Last May 21st the Toronto Int’l Film Festival announced a City- to-City Spotlight promotion with Tel Aviv, of all cities. A little more than three months later — i.e., last Friday, 8.27 — Toronto filmmaker John Greyson sent a letter to TIFF honcho Piers Handling announcing his decision to withdraw his short doc, Covered, from the festival in protest over TIFF’s celebration of Tel Aviv ‘s “brand.
Greyson essentially feels that Tel Aviv and the Israeli government have too much blood and militaristic aggression and kad karma on their plate to warrant partnership with a forward-thinking film festival like Toronto’s. And he’s arguing that TIFF’s Tel Aviv promotion flies in the face of an economic boycott against Israel that he and anti-Israel voices would like to see enforced in order to get Israel to be more reasonable and less belligerent in its dealings with the Palestinians.
At the end of his email he wrote, “”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?
“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.”
Early in the letter Greyson noted that “this past year has seen (a) the devastating Gaza massacre of eight months ago, resulting in over 1000 civilian deaths; (b) the election of a Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) accused of war crimes; (c) the aggressive extension of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands; (d) the accelerated destruction of Palestinian homes and orchards; (e) the viral growth of the totalitarian security wall, and (f) 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’tthe only city in the west without Arab residents” (Tel Aviv filmmaker Udi Aloni).
“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.”
“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.”