TIFF’s Tel Aviv turmoil

A boycott of the film festival


Oh. Oh. Just as the city gets ready to roll out the red carpet, The Toronto International Film Festival has stumbled into political tripwires.

Friday, local filmmaker John Greyson went offscreen for his drama and officially pulled his film, Covered, from the Festival – in protest over TIFF’s choice of Tel Aviv for it’s City- to-City Spotlight.

Read his letter of protest here[PDF]. For the duration of the festival, he’s also posted his movie on Vimeo, here, and also included at the bottom of this post.

Right about now, TIFF’s getting the picture: it doesn’t get much worse in this town than getting schlepped into the mideast when you’re going about quite other business.

The real mystery is: how ever did soulful TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey – who, remember, chose to feature preeminent Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman in a 2003 NOW cover story – get in this mess?

Whatever one thinks of cultural boycotts as a tactic, Greyson’s letter to the Festival is a stunner.

“This is no year to demonstrate an ostrich-like indifference to the realities (cinematic and otherwise) of the region,” he writes, citing thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza and expanding Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

“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?” Ouch.

Making the case that the Festival is being ensnared by Israel’s propaganda machine, Greyson points to a 2008 boast by Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin about “the major Israeli presence at next year’s Toronto Film Festival”, part of a statement enumerating the successes of his government’s Brand Israel campaign.

But Greyson, interestingly, is pretty clear that his protest is not about the presence of Israeli films in the Festival.

It’s a position Bailey himself finds notable. Of course, it does help make his case that there are ambiguities about the boycott, which there certainly are. Still, someone else might say it only means Greyson’s subtle and has a sense of proportion.

When I get Bailey on the phone, two hours after Greyson’s letter hits the rounds, he sounds drained.

“I was aware there was a boycott discussion but I freely admit I wasn’t aware of what point that campaign was at when I began planning this. It was not until it was well underway that it really heated up.”

Bailey, of course, is adamant there’s no collusion, intentional or inadvertant, with the Israel government.

“It’s important to note,” he says “that the [Tel Aviv Spotlight] was independantly conceived and curated. Entirely. We were looking for a place on the planet where there was new work happening. I was interested in bringing the culture of the city to Toronto to spark debate. There was no influence from any outside sources.”

Does that include cash inducements, I ask? “The only financial element is the Israel Film Fund which funds filmakers travelling to festivals. And that’s all there is.”

If only. Money aside, hey, this is the middle east — there’s always more.

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