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Judy Rebick is one of Canada's most celebrated and well-known feminist thinkers, critics and writers. She is the founder of rabble.ca.

Courageous film maker John Greyson pulls his film from TIFF to protest their spotlight on Tel Aviv

| August 29, 2009

Every once in a while the act of an individual can make a big difference to a struggle.  Yesterday, Toronto film maker and long-time gay activist John Greyson wrote an open letter to the directors of the Toronto International Film Festival pulling his short film Covered out of TIFF in protest of their spotlight on Tel Aviv.  His courageous action and eloquent letter, reproduced below, is a significant contribution to the Palestinian solidarity movement and the Boycott Divestment and Sanction strategy that it has adopted to shine a light on the inexcusable aggression of Israel against the Palestinian people.  Please read the letter, watch the film and write to TIFF in protest of their decision tiffg@tiff.net.


Dear Piers, Cameron and 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 Aviv.

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 year¹s 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.

It's wrong that I have to pull out, and wrong that audiences won't see my film. It's unfair to my crew who worked so hard, and unfair to our community, who deserves better. What eventually determined my decision 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 Film Festival and the Canadian Ambassador. 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.
John Greyson
I've posted http://vimeo.com/6308870 ">Covered online for the duration of TIFF




Dear Mr. Greyson,

Having now watched your film...

1) Your film is not a coherent piece of storytelling. Presumably it was invited to the festival in the first place due to your relationship with the festival heads.

2) One aspect of what you attempt to illuminate in your film is important: The violence against that festival in Sarajevo. What I learned from your piece of filmmaking here I could have learned reading one paragraph in 20 seconds. Where is your art here, as a filmmaker? Why are you telling us this story, rather than showing it? (One of the cardinal rules of screenplays and filmmaking is SHOW US, don't tell us.) And what is this voiceover of someone teaching another words in presumably the Bosnian language? To hit us over the head with the written narration you want us to read? Pointless. No connection to the story you're attempting to tell. Just let us read the narration.

3) What is the point with famous musicians in this story, doing covers of songs? How does this relate or connect in any way with the violence to shut the festival down?

I do not know you. I've never seen any of your work before. And this is the first time in my life, in my career, that I have ever written non-praiseworthy comments about another filmmaker. If I don't like someone's feature or short, I keep the comments to myself or among conversation with friends.

Because of the quality of your film (or my perceived lack of), this pulling your film from Toronto strikes me as a publicity stunt. Sure, some can say you don't do this kind of stuff, because you don't care about Hollywood. But you do care about publicity, I'm sure. We both know the power of this, and what it can do for one's career. This appears to be no more than a publicity stunt.

And this is disconcerting to me. Using the complicated politics of the Middle East to promote yourself is, in my view, dishonest, disingenuous, and opportunistic.

I am an American Jew. I do not claim to know all the intricacies of all the issues between Israelis and Palestinians. But I have been following the issues since the first Palestinian intifada in 1987.

While I have never personally approved of the way the Israeli government handled that, or the second intifada, one MUST have perspective on the entirety of the issues in that region, and NOT pull aspects out of the larger issue to look at them individually and out of context. I believe most Jews, as myself, do not want to ever see an Israeli soldier killing anyone. But I also don't want to see terrorists blowing innocent people up in Tel Aviv clubs and hotels, or see Hamas firing rockets into Israel killing children.

So let's cut to the chase here, because I (or anyone) could write about all the back & forth between the two sides ad nauseam, and who's to blame or who first started "the latest round."

The Arab world, particularly the Arab nations that attempted to destroy Israel and wipe Israel off the map in 1967 and 1973, hold much responsibility in there being no peace in the Middle East. Anyone who truly understands the issues there -- TRULY UNDERSTANDS -- knows that for a lasting peace to take effect, it will require the real participation and backing of these Arab nations.

What does this mean? For one, they stop funding the Palestinians' various military wings (and past and current terrorist activities) and they come to the bargaining table in sincerity. What many people not educated on these regional issues don't realize, is that it serves some of these Arab nations' OWN politics to maintain Israel as the pariah. As long as Israel is hated and despised, it focuses attention away from some of these corrupt Arab governments. (The leaders of these governments are not stupid.)

It is not in their best interests, in their minds, to have a "global" peace with Israel. Egypt became the exception in the late '70s due to the foresight and forward thinking of that nation's leader then, and Jordan in the '90s as well. But this is not the norm. You have textbooks -- TEXTBOOKS -- in some of these Arab nations that schoolchildren read, that teach hatred of the Jews and Israel.

Propaganda? Damn right it is. The leaders of some of these nations do not want their citizens blaming them for their social ills, or high unemployment, or -- God forbid -- the reason there is no peace in that region. Blame the Jews. It's easy and convenient. And of course, historical.

I apologize for my bluntness here, but people like you, Mr. Greyson, do not truly understand ALL the issues at play. The regional issues and the geopolitical issues. You glom onto pieces of the debate, and believe you understand everything.

If there is ever going to be peace in the Middle East, it will NOT take leaders, but statesmen. It will take all the Arab nations, and Israel, and the U.S., to come together to hammer out something everyone can live with. It will take the Arab Nations forcing the Palestinians to accept compromises that the Palestinians don't want to accept, and it will take the U.S. forcing Israel to accept compromises that Israel does not want to accept.

One thing most people forget, is that Israel is a democracy. The leader that gets elected is either a "conservative" or "liberal," and very contingent upon the mood of that nation at the time of election. (Just like the U.S.) Unfortunately, this affects their policies and engagement of the peace process. When there are terrorist attacks in Israel, the people there want revenge, not peace. (Just like here in the U.S. with 9/11.) Unfortunately, the human element of feeling injustice and wanting revenge cannot be removed from the human psyche. Awareness of this psychology, however, can sometimes help. But I digress.

You think that Israel engaging in some governmental propaganda, to try to change some of the world's low opinions of it, is wrong. And thus, you pull your film and assert you're making a statement. And yet, by doing so, you are asserting that Israel IS in the wrong here, and that they should be "punished" in some way. Forget about the latest round of Hamas rockets being fired into Israel last year, forget about the Palestinian leaders (Yasser Arafat, for one) in the past refusing to make peace with Israel when Israel had leaders who tried, and forget about discussing the Arab Nations' leaders and their lack of real participation.

Just blame Israel.

This is short-sighted of you, and shows you have a real lack of comprehension of the all the issues at hand.

This is beside the point, but if Israel wants to engage in some propaganda around the world, why shouldn't they? The Palestinians do it. And when looking at the entire history of U.N. resolution votes (and Security Council votes) since the birth of Israel, you have nearly every nation in the world voting AGAINST Israel the majority of the time. Except for the U.S.  This speaks volumes about the world's prejudices still existing today. Volumes.

Pulling your film from TIFF for publicity purposes? That's your choice as a filmmaker and as a person. Pulling it under the guise of bringing light to your judgement that the TIFF is wrong in showcasing Israeli films? Naive, uneducated, and opportunistic.

Jerome Courshon
Los Angeles, CA

This is unfortunte that John Greyson has to withdraw.  TIFF should be held accountable for their actions and all Canadian film cultural producers should boycott.  Canadian film making is political especially for those film makers who have come from minority and marginalised backgrounds.

I hope his film does reach his audience. 

Thank You John Greyson and shame on TIFF for collaboration with Zionist genocide.

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