Film makers, Actors, and Activists Protest Toronto Film Fest For Tel Aviv Spotlight

September 10, 2009

The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has received a lot of attention this week after over 50 film makers, actors, academics, and activists signed and released a statement called the “Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation”. The 2009 festival chose to highlight Tel Aviv with 10 films by local filmmakers for its City to City Program and this prompted the protests because the individuals felt that “TIFF, whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.” The Jerusalem Post reported that some of the various individuals who signed the statement include American Actors Jane Fonda and Danny Glover, musician David Byrne, film-maker Ken Loach, and authors Naomi Klein and Howard Zinn.

American Actor Danny Glover

The open letter to the TIFF highlighted several reasons for the withdrawal from the festival. One reason was because that the festival was celebrating Tel Aviv as a city of diversity while Palestinian film-makers were absent from the program. Furthermore, the history of the city, which includes the struggles of Palestinian people is excluded and is also indirectly being celebrated through this spotlight.

“The emphasis on ‘diversity’ in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is 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. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada.”

The letter also included another dimension of critcism against Israel by drawing parallels between Apartheid South Africa and Israel at times.

“Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city’s past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto.”

“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.”

The protest began originally with film-maker John Greyson from Canada who withdrew his documentary “Covered”, which is about the violence in Bosnia-Herzengovina that shut down the 2008 Sarajevo Queer Festival, the Washington Times reported. In a later email Greyson added that,

“We’re not protesting the Israeli films or the filmmakers our target is TIFF’s Spotlight on Tel Aviv itself, and specifically its connections to the ‘Brand Israel’ campaign and the Israeli Consulate, which make the spotlight look and feel like a propaganda exercise. As filmmakers and audiences, we’re telling TIFF that eight months since the Gaza massacre, this is no time to be uncritically ‘celebrating’ Tel Aviv”

Critics of the protest have also spoken out in favor of the festival and Israel. Rabbi Marvin Hier was critical of those who signed the letter and was reported by TMZ as saying that “Whoever would sign on to a campaign like this would support the complete destruction of Israel.” Jane Fonda replied to the accusations with a statement issued saying,

“I, in no way, support the destruction of Israel. I am for the two-state solution. I have been to Israel many times and love the country and its people.”

The director of the TIFF, Richard Moore also spoke out and called this protest an effort to censor the films and the festival saying that, “Loach’s demands were beyond the pale. As a supporter of independent film and filmmaking he should be ashamed of himself.”

Even amidst criticism, Loach, O’Brien, and Laverty and many others have defended their decision to withdraw from the festival and encouraged others to take part in the greater international Boycott and Divestment Campaign any way that they could.

“On this site last week, Neve Gordon, a Jewish political professor teaching in an Israeli university argued: “The most accurate way to describe Israel today is an apartheid state.” As a result he too is supporting the international campaign of divestment and boycott. We feel duty bound to take advice from those living at the sharp end inside the occupied territories. We would also encourage other film-makers and actors invited to festivals to check for Israeli state backing before attending, and if so, to respect the boycott. Israeli film-makers are not the target. State involvement is. In the grand scale of things it is a tiny contribution to a growing movement, but the example of South Africa should give us heart.”

Amnesty International has taken no position on cultural or other boycotts anywhere in the world, though it does advocate sanctions in certain circumstances, as when it calls for embargoes on arms supplies to states or other parties in a conflict where such could be used to attack civilians. Earlier this year AI called for an arms embargo against both Israel and armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas, in light of evidence of war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law during the December 2008-January 2009 conflict in Gaza.

Sana Javed contributed to this post.

UPDATE: I just changed the title of the blog post to reflect that the film makers, actors, and activists are in fact protesting the TFF and not boycotting. My apologies for the error.