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Protest over Israel roils Toronto Film Festival

September 12, 2009|Patrick Goldstein

Whether you're a film festival director, a college president or a secretary of State, you know that you've landed in Media Hell when Noam Chomsky, Jane Fonda and Harry Belafonte start signing open letters complaining about your policies.

Artists and politics always make for a combustible mix, so it's no surprise that the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has suddenly become embroiled in a volatile uproar over whether the festival should be spotlighting Tel Aviv in its new City to City Spotlight program designed to celebrate international film culture. In today's divided universe, anything involving Israel and Middle East politics is bound to provoke a storm of controversy.

The latest tizzy began when John Greyson, a little-known Canadian documentary filmmaker, withdrew his documentary short "Covered" from the festival to protest the fest's showcase of Israeli filmmaking. He contends that the festival's celebration of Israeli cinema is a tacit endorsement of the country's Brand Israel campaign, which is designed to improve Israel's tattered international image.

Greyson views that as a travesty, especially at a time when much of the world has been vocal in its opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and a Gaza massacre that resulted in a large number of civilian deaths.

"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," Greyson wrote in a letter to the festival.

Under normal circumstances, it's hard to imagine anyone paying the slightest attention to an obscure filmmaker who couldn't get Ari Emanuel to return his calls even if he promised to do a loving documentary about Endeavor's merger with William Morris. But coming on the eve of the TIFF, Greyson's beef with Israel has spread like a prairie fire.

Seemingly overnight, a protest group materialized, drafting a letter titled: "The Toronto Declaration -- No Celebration of Occupation." Signed by the usual suspects -- Fonda, Belafonte and Chomsky, along with such well-known artists as David Byrne, Julie Christie, Viggo Mortensen, Wallace Shawn and British director Ken Loach -- it claimed that the festival, "whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine."

The protests, of course, have been met by counterprotests. Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Marvin Hier has weighed in, telling a hastily arranged news conference that "Tel Aviv is one of the freest cities in the world, warts and all: a model city of diversity, freedom of expression and tolerance, for Arabs and Jews." He added: "It is the height of hypocrisy to single out Tel Aviv. These protesters cannot masquerade their hatred toward Israel."

A number of Canadian-born filmmakers, including David Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman and Norman Jewison, joined the fray, charging the anti-Tel Aviv protesters with censorship. "Film is about exploring the complexities and contradictions of the human condition," said Reitman. "Any attempt to silence that conversation, to hijack the festival for any political agenda in the end, only serves to silence artistic voices."

The festival pooh-bahs have stoutly defended their City to City embrace of Tel Aviv. "We want to connect to other urban cultures around the world as a way of expanding debate and opening conversations, not shutting them down," festival co-director Cameron Bailey said Friday

Whatever your viewpoint, the protests are a bracing reminder that America is not always in sync or even in touch with the rest of the world, even when it comes to film culture. In today's Hollywood, signs of Jewish ethnic pride are everywhere. Judd Apatow's recent "Funny People" was populated with a host of openly Jewish comic characters, as is the new Coen brothers film, "A Serious Man," a drama (premiering this weekend in Toronto, of all places) that is, in part, about a troubled Jewish man who looks to his rabbi for guidance. And, of course, one of the biggest hit films of the summer was Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," which features as its heroes a scrum of tough-talking, baseball-bat wielding, Nazi-scalp-taking World War II-era Jewish soldiers.

So it may come as a surprise to Americans, who have been steady supporters of Israel since its birth as a country in 1948, that the Jewish state has been treated as something of a pariah in international circles. Earlier this year, for example, Loach, one of England's most venerated filmmakers, urged a boycott of the Edinburgh International Film Festival because it was slated to premiere a movie by an Israeli filmmaker and was paying his way to the festival.

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