In the News

John Greyson withdraws his film "Greyzone" from Toronto Film Festival following the BDS Call

August 29, 2009

Filmaker John Greyson has written this principled letter explaining the reasons to withdraw his film "Greyzone" from the Toronto International Film Festival. 



Piers Handling, Cameron Bailey,Noah Cowan      

Toronto International FilmFestival

2 Carlton St., 13th floor

Filmaker John Greyson has written this principled letter explaining the reasons to withdraw his film "Greyzone" from the Toronto International Film Festival. 



Piers Handling, Cameron Bailey,Noah Cowan      

Toronto International FilmFestival

2 Carlton St., 13th floor

Toronto Canada M5B 1J3


Dear Piers, Cameron, Noah:


 I've come to a very difficult decision -- I'm withdrawing myfilm Covered from TIFF, in protest against your inaugural City-to-CitySpotlight on Tel Aviv.


 In the Canadian Jewish News, Israeli Consul GeneralAmir Gissin described how this Spotlight is the culmination of his year-long BrandIsrael campaign, which includes bus/radio/TV ads, the ROM's notorious DeadSea Scrolls exhibit, and "a major Israeli presence at next year¹s TorontoInternational Film Festival, with numerous Israeli, Hollywoodand Canadian entertainment luminaries on hand." Gissen said Toronto waschosen as a test-city for Brand Israel by Israel's Foreign Ministry, andthanked Astral, MIJO and Canwes for donating the million-dollar budget. (Astralis of course a long-time TIFF sponsor, and Canwest owners' Asper Foundation donated $500,000to TIFF). "We've got a real product to sell to Canadians... The lessonslearned from Toronto will inform the worldwide launch of Brand Israel inthe coming years, Gissin said."


 This past year has also seen: the devastating Gaza massacreof eight months ago, resulting in over 1000 civilian deaths; the election of aPrime Minister accused of war crimes; the aggressive extension of illegalIsraeli settlements on Palestinian lands; the accelerated destruction ofPalestinian homes and orchards; the viral growth of the totalitarian securitywall, and the further enshrining of the check-point system. Such state policieshave led diverse figures such as John Berger, Jimmy Carter, and Bishop DesmondTutu 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... thatcelebrates its diversity," but it's also been called "a kind ofalter-Gaza, the smiling face of Israeli apartheid" (Naomi Klein) and"the only city in the west without Arab residents" (Tel Avivfilmmaker Udi Aloni). 


 To my mind, this isn't the right year to celebrate BrandIsrael, or to demonstrate an ostrich-like indifference to the realities(cinematic and otherwise) of the region, or to pointedly ignore theinternational economic boycott campaign against Israel. Launched by PalestinianNGO's in 2005, and since joined by thousands inside and outside Israel, thecampaign is seen as the last hope for forcing Israel to comply withinternational law. By ignoring this boycott, TIFF has emphatically taken sides andin the process, forced every filmmaker and audience member who opposes theoccupation to cross a type of picket line.


 Let's be clear: my protest isn't against the films orfilmmakers you've chosen. I've seen brilliant works of Israeli and Palestiniancinema at past TIFFs, and will again in coming years. My protest is against theSpotlight 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 ofthe occupation. Isn't such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now akinto celebratingMontgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chileanwines in 1973, Nestles infant formula in 1984, or South African fruit in1991? 


 You're probably groaning right now -- "inflammatoryrhetoric!" -- but I mention these boycott campaigns because they werespecific and strategic to their historic moments, and certainly complex. Likethese others, the Israel boycott has been the subject of much debate, with manyof us struggling with difficult questions of censorship, constructiveengagement and free speech. In our meeting, for instance, you said yousupported economic boycotts like South Africa's, but not cultural boycotts.Three points: South Africa was also a cultural boycott (asking singers not toplay Sun City); culture is one of Canada's (and Israel's) largest economicsectors (this spotlight is funded by a Canadian Ministry of Industry tourismgrant, after all); and the Israel rebrand campaign explicitly targets cultureas a priority sector.


 Many will still say a boycott prevents much needed dialoguebetween possible allies. That's why, like Chile, like Nestles, the strategicand specific nature of each case needs to be considered. For instance, I'mhelping organize a screening in September for the Toronto Palestinian FilmFestival, co-sponsored by Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and the Inside OutFestival. It's a doc that profiles Ezra Nawi, the queer Israeli activist jailedfor blocking army bulldozers from destroying Palestinian homes. Technically,the film probably qualifies as meeting the technical criteria of boycott -- notbecause it was directed by an Israeli filmmaker, but because it receivedIsraeli state funding. Yet all concerned have decided that this film should beseen 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 Avivspotlight. Despite this past month of emails and meetings, many questionsremain for me about its origins, its funding, its programming, its sponsors.


You say it was initiated in November2008... but then why would Gissen seem to be claiming it as part of hiscampaign four months earlier? You've told me that TIFF isn't officially a partof 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 andGaza (or Toronto for that matter), where Tel Aviv's displaced Palestinians nowlive? Why only big budget Israeli state-funded features -- why not a program ofshorts/docs/indie works by underground Israeli and Palestinian artists? Why isTIFF accepting and/or encouraging the support of the Israeli government andconsulate, 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?


yle="text-align: justify" class="MsoNormal"> This decision was very tough. For thirty years, TIFF has beenmy film school and my community, an annual immersion in the best of worldcinema. You've helped rewrite the canon through your pioneering support of newvoices and difficult ideas, of avant-garde visions and global stories. You'veopened many doors and many minds, and made me think critically and politicallyabout cinema, about how film can speak out and make a difference. Inparticular, you've been extraordinarily supportive of my own work, often presentingthe hometown premieres of my films to your legendary audiences. You are threeof the smartest, sharpest, skillful and most thoughtful festival heads anywhere-- this isn't hyperbole, with all of you I speak from two decades worth offriendship and deep respect -- which makes this all the more inexplicable and troubling.


 What eventually determined my decision to pull out was thesubject of Covered itself. It's a doc about the 2008 Sarajevo QueerFestival, which was cancelled due to brutal anti-gay violence. The film focuseson the bravery of the organizers and their supporters, and equally, on theostriches, on those who remained silent, who refused to speak out: mostnotoriously, the Sarajevo International Film Festival and the CanadianAmbassador in Sarajevo. To stand in judgment of these ostriches before a TIFFaudience, but then say nothing about this Tel Aviv spotlight -- finally, Irealized that that was a brand I couldn't stomach.




       John Greyson


For the duration of TIFF, I'veposted Covered at:




Israeli director Udi Aloni is supporting the Canadian protest and is calling on Israeli artists to take the same steps. Aloni told Haaretz that he had talked to the festival curator to try to convince him not to hold an event in a format so uncritical of Israel. According to Aloni, Israeli artists need to rethink their participation in the festival.

"Wherever they appear they must decide if they are representatives of the Foreign Ministry or of an uncompromising opposition to occupation and racism in Israel," he said. "Israeli directors don't have to be defensive and ask 'Why are they attacking us?' but say to the Canadian directors: 'We're with you on this. We don't represent [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman; we represent the opposition.' There are only two options. It's no longer possible to shoot and cry." 

In a letter addressed to Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky, makers of "The Bubble," Aloni asked them: "Are Israeli artists Lieberman's new foreign service cadets?" 

August 29, 2009


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