Sunday, September 6, 2009

Toronto and Tel Aviv: Or Why Naomi Klein et al Are Dead Wrong

So, if you have not heard yet, this year’s Toronto Film Festival has already run into some controversy, and it has not even started yet. The controversy stems from a new Program at this year’s festival, entitled City to City, in which a single city is selected, and films from that city are shown. This year’s city was Tel Aviv, which sparked film maker John Greyson to withdraw his film from this year’s festival in protest. This decision was then backed up by Naomi Klein, who posted her support ( which was then signed by some prominent people, including Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, David Byrne, Hany Abu-Assad, Ken Loach and Wallace Shawn. The letter accuses TIFF from becoming “complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine” for it’s celebatory spot on Tel Aviv.

Apparently, the Israeli government and partners in Canada launched a million dollar ad campaign last year called “Brand Israel”, trying to get people in Canada to change their perception of Israel, by taking “the focus off Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its aggressive wars, and refocus it on achievements in medicine, science and culture”. The test city for this campaign would, of course, be Toronto. According to Israeli con general Amir Gissin, the “culimination of the campaign would be a major Israeli presence at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival”.

Cameron Bailey, the festival’s co-director and the head of the City to City program says he picked Tel Aviv because he wanted to “showcase the complex currenting running through today’s Tel Aviv. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009, Tel Aviv is a young, dynamic city, that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity”.

Klein objects to the program, because the “diversity” in the City to City program is empty because there are no Palestinian filmmakers in the program. And because Bailey does not mention that “Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population”.

Klein goes on to say “We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF. However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime.”

So let me see if I got this straight. Because Israel launched an ad campaign promoting its culture, and because Israel was granted statehood in 1948, and displaced Palestinians, and because the Israeli government was involved in a “brutal assault” on Gaza this year, that means the Toronto Film Festival should not be showing films about Tel Aviv, while at the same time, they do not mean to suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF. Does that make sense to anyone? It seems to me, that you cannot say that TIFF should not be celebrating Israeli films, and at the same time say that Israeli films should be welcome at the festival. Either, the festival is allowed to showcase Israeli films, and therefore, there is nothing wrong with this program, or Israeli films should be unwelcome.

But what troubles me even more is the suggestion that because of the actions of the Israeli government, these filmmakers should not be allowed to showcase their work. What if next year, the festival chooses Tehran (and there would be no shortage of films to showcase, and the Iranian film industry is probably the best in the Middle East), would Klein and company still protest given the actions of the Iranian government? What about Beijing? Seoul? Washington? Would the festival not be allowed to showcase any city in North America, if it didn’t showcase films dealing with Native Americans? Is any German town allowed to be chosen, if they chose not to address the Holocaust?

When Cameron Bailey responded to these allegations, he attacked the idea that there was any outside pressure that effected their decision, and says that the ten films selected “explore and critique the city from many different perspectives.” In addition, while the City to City program focuses on Tel Aviv, there are two films playing this year’s festival from Palestinian filmmakers as well.

Bailey goes onto say that the protesters “isn’t against the films or filmmakers we have chosen, but against the spotlight itself. By that reasoning, no films programmed within this series would have met his approval, no matter what they contained. 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 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.”

This is even more troubling to me. None of the people who protested the program, and in effect the films in it, have not even seen the films in question? It is like Klein et al, are remaining purposefully ignorant of the films involved. They do not seem really interested in the films themselves, but instead in making headlines, and to further promote their anti-Israeli agenda. I do not have a problem with them supporting the Palestinians, or being critical of Israel. It is a complex issue in which, really, I am torn about personally, so I like to hear differing perspectives. But, while the people who signed the letter are all intelligent people, there argument here simply does not make sense. I read over the descriptions of the films in the program, and it certainly does not sound like all 10 films are pro-Israel propaganda. Bena is about a man who tries to keep his son out of a psychiatry ward, with the help of a Thai immigrant. The Big Dig (from 1969, so there goes the history argument) is a comedy lampooning the bureaucracy in Israel. Big Eyes is about a basketball coach. The Bubble is about a group of young people who have difficultly living in the modern Israel, who bubble is burst by the arrival of a Palestinian. Raphael Nadjari’s two part documentary - A History of the Israeli Cinema - looks at the films of Israel from 1933 to the present. Jaffa is a Romeo and Juliet style love story between an Israeli and an Arab. Kirot is about two women - one a Russian assassin, the other a battered wife, who fight back against their oppressors. Life According to Agfa is about a pub where a violence erupts, and takes unexpected turns. Phobidlia is about a young man who is too scared to leave his apartment.

But as they have stated, this really is not about the films themselves - they probably realize they do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to that - it is about Israel. So, in the view of Klein et al is that the sins of the country means that we cannot celebrate the work of their filmmakers. And that’s just plain stupid.


  1. I wonder if John Greyson's big public hissy fit about TIFF has anything to do with him being on the Advisory Board of the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival and always pushing for a world-wide boycott of anything even remotely related to Israel?

    Knowing what TIFF's plans were, one wonders why he waited to the last moment to withdraw, rather than just in the beginning many months ago withdrawing?

    Ever since Naomi Klein's husband Avi Lewis got his job with Al Jazeera, she has been trying to get everybody to protest anything that has even the slightest relationship to Israel.

  2. I wondered the same thing about Greyson, at least in regards to the timing of his pullout. It was obviously intended to have the maximum impact.

    I have no idea about Greyson being on any board for The Palestinian Film Festival, nor about Klein's husbands involvement with Al Jarezza, so I won't comment on those. I do think this is protest was essentially a group of well meaning, but completely misguided individuals. The fact that they got so many intelligent people to go along with them is what disturbs me.