Protest sparked over Toronto Film Festival’s focus on Tel Aviv

The Toronto International Film Festival may not be a friendly place for the Israeli filmmakers invited to screen their films there next week. What began as one filmmaker withdrawing his work in protest of the festival’s spotlight on Tel Aviv, is fast becoming a full-fledged boycott. This past week, more than fifty writers, directors and actors have signed an open letter protesting Toronto’s choice to feature Tel Aviv in their “City To City” sidebar.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, British director Ken Loach, Jane Fonda, Wallace Shawn, musician David Byrne and actor Danny Glover are among those who signed a document entitled “The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation,” which says that Toronto, “whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.”

The protesters say they do not object to the inclusion of Israeli films, but rather, the special focus on Israel, which to them is akin to “staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of an apartheid regime,” as the letter stated.

In a twist of irony, the Coen brothers (“No Country for Old Men”) are scheduled to world premiere their latest film “A Serious Man” at the festival, which ranks high with Jewish content. Though the film does not concern itself exactly with Israel, it follows the journey of a Jewish man seeking wisdom from his rabbis—content that may rankle alongside debate about the Jewish State.

According to THR, Toronto has chosen Tel Aviv as the subject of its first ever “City to City” program, which spotlights films from a selected city. As part of the series, the festival will screen Etyan Fox’s “The Bubble,” Uri Zohar’s “Big Eyes,” Efraim Kishon’s 1969 farce “Big Dig” and Niv Klainer’s “Bena,” among others.

The open letter’s primary criticism is that the selection of films does not include any from a Palestinian perspective. The letter claims that focusing on Tel Aviv without including perspectives from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip is “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.”

Backlash against the protest has already begun.

Cameron Bailey, Co-Director of Toronto posted a response to the letter on the festival’s website. “I was attracted to Tel Aviv as our inaugural city because the films being made there explore and critique the city from many different perspectives,” Bailey writes. “The goal of City to City is to take a closer look at global cities through a cinematic lens, especially cities where film contributes to or chronicles social change in compelling ways…We encourage everyone to see the films, engage in debate and draw their own conclusions.” But apparently, the protesters threatening a festival boycott refused to see the films selected and therefore, have little knowledge of the realities they portray.

In a separate story, THR spoke to Canadian documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, who was born in Israel. Jacobovici suggested to the paper that John Greyson, the filmmaker who withdrew his short from the festival, should test his sympathy for the Palestinians by screening his short film about the Sarajevo Queer Festival in Tel Aviv and on the West Bank.

“He will be invited to screen the film at the local (Tel Aviv) cinematheque. He can then walk around with the same sign down the streets of Palestinian Ramallah. He should document the experience on video and then enter it into next year’s TIFF—posthumously,” Jacobovici told THR.

Bailey also took a stab at Greyson in his letter: “John writes that his protest 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.”

Read more about the protest at The Hollywood Reporter

Responses from filmmakers who support Israel

Filmmakers protest uncritical view of Tel Aviv at Toronto film festival in Haaretz