmmaker, Israel

Ian Iqbal Rashid, Filmmaker, Canada

Judy Rebick, Professor, Canada

David Reeb, Artist, Tel Aviv

B. Ruby Rich, Critic and Professor, USA

Wallace Shawn, Playwright, Actor, USA

Eyal Sivan, Filmmaker and Scholar, Paris/London/Sderot

Elia Suleiman, Fimmlaker, Nazareth/Paris/New York

Eran Torbiner, Filmmaker, Israel

Alice Walker, Writer, USA

Thomas Waugh, Professor, Canada

Howard Zinn, Writer, USA

Slavoj Zizek, Professor, Slovenia

To add your name to this letter, please send your name, occupation and country to tiff.letter@gmail.com. We will accept signatures until September 8, 2009

For further reading on this issue:

Letter by Canadian filmmaker John Greyson on withdrawing his film from the Toronto International Film Festival in protest against City to City:

http://tiny.cc/tiff_open_letter

Response by TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey to Greyson’s withdrawal and this petition:

http://www.tiff.net/livefromthefestival/openlettercitytocity

Report in Israeli daily Haaretz:

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1110750.htmlspages/1110750.html

Report in Guardian newspaper, UK:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2009/sep/01/israel-palestine-boycott-film

Statement by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1085etemplate.php?id=1085

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10 Comments

  • yafa son | September 7, 2009 10:00 AMReply

    Well done John Greyson.
    and shame on you TIFF, becoming part of the ugly zionist isreali propaganda machine ignoring the suffering of over 10 million Palestinians 5 millions of them living outside their homeland with the majority in refugees camps. the so called tel-aviv was bulit on the ruins of the Palestinian town (Tal Al rabeea`a). to become the capital of this racist blood thirsty rouge state that never stopped the killing and destruction of Palestine and other arab countries since its creation.

  • teddyleifer | September 7, 2009 9:46 AMReply

    Academic and cultural boycotts: Selective, sordid and plain silly

    John Greyson’s decision to pull his film, “Covered” out from Toronto International Film Festival is a shameful example of the appalling double-standards being used to single-out and vilify Israel and Israeli film-makers.

    Firstly, Toronto International Film Festival should be praised for standing by its decision to go ahead as planned with a programme of films dedicated to the Israeli capital, Tel Aviv. TIFF was thrown into an uncomfortable situation and in the face of aggression and an awkward kind of publicity, the festival’s directors have shown strength and great integrity.

    John Greyson argues that his decision to withdraw his film is because of Israeli Government and Israeli businesses’ financial contributions to this year’s festival. On this basis shouldn’t he also boycott going to see Israeli films themselves? Waltz with Bashir, for instance, could not have been made without the state funding provided by the Israeli Film Council. Screened at TIFF this time last year, that film was a challenging, highly critical portrayal of the Israeli army’s role in Lebanon. Israel is the only country in the region where the government provides state funding for film, and other artistic output, that rigorously criticises the state. Yet that point seems lost on Greyson.

    The idea that Israel’s film community is a mouthpiece for the Israeli Government is laughable. As in many countries, Israel’s film industry is liberal, diverse, and offers an outlet to voices which challenge the status quo. And, as in many counties, including Greyson’s (Canada) and mine (UK), the film output would be substantially weaker without the much needed state support.

    Greyson’s desired effect (I imagine) is that his absence, or at least the announcement of his absence, makes the organisers of TIFF feel uncomfortable, regretful and intimidated. This is not an isolated case. We have already seen Ken Loach abuse his status to intimidate both the Edinburgh International Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival on this very issue. Perhaps Greyson hoped that by taking an equally intimidatory approach as Loach, his films would ultimately be awarded greater prominence and acclaim.

    Sadly, the only likely outcome of this course of action is the alienation and discomfort of Israeli filmmakers, on the sole basis of their nationality. That’s a horrible side-effect and couldn’t be more counterproductive. Those who work in the arts in Israel, and indeed in other troubled regions, are precisely the people who need to be made to feel included, not excluded. Of course, the same is true across academic communities. Boycotts of this nature do not affect government policy, they just reduce the number of people with whom important discussion can take place. It undermines the search for peaceful solutions by deliberately excluding important advocates of progress.

    John Greyson is aware that there are many fearlessly independent films produced by Israeli filmmakers, often with the support of Israeli state money, and that Israel’s finest directors are able to say exactly what they wish with no fear of repercussions. A mature democracy breeds a liberal artistic output. Why would anybody want to push those artists away?

    Sadly, I fear, John Greyson’s decision is more about John Greyson than anything else. Dressed up as a political and ethical statement, in fact, it is merely a publicity stunt. Presumably for maximum effect (he is kindly still exhibiting his film online), he waited until just before TIFF commenced to withdraw his film, although for months it seems he has known (and objected to) the sponsorship from Israeli sources.

    It isn’t too late for John to change his mind, take his work to TIFF and engage with the issues. I won’t hold my breath though. Some seem all too committed to the intellectually negligent, blanket demonisation of one particular country, even if that means singling out for condemnation its most liberal, creative and progressive elements.

    Teddy Leifer

  • noahharlan | September 7, 2009 8:35 AMReply

    J Carter,

    I hear your point but I think Greyson still falls into a logic problem. The team from Toronto has said explicitly that the program was created, conceived, curated and funded without any connection to Brand Israel or the Israeli government. That the Israeli government thinks it is a good thing that people see films representing Tel Aviv is a separate issue. Mr. Greyson claims simultaneously that he can't support this forum at all because it is part of an Israeli government propaganda effort and because it doesn't have more critical voices.

    In fact he has slim grounds on both arguments. He is either calling Mr. Bailey a liar (which I don't think he is) or he is making an internally disingenuous argument. As for the critical voices, given that neither he nor most of the other attendees have seen a number of the films I feel that they are not in a position to judge.

    I think the only argument that holds water is that there is not an Arab-Israeli or Palestinian filmmaker in the mix. That being said, I'm interested to see which film Cameron should have included to represent that viewpoint. I think it would be far more productive to talk about a film that should be added than to tell people not to see these films.

    YAFA SON:

    You need to read Cameron Bailey's response to Greyson before making such claims. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is unbecoming of honest discourse.

  • j carter | September 6, 2009 10:39 AMReply

    noahharlan

    I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I differ on a couple of points. First, I don't think Greyson was using the Sun City boycott as a corollary, but simply as an example of a previous cultural boycott. Second, again, the direct point of his protest: the linking of "Brand Israel" to this event by the Israeli Consul General.
    He is not advocating generalized opposition to Israeli films or filmmakers, but responding to the linkage of this specific event with an official public relations campaign designed to deflect attention away from extremely controversial (to say the least) policies and actions by the Israeli government.

  • noahharlan | September 6, 2009 3:12 AMReply

    J Carter,

    I think the gap in Mr. Greyson's logic is the leap from economic boycotts to cultural boycotts. He also misunderstands the South African cultural boycott. South African artists that left South Africa and presented their work abroad were not the targets of the boycott but, rather, as he notes, foreign artists going to Sun City. Sun City was a wealthy resort for white South Africans and not encouraging that is a reasonable approach but that is really a form of economic boycott. It is saying "we will not entertain you in your apartheid resort". Mr. Greyson is choosing to shut down discourse, without viewing the works. He is playing a whack-a-mole argument where he says he objects to an uncritical view of Israel being presented, but when asked if he objects to the films or filmmakers he says he isn't. When told that the films, in many cases, are quite critical (look with a critical eye), he says he doesn't oppose them. The error here is that he does not, in fact, know how critical the presentation is and thus is acting in an artistically and intellectually dishonest way.

  • j carter | September 4, 2009 10:01 AMReply

    I found John Greyson's letter to be an intelligent, progressive and well-reasoned statement. He is familiar with the issues at hand and with historical precedents for boycott campaigns. He had obviously grappled with the specifics of this situation over time, and he appears to have been in communication with the festival directors during that time. He took care to differentiate the basis of his complaint from the individual films and filmmakers involved.

    The presence of "Brand Israel" in conjunction with this event is what is sparking the controversy. I believe that Cameron Bailey's rebuttal that the decision to schedule this program was taken entirely independently can and should be accepted, however that does not mitigate the statements of Consul General Gissin. That this screening was to be used as part of a cynical public relations campaign required some kind of response, and Greyson did well to make that response in an appropriately articulate manner.

  • noahharlan | September 4, 2009 7:35 AMReply

    Sadly, artists are boycotting artists. The irony is that those are claiming to be for discourse are opposed to it. My thoughts:

    http://401stblow.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/the-end-of-discourse-on-censorship-boycotts/

  • International Media Resources | September 4, 2009 7:10 AMReply

    I wanted to voice my support for TIFF's program of highlighting film artists from Tel Aviv. I find it enormously hypocritical that these protesting "celebrities" do not seperate the artistic output of film artists from their government policies. It is as if the world assumed that all Americans were rabid supporters of President Bush in office for the past eight years.

    While I am myself a critic of much of the Israeli hard line policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, I think that boycotting the films of these Israeli artists and chastising TIFF for providing them with a forum is unfair, despicable and not worthy of their supposed high-minded outrage.

    Perhaps these critics would be better served protesting the lack of any Israeli or even Jewish presence at the upcoming film festivals in Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. At least TIFF is providiing a forum for works to be seen, debated and discussed.

    Sandy Mandelberger
    International Media Resources

  • moviemaker2008 | September 4, 2009 5:52 AMReply

    You know what is a real shame here? That some of these celebrities do NOT truly know the issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that they have bought into this notion of the Palestinians as victims -- in fact, buying into the Palestinian propaganda machine that has been in full force this entire decade.

    For example....

    How many people know that Yasser Arafat was a billionaire when he died? Yes, that's right a billionaire with a B. 99.9% of the world doesn't know this, because the Palestinian propaganda machine makes sure this kind of stuff gets buried in the news media.

    Yasser Arafat diverted hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars meant for his people, into his own personal coffers, money invested around the world in her own personal portfolio. Instead of building schools and hospitals and a business infrastructure, that could provide a living for "his people," he chose to be a crook instead. As is typical of Palestinian leadership. Victims at the hands of "an oppressor"? Total bullsh*t.

    Another example...

    Hamas fires hundreds of rockets into Israel, which the world ignores, yet when Israel finally gets tired of the destruction and civilians being killed and retaliates, the Palestinian propaganda machine swings into full gear, making sure the world knows how "brutal" Israel is in their response. This cycle of provocation and response is of course nothing new; it's been going on for decades. What is new this decade is the Palestinians being able to utilizing the Arab television stations (like Al-Jezeera) to disseminate the messages they want the Arab world to hear. And of course the Arab world has never been favorable to the Jews.

    Why doesn't Al-Jezeera do news stories on Palestinian provocations and aggressions? For the SAME reason FOX News would never show a Republican in an unfavorable light. They're both extremely biased and have agendas; they are not real news organizations.

    One more example...

    How many know what kind of peace deal was on the table at Camp David in 2000, with President Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat? Well, perhaps only those who were there, but there are reports that the deal was very favorable to the Palestinians, with concessions never offered before by the Israelis. But Arafat ultimately said 'No.' Peace was at hand, and the Palestinians said 'Ef you.'

    Yup, the Palestinians are victims alright. With billionaire leaders and political agendas determining accepting a peace accord or not, who needs enemies??

    Propaganda. That's what is going on, and these celebrities are apparently not smart enough to see through it. What a shame.

  • biasedcommmenting | September 4, 2009 2:10 AMReply

    Wow, a second letter. I still don't care. Oh wait, Jane Fonda signed it? Now I really don't care.