Toronto FilmFest Spotlights Israel Branding – Filmmakers pull out

From Haaretz: “Several Canadian filmmakers plan to withdraw their movies from next month’s Toronto International Film Festival to protest a weeklong cinematic homage to Tel Aviv.  They claim that the screenings will show Israel in a positive light instead of creating a critical forum in which to discuss the occupation….‘Wherever [Israeli artists] appear they must decide if they are representatives of the Foreign Ministry or of an uncompromising opposition to occupation and racism in Israel,’ said Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is gravely concerned that the Toronto International Film Festival 2009 (TIFF) has decided to spotlight Tel Aviv for its inaugural City-to-City program. We encourage filmmakers and audiences to boycott the Spotlight as it extends a gesture of “goodwill” to a colonial and apartheid regime which is violating Palestinian human rights with utter impunity….

To celebrate Tel Aviv or any Israeli city for that matter is indefensible, particularly after this year’s lethal assault on Gaza, while Israel continues building its illegal Apartheid wall and settlements and extends its network of checkpoints that suffocate the Palestinian population.  Most recently, in the Israeli war of aggression on the occupied Gaza Strip, Palestinian civilians were massacred by Israel’s indiscriminate bombing, condemned by UN experts and leading human rights organizations as war crimes.  [read full PACBI statement here]

Letter from John Greyson, regarding the withdrawal of his film from the program:

Piers Handling, Cameron Bailey, Noah Cowan
Toronto International Film Festival
2 Carlton St., 13th floor
Toronto Canada M5B 1J3

Dear Piers, Cameron, 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

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 year’s 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.

What eventually determined my decision to pull out 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 International Film Festival and the Canadian
Ambassador in Sarajevo. 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

5 Responses to “Toronto FilmFest Spotlights Israel Branding – Filmmakers pull out”

  1. Jerome Courshon - September 1, 2009

    OPEN LETTER to John Greyson

    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

  2. Andrew - September 1, 2009

    @Jerome: Regardless of the merits of Mr. Greyson’s film, it’s obvious that those with REAL influence at TIFF are the Israeli consulate. Here are some notes from PACBI:

    This inaugural City-to-City program is receiving funding for filmmaker participation through the Israel Film Fund, an Israeli public body that receives state funding and support, and which is part and parcel of the Israeli effort to normalize Israel’s presence in the global cultural arena.

    In 2008, Toronto was selected as a “test market” for a year-long public relations campaign launched by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to improve Israel’s image. Israel’s consul general, Amir Gissin, announced then that the culmination of this “Brand Israel” campaign would be at the TIFF.

    TIFF has claimed that the Spotlight on Tel Aviv has no relationship to the rebranding campaign but have not issued a public statement to that effect. Whether the City-to-City program is officially connected to the “Brand Israel” campaign or not, it is rebranding to the core: it serves to normalize Israel’s international image, an image tarnished by decades of military brutality and violations of international law.

  3. michael wilson - September 18, 2009

    Mr Gissin responds today in the National Post regarding the idea of “branding”:

    Branding Israel

    Amir Gissin, National Post

    For over two weeks now, Toronto has been the arena for a bitter struggle between Israel bashers and Israel supporters. John Greyson used a distorted quote from me as the reason for pulling his film from the Toronto International Film Festival, but I hardly deserve the credit. Without it, another excuse would have been found to attack TIFF’s decision to focus on Tel Aviv. The attempt to present Israeli culture in a manner that Naomi Klein called “uncritical” was for them simply unforgivable.

    I agree with the anti-Israeli activists about one thing: the real issue was not the boycott, nor the Israeli filmmakers. It was a struggle about Israel’s right to be presented positively.

    Ms. Klein, Mr. Greyson and their followers have ineffectively tried to establish veto privileges over any attempt to relate to Israel other then through the prism of the conflict. They are promoting a narrative that presents Israel as the new South Africa. There is a name for this process: It is called “branding”.

    For the past two decades, more than 30 countries and hundreds of cities and regions all over the world have been engaged in a “branding” process. It is a comprehensive, holistic attempt to present an attractive image of a place, which should lead to increased tourism, foreign investment and export. No other country was ever criticized for branding itself; but in Israel’s case, branding is deemed a demonic exercise of the “Israeli propaganda machine.” This even though the Israeli government sponsors award-winning films with self-critical view points that often deal with the conflict that the critics claims we are trying to hide. An odd machine.

    Note that the Canadian brand that has become a synonym for local excellence and innovation is BlackBerry by RIM. But Canada’s pride has a dark secret: It has an Israeli heart. Several Israeli-made microcomputers operate the BlackBerry’s main applications. Now, is that Israeli propaganda? Israeli branding? Of course not. It is a demonstration that Canadian and Israeli high-tech companies tend to work well together. Israel is a place of passion and creativity. It is becoming increasingly relevant to Canadians and as they want to know more about it. They understand that Israel has a lot to offer beyond the conflict. Nothing can stop this volcano of creativity.

    That is why the unholy coalition that ganged up on Cameron Bailey and TIFF failed in Toronto. And they will continue to fail elsewhere. – Amir Gissin is consul general of Israel for Toronto.

    I fully expect that given this startling revelation regarding the conspiracy between Canadian technology giant RIM and said Israeli companies that every ‘Artist against Apartheid’ will immediately turn in their blackberry at “Apartheid” central command and go back to land lines(after all, cell phones are an Israeli invention as well).

    It is after all the “activist” thing to do.

  4. Andrew - September 18, 2009

    Mr. Wilson, thank you for your posting. However, you (or copy-and-paste propaganda) do not address the issue at hand: whitewashing apartheid and war-crimes (not Blackberry’s). While bragging about cell-phone achievements may give a certain boost to the ego, these seem quite meaningless compared what refugees have endured in the creation of the Israeli technotopia.

  5. NBA - June 4, 2016

    Extremely helpful… look onward to coming back

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