The 34th annual Toronto International Film Festival opened this year amid a growing cultural boycott of Israel. Several prominent directors, including England's Ken Loach have joined the movement to draw attention to Israeli policies affecting Palestinians, especially the recent war in Gaza. In May, Loach succeeded in convincing the Edinburgh Festival to return Israeli funding to the Festival. Recently he pulled his new film, LOOKING FOR ERIC, out of the Melbourne Film Festival citing funding from the Israeli government. Palestinian director Elia Sulieman (DIVINE INTERVENTION) and Israeli filmmaker, Juliano Mer Khamis (ARNA'S CHILDREN) both were original signers to the 2005 call from Israeli and Palestinian artists for a cultural boycott of Israeli goods, applying these measures until Israel recognizes the Palestinian right to self- determination and complies with international law.
This year's Toronto Festival, filled once again with an amazing array of world cinema, was been drawn into the debate, when queer Canadian director, John Greyson, withdrew his short film, COVERED, which he then placed on his website for free streaming throughout the Festival (vimeo.com/greyzone). Greyson, a strong supporter of TIFF and recipient of many awards, reluctantly protested the Festival's choice of Tel Aviv as the kickoff city for a new program featuring films from major world cities. He cited the involvement of the Israeli Consul in this year's Festival with a campaign called ‘Brand Israel' to improve the country's image in the world.
This kicked off the signing of a Toronto Declaration, No Celebration of Occupation, protesting the untimely choice of Tel Aviv. It has gathered over 1500 signatures including prominent artists such as Ken Loach, Jane Fonda, Naomi Klein, Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Danny Glover, David Byrne, and many others. The letter states "We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF. However ... we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of ... an apartheid regime." The Festival co-programmer for the Spotlight City to City program, Cameron Bailey, defended his choice in a post online, stating, "We recognize that Tel Aviv is not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground. We continue to learn more about the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. As a festival that values debate and the exchange of cultures, we will continue to screen the best films we can find from around the world. This is our contribution to expanding our audiences' experience of this art form and the worlds it represents."
Over10 films from Tel Aviv were presented in the Spotlight City to City program, and not all are favorable to Israel. THE BUBBLE that was previously shown at TIFF, centers on the Tel Aviv LGBT community and its opposition to the Israeli Occupation. The Romeo and Juliet story, JAFFA takes place in the diverse community north of Tel Aviv and addresses trust and conflict between Arabs and Jews. The series also offered a comprehensive 2-part documentary, A HISTORY OF ISRAELI CINEMA, a thorough and compelling portrayal of how cinema reflects the history of struggle in the region.
Elsewhere in the Festival, award winning Palestinian director, Elia Sulieman (DIVINE INTERVENTION) presented his new film, THE TIME THAT REMAINS that deals with the war of 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians from their land. LEBANON, a powerful Israeli anti-war film along the lines of WALTZ WITH BASHIR, takes place totally within the confines of a tank fighting in the streets of Lebanon in 1982. AJAMI, co-directed by an Israeli and Palestinian, features local talent filmed on the streets of Jaffa, with topnotch production values.
Despite the controversy that brought world attention to the Israeli cultural boycott, TIFF went on only slightly bruised to present a stunning array of over 350 exciting films from around the world. More will be reviewed in upcoming columns.
For more information on films presented at the Toronto International Film Festival go to: tiff.net
For more information on the Toronto Declaration go to: http://torontodeclaration.blogspot.com/