August 29, 2009
Film maker condemns Toronto International Film Festival
95 SHAW ST
TORONTO CANADA M6J 2W3
August 27, 2009
Piers Handling, Cameron Bailey, Noah Cowan
Toronto International Film Festival
2 Carlton St., 13th floor
Toronto Canada M5B 1J3
Dear Piers, Cameron, Noah:
I've come to a very difficult decision -- I'm withdrawing my film Covered
from TIFF, in protest against your inaugural City-to-City Spotlight on Tel
In the Canadian Jewish News, Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin described
how this Spotlight is the culmination of his year-long Brand Israel
campaign, which includes bus/radio/TV ads, the ROM's notorious Dead Sea
Scrolls exhibit, and "a major Israeli presence at next year's Toronto
International Film Festival, with numerous Israeli, Hollywood and Canadian
entertainment luminaries on hand." Gissen said 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. (Astral is
of course a long-time TIFF sponsor, and Canwest owners' Asper Foundation
donated $500,000 to TIFF). "We've got a real product to sell to
Canadians... The lessons learned from Toronto will inform the worldwide
launch of Brand Israel in the coming years, Gissin said."
This past year has also seen: the devastating Gaza massacre of eight months
ago, resulting in over 1000 civilian deaths; the election of a Prime
Minister accused of war crimes; the aggressive extension of illegal Israeli
settlements on Palestinian lands; the accelerated destruction of
Palestinian homes and orchards; the viral growth of the 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.
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. Launched by Palestinian NGO's in 2005,
and since joined by thousands inside and outside Israel, the campaign is
seen as the last hope for forcing Israel to comply with international law.
By ignoring this boycott, TIFF has emphatically taken sides -- and in the
process, forced every filmmaker and audience member who opposes the
occupation to cross a type of picket line.
Let's be clear: my protest isn't against the films or filmmakers you've
chosen. I've seen brilliant works of Israeli and Palestinian cinema at past
TIFFs, and will again in coming years. My protest is 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. 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?
You're probably groaning right now -- "inflammatory rhetoric!" -- but I
mention these boycott campaigns because they were specific and strategic to
their historic moments, and certainly complex. Like these others, the
Israel boycott has been the subject of much debate, with many of us
struggling with difficult questions of censorship, constructive engagement
and free speech. In our meeting, for instance, you said you supported
economic boycotts like South Africa's, but not cultural boycotts. Three
points: South Africa was also a cultural boycott (asking singers not to
play Sun City); culture is one of Canada's (and Israel's) largest economic
sectors (this spotlight is funded by a Canadian Ministry of Industry
tourism grant, after all); and the Israel rebrand campaign explicitly
targets culture as a priority sector.
Many will still say a boycott prevents much needed dialogue between
possible allies. That's why, like Chile, like Nestles, the strategic and
specific nature of each case needs to be considered. For instance, I'm
helping organize a screening in September for the Toronto Palestinian Film
Festival, co-sponsored by Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and the Inside
Out Festival. It's a doc that profiles Ezra Nawi, the queer Israeli
activist jailed for blocking army bulldozers from destroying Palestinian
homes. Technically, the film probably qualifies as meeting the technical
criteria of boycott -- not because it was directed by an Israeli filmmaker,
but because it received Israeli state funding. Yet all concerned have
decided that this film should be seen by Toronto audiences, especially Jews
and Palestinians -- a strategic, specific choice, and one that has
triggered many productive discussions.
I'm sorry I can't feel the same way about your Tel Aviv spotlight. Despite
this past month of emails and meetings, many questions remain for me about
its origins, its funding, its programming, its sponsors. You say it was
initiated in November 2008... but then why would Gissen seem to be claiming
it as part of his campaign four months earlier? You've told me that TIFF
isn't officially a part of Brand Israel -- okay -- but why haven't you
clarified this publicly? Why are only Jewish Israeli filmmakers included?
Why are there no voices from the refugee camps and Gaza (or Toronto for
that matter), where Tel Aviv's displaced Palestinians now live? Why only
big budget Israeli state-funded features -- why not a program of
shorts/docs/indie works by underground Israeli and Palestinian artists? Why
is TIFF accepting and/or encouraging the support of the Israeli government
and consulate, a direct flaunting of the boycott, with filmmaker plane
tickets, receptions, parties and evidently the Mayor of Tel Aviv opening
the spotlight? Why does this feel like a propaganda campaign?
This decision was very tough. For thirty years, TIFF has been my film
school and my community, an annual immersion in the best of world cinema.
You've helped rewrite the canon through your pioneering support of new
voices and difficult ideas, of avant-garde visions and global stories.
You've opened many doors and many minds, and made me think critically and
politically about cinema, about how film can speak out and make a
difference. In particular, you've been extraordinarily supportive of my own
work, often presenting the hometown premieres of my films to your legendary
audiences. You are three of the smartest, sharpest, skillful and most
thoughtful festival heads anywhere -- this isn't hyperbole, with all of you
I speak from two decades worth of friendship and deep respect -- which
makes this all the more inexplicable and troubling.
What eventually determined my decision to pull out was the subject of
Covered itself. It's a doc about the 2008 Sarajevo Queer Festival, which
was cancelled due to brutal anti-gay violence. The film focuses on the
bravery of the organizers and their supporters, 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.
For the duration of TIFF, I've posted Covered at:www.vimeo.com/greyzone
Rebel Youth is looking for hitchhiking stories, and also experiences with the challenges faced by women, trans people, hitchhickers facing ...
The real abuse taking place in Cuba is the crippling and inhumane American blockade Rob Miller The Guardian, Thursday 26 November 2009 Yo...
J. Boyden Yesterday, January 18 th , was the 24 th anniversary of the death of Renato Guttuso. Renato Guttuso (1911-1987) was a com...
Jay Watts In 1995, a report issued as part of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples called suicide “one of the most urgent problems ...
World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) would like to express its deepest condolences and sympathy to all those affected by the mu...
This article is part of an seven-part series of short quotes Rebel Youth is issuing about class struggle, revolution, civil-war, and par...
A very important meeting for labour and social movements is taking place from August 21-24th in Ottawa. The People’s Social Forum (PS...
Rebel Youth presents an interview with University of British Columbia student activist Kelly Gerlings Interview by Rozhin Emadi RY:...
Drew Garvie The Trudeau government has been elected at a time of economic crisis globally, where capital internationally is on the of...
Ajit Singh A couple weeks ago, a Palestinian child was beheaded by the "moderate rebels" in Syria, created, funded, and backe...