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by Peter Knegt
August 31, 2009 4:20 AM
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Denouncing Tel Aviv Focus, Filmmaker Pulls Out of Toronto Fest

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 Canadian filmmaker John Greyson ("Lilies," "Fig Trees") has withdrawn his short film "Covered" - a doc about the 2008 Sarajevo Queer Festival, which was cancelled due to anti-gay violence - from this year's lineup due to a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."

A scene from John Greyson's "Covered."

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."

Read Greyson's letter in its entirety here, and Bailey's response here.

TAGS: Features

11 Comments

  • wmmw | September 18, 2009 6:29 AMReply

    Critics of the filmmakers who have protested the festivals' funding continue to conflate the product with the means, deliberately misinterpreting their reason for dissent. It is not the Israeli films or filmmakers the protesters are taking issue with, but acceptance of Israeli money and programming influence at a time when the state of Israel is attempting to divert attention from grossly inhumane practices they condone:

    http://wyattmosswellington.com/news.html#16

  • sar | September 9, 2009 4:15 AMReply

    The Tel Aviv monologues-


    Hollywood did not show concern when the Israeli fiction film, the Band’s Visit, was “uninvited” by Abu Dhabi’s film festival due to Egyptian pressure, nor did any of the American programmers who were recruited by the Emirates stood by their invitation to the film. At the same time, the Art of Flight, a film by an American journalist about the plight of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees living around Cairo without rights, often beaten and tortured by police (racism is also an issue here) never even had the chance to be invited to the Emirates (or anywhere else in the Arab world).

    Had Ken Loch cared to protect the persecuted, had he truly cared about killings and the causes of misery in the Middle East, had he harbored genuine concern for free speech, civil society & women’s rights (in Gaza)… then he would have taken his protest elsewhere. But Mr. Loach is a man with a mission to defame Israel, the root cause for all evil in the Middle East. After Edinburgh bowed to pressure from him regarding returning a $ 500 travel grant from the Israeli ministry of culture for the presentation of the non political featurette, “Surrogate”, the flood gate had given way to more hypocrisy hence the recent hoopla aimed at the TIFF.

    This protest goes in line with the latest liable story from Sweden about Israeli soldiers killing innocent Palestinian civilians to harvest their organs. Considering everything else we are told about Gaza, this sounds plausible. Much in the same double standard way, neither the newspaper which had published the “story,” nor the Swedish Government bothered distancing themselves from the story which was false at its core (citing free speech).

    Opposing the Tel Aviv section in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival is not only ridiculous because it achieves the opposite purpose (hinders free speech from such vibrant- liberal minded city), but mainly because the false premise behind it is based on carefully spanned myth. Using whichever portions of events which support outrage- facts and context fall by the wayside. Those who want to point the finger at Israel, the apartheid state, the mother of all evil in the middle east, have found their narrative and their platform: throw Tel Aviv into a hundred years of solitude.

  • sar | September 9, 2009 4:07 AMReply

    Type your comment here

  • moviemaker2008 | September 1, 2009 6:15 AMReply

    (cont. from previous post BELOW:)

    If there is ever going to be peace in the Middle East, it will NOT take leaders, but statesmen. It will take all the Arab nations, and Israel, and the U.S., to come together to hammer out something everyone can live with. It will take the Arab Nations forcing the Palestinians to accept compromises that the Palestinians don't want to accept, and it will take the U.S. forcing Israel to accept compromises that Israel does not want to accept.

    One thing most people forget, is that Israel is a democracy. The leader that gets elected is either a "conservative" or "liberal," and very contingent upon the mood of that nation at the time of election. (Just like the U.S.) Unfortunately, this affects their policies and engagement of the peace process. When there are terrorist attacks in Israel, the people there want revenge, not peace. (Just like here in the U.S. with 9/11.) Unfortunately, the human element of feeling injustice and wanting revenge cannot be removed from the human psyche. Awareness of this psychology, however, can sometimes help. But I digress.

    You think that Israel engaging in some governmental propaganda, to try to change some of the world's low opinions of it, is wrong. And thus, you pull your film and assert you're making a statement. And yet, by doing so, you are asserting that Israel IS in the wrong here, and that they should be "punished" in some way. Forget about the latest round of Hamas rockets being fired into Israel last year, forget about the Palestinian leaders (Yasser Arafat, for one) in the past refusing to make peace with Israel when Israel had leaders who tried, and forget about discussing the Arab Nations' leaders and their lack of real participation.

    Just blame Israel.

    This is short-sighted of you, and shows you have a real lack of comprehension of the all the issues at hand.

    This is beside the point, but if Israel wants to engage in some propaganda around the world, why shouldn't they? The Palestinians do it. And when looking at the entire history of U.N. resolution votes (and Security Council votes) since the birth of Israel, you have nearly every nation in the world voting AGAINST Israel the majority of the time. Except for the U.S. This speaks volumes about the world's prejudices still existing today. Volumes.

    Pulling your film from TIFF for publicity purposes? That's your choice as a filmmaker and as a person. Pulling it under the guise of bringing light to your judgement that the TIFF is wrong in showcases Israeli films? Naive, uneducated, and opportunistic.

    Jerome Courshon
    Producer/Writer
    Los Angeles, CA

  • moviemaker2008 | September 1, 2009 6:14 AMReply

    Open Letter to Mr. Greyson:

    Dear Mr. Greyson,

    Having now watched your film...

    1) Your film is not a coherent piece of storytelling. Presumably it was invited to the festival in the first place due to your relationship with the festival heads.

    2) One aspect of what you attempt to illuminate in your film is important: The violence against that festival in Sarajevo. What I learned from your piece of filmmaking here I could have learned reading one paragraph in 20 seconds. Where is your art here, as a filmmaker? Why are you telling us this story, rather than showing it? (One of the cardinal rules of screenplays and filmmaking is SHOW US, don't tell us.) And what is this voiceover of someone teaching another words in presumably the Bosnian language? To hit us over the head with the written narration you want us to read? Pointless. No connection to the story you're attempting to tell. Just let us read the narration.

    3) What is the point with famous musicians in this story, doing covers of songs? How does this relate or connect in any way with the violence to shut the festival down?

    I do not know you. I've never seen any of your work before. And this is the first time in my life, in my career, that I have ever written non-praiseworthy comments about another filmmaker. If I don't like someone's feature or short, I keep the comments to myself or among conversation with friends.

    Because of the quality of your film (or my perceived lack of), this pulling your film from Toronto strikes me as a publicity stunt. Sure, some can say you don't do this kind of stuff, because you don't care about Hollywood. But you do care about publicity, I'm sure. We both know the power of this, and what it can do for one's career. This appears to be no more than a publicity stunt.

    And this is disconcerting to me. Using the complicated politics of the Middle East to promote yourself is, in my view, dishonest, disingenuous, and opportunistic.

    I am an American Jew. I do not claim to know all the intricacies of all the issues between Israelis and Palestinians. But I have been following the issues since the first Palestinian intifada in 1987.

    While I have never personally approved of the way the Israeli government handled that, or the second intifada, one MUST have perspective on the entirety of the issues in that region, and NOT pull aspects out of the larger issue to look at them individually and out of context. I believe most Jews, as myself, do not want to ever see an Israeli soldier killing anyone. But I also don't want to see terrorists blowing innocent people up in Tel Aviv clubs and hotels, or see Hamas firing rockets into Israel killing children.

    So let's cut to the chase here, because I (or anyone) could write about all the back & forth between the two sides ad nauseam, and who's to blame or who first started "the latest round."

    The Arab world, particularly the Arab nations that attempted to destroy Israel and wipe Israel off the map in 1967 and 1973, hold much responsibility in there being no peace in the Middle East. Anyone who truly understands the issues there -- TRULY UNDERSTANDS -- knows that for a lasting peace to take effect, it will require the real participation and backing of these Arab nations.

    What does this mean? For one, they stop funding the Palestinians' various military wings (and past and current terrorist activities) and they come to the bargaining table in sincerity. What many people not educated on these regional issues don't realize, is that it serves some of these Arab nations' OWN politics to maintain Israel as the pariah. As long as Israel is hated and despised, it focuses attention away from some of these corrupt Arab governments. (The leaders of these governments are not stupid.)

    It is not in their best interests, in their minds, to have a "global" peace with Israel. Egypt became the exception in the late '70s due to the foresight and forward thinking of that nation's leader then, and Jordan in the '90s as well. But this is not the norm. You have textbooks -- TEXTBOOKS -- in some of these Arab nations that schoolchildren read, that teach hatred of the Jews and Israel.

    Propaganda? Damn right it is. The leaders of some of these nations do not want their citizens blaming them for their social ills, or high unemployment, or -- God forbid -- the reason there is no peace in that region. Blame the Jews. It's easy and convenient. And of course, historical.

    I apologize for my bluntness here, but people like you, Mr. Greyson, do not truly understand ALL the issues at play. The regional issues and the geopolitical issues. You glom onto pieces of the debate, and believe you understand everything.

    (cont. in next post)

  • noahharlan | September 1, 2009 3:43 AMReply

    I think intellectual and cultural boycotts are the epitome of cowardice. For Naomi Klein and John Greyson to pass sweeping judgements having neither seen nor engaged with the content of the films being presented is shallow and yes, it is clearly an act of self-promotion. Udi Aloni, well Udi's career is devoted to self-promotion as a kind of cultural Lancelot Gobo that we have a laugh with but don't take seriously.

    Watch the films, engage with them. Then we can talk, until then, go home Mr. Greyson. I love the hypocrisy of a filmmaker crying when his issue is attacked but wielding the spear at others.

  • Syd | September 1, 2009 2:41 AMReply

    Sure enough, someone had to jump into the act of "Denouncing Tel Aviv Focus". "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 hate to have predicted it in my earlier blog, but I did fear someone would come up and kick the ever unpopular whipping dog, Israel. And John Greyson, fighting censorship and citing anti-gay violence as his enemy, turns about and goes for enacting the same censorship that hampers him.

    We too hate the reactionary right but disagree that Tel Aviv, Israel and Israeli filmmakers should be censored because their government is so wrong-headed. What about the many Americans who had to suffer under Bush until Obama was elected? So many Israelis are suffering, are progressive, are even represented by the Israeli film industry in their harsh criticism of their reactionary government. Why stifle the progressive filmmakers' voices in the name of ... in the name of what exactly? Shame on John Greyson! Shame on Ken Loach! Shame on minorities censoring other minorities in the name of.. in the name of what exactly?

    Freedom of expression and freedom of choice to program or not to program, freedom vs. censorship! Whenever a group is singled out for attack, a bigot is lurking and trying to round up many other individuals into a mob. A nation is made of many individuals who do not deserve to be tarred with the same feathers of the reactionary so-called leaders running their government.

  • biasedcommmenting | September 1, 2009 1:54 AMReply

    or maybe it is the best time? When your image is in the shi*$er, it is good to rebrand. Israel is a crazy place and Marvel really has no bearing on the indie crowd but $4b for comic book characters that all of your readers like/liked could be important. Point being, John made a film no one will see. Now, it really won't be seen because he couldn't allow these Israeli filmmakers to have a platform to have their voices heard and he withdrew from the largest n. american platform he could have found.
    And he is anti-israeli (at least anti-israeli government). There is no clear right and wrong in the area and i commend him for making a film on a subject which should be highlighted but perhaps he would be angry if a festival chose not to include him because he is gay or has made a piece of gay cinema? If that festival had been publicly "shamed" because they were including a gay filmmaker and the festival bowed to the pressure.
    I think there are other ways to protest than against TIFF.

  • rabbi | August 31, 2009 10:13 AMReply

    Biased,

    It's the number 1 story because it's a FAR more important story to the indie audience than Marvel and Disney. Or was Iron Man an independent film? At any rate, John pulling his film out of TIFF for this reason will have longer reach and more of an implication to the majority of the community that indieWIRE serves than the Marvel/Disney story.

    And why should the fact that it's a short be in the headline? It's in the lead. Isn't that enough? Did you even bother to read his letter? He's not anti-Israeli cinema. He's not even anti-Israeli. He's against the idea of "Brand Israel" being involved and the timing of the showcase. This has been one of the deadliest years in recent memory in Israel and Palestinian territories and in John's mind, not exactly the right time to be promoting "Brand Israel."

  • rabbi | August 31, 2009 10:01 AMReply

    Nice piece. However, I urge you all to read both John's letter and Cameron's response in full before making a decision where to come down on this. I've made mine.

  • biasedcommmenting | August 31, 2009 9:45 AMReply

    Why is this the lead article on indiewire? I would think a number of other news pieces including Marvel being bought should be much higher up on the radar. Oh wait, I know why. Got it.
    By the way, it is a short film and that should be reflected in the headline of the article. Who really cares that this guy pulled out of Toronto? I am sure that his career will be helped when future financiers and studio folks google his name and see that he is staunchly anti-Israel. Israeli cinema can be good, can be bad or can be OK but is most likely better across the board than John's work and should be seen and exhibited in a public forum. I don't think anyone is going to be sad about not seeing his short, however they may be sad missing out on a whole section of cinema from one of the most interesting places on earth.