Boycott season it is, indeed. The dust hasn’t settled yet regarding Ben Gurion University’s tenured political science professor, Neve Gordon, publicly calling for cultural and academic boycotts of Israel, and an uproar surrounding this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has already erupted.
A prestigious film industry gathering, the festival is billed as “one of the world’s most important cultural events” on the official TIFF website.
But apparently, the organizers are clueless. Because in inaugurating the festival’s new City-to-City Spotlight strand, they chose to highlight Tel Aviv. And that didn’t go over well with a handful of industry people like David Byrne (Remember the Talking Heads?), Danny Glover, John Greyson, Alice Walker, and Jane Fonda, who collectively called for a festival boycott, signed a protest letter to event organizers, and withdrew film submissions.
In a letter to festival powers-that-be, filmmaker John Greyson justified yanking his work based on Israeli action in Gaza and settlement expansion. He accused festival organizers of “an ostrich-like indifference to the realities (cinematic and otherwise) of the region” and compared the strand to one “celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963 … Chilean wines in 1973 … or South African fruit in 1991.” His objection was not due to the Israeli titles being screened, but over what he termed the festival’s co-operation with Israel’s “Brand Israel” marketing agenda.
After browsing the list of protesters, I headed on over to Jane Fonda’s blog — she’s been quite vocal and visible on this issue and she was one of the people who signed the petition decrying TIFF’s Spotlight Tel Aviv decision.
In her latest entry on the matter, titled “Trying to Keep Up with False Rumors,” Jane emphasized that she and other opponents were not calling for a cultural boycott despite the fact that films have been pulled and attendees are refusing to show:
We protest the use of Tel Aviv to rebrand Israel. We are standing up for integrity of art, not censoring anyone. The letter certainly did not call for the destruction of Israel or call into question the legitimacy of Tel Aviv as a city. But in the year when Gaza happened there shouldn’t be a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv.
I doth protest too. For starters, filmmakers from Tel Aviv have “integrity of art,” regardless. That can’t be stripped.
Second, as festival co-director Cameron Bailey writes in an open letter on the TIFF site, the reason Tel Aviv is spotlit this year might very well be because:
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 believe that the 10 films in our inaugural programme do just that. We encourage everyone to see the films, engage in debate and draw their own conclusions.
If there is one locale in Israel embodying a collective critical conscience that perennially rises up against such issues dear to this group’s hearts, such as settlement building, military policies, incursions, and Palestinian-Israeli inequity, it is Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv is the country’s liberal core, where such stances are oft-expressed in art and film. .
Case in point: while browsing this year’s Toronto film lineup, I noticed the German-Israeli production Ajami. The film depicts high tension among the enclave’s co-existing Muslim, Jewish, and Christian neighbors. The film is, literally, a microcosm of the country at large.
The Bubble, a “defining work of recent cinema” also in the TIFF lineup, “shows a city’s free-thinking liberals confronted with harsh political tensions.” Calling the film’s protagonists, which include a pair of Israeli-Palestinian gay lovers, ‘free-thinking’ is an understatements. Filmmaker Eytan Fox and his partner, writer-producer Gal Uchovsky, are well-known spokespersons for gay rights and the peace process.
We are not ostriches, Mr. Greyson; quite the opposite. Those of us who live and create in Tel Aviv confront the realities on the ground in the Middle East and we turn a critical eye on the very issues cited in your protest by writing articles and books, composing music, and making films.
Ms. Fonda, you write that your protest centers around “using” art, which is a medium that should be employed for seeking truth.
That’s what the filmmakers are doing.