Every once in a while the act of an individual can make a big difference to a struggle. On August 28, Toronto film maker and long-time gay activist John Greyson wrote an open letter to the directors of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) pulling his short film Covered out of TIFF, which is one of the world’s top film festivals and opens in Toronto on September 10. His decision was to protest of TIFF’s spotlight on Tel Aviv. This is the first time that TIFF has held a City to City spotlight and the spotlight is on Tel Aviv, a city that is symbolic to Zionist Jews of Israel’s success and to Palestinians of the ethnic cleansing that took place to found that state of Israel.
Greyson’s courageous action and eloquent letter is a significant contribution to the Palestinian solidarity movement and the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) strategy that it has adopted to shine a light on the inexcusable aggression of Israel against the Palestinian people and pressure Israel to comply with international law. It has been followed by an open letter from arts and culture luminaries such as Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, John Berger, Alice Walker, Ken Loach and several Israeli and Palestinian film makers and artists.
It begins: “As members of the Canadian and international film, culture and media arts communities, we are deeply disturbed by the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to host a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv. We protest that TIFF, whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.”
The letter is quickly gaining signatories. You can sign it by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A cultural boycott is a difficult issue. No-one is proposing that TIFF refuse to show Israeli films. In fact, Israeli films contain some of the most devastating critiques of the Israeli regime but even if that was not true, there is no desire to censor or stop audiences from seeing films made in Israel. Rather a cultural boycott is a way of insisting that a country that is actively suppressing the human rights of a whole peoples and trying to cover it up by promoting their cultural strengths not be allowed to do so.
One of the original signers of the open letter and herself a Toronto resident, Naomi said in a recent Klein explained her decision to support the cultural boycott against Israel in an interview with Alternet:
“Well, it has to do with the fact that the Israeli government openly uses culture as a military tool. Though Israeli officials believe they are winning the actual war for land, they also feel that the country suffers because most of what the world hears about the region on the news is about the conflict: militarization, lawlessness, the occupation and Gaza.
“So the foreign ministry launched a campaign called "Israel Beyond the Conflict," which involves using culture, film, books, the arts, tourism and academia to create all kinds of alliances between Western countries and the state of Israel, and to promote the image of a normal, happy country, rather than an aggressive occupying power. That’s why we are always hearing about film festivals and book fairs with a special "Israel spotlight."
And so, even though in general I would totally agree that culture is positive — books are positive and film is positive and communication is wonderful — we have to understand that we are dealing with a state strategy to co-opt all of that to make a brutal occupation more palatable.”
I am an anti-Zionist Jew and an active supporter of Palestinian rights but have hesitated to support to the BDS campaign. Boycotts are difficult to organize when there isn’t strong support for the issue like there was with the grape boycott to support California farm workers or the anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa and needless to say in most of North America the actions of the state of Israel remain contesting ground with governments and media aligning themselves with the State of Israel. In addition, I am a strong opponent of censorship and cultural boycotts can lead in that direction. But the Palestinian BDS campaign is very clear about their aims and in the case of TIFF, the protest is clearly not a question of censorship.
As Klein says after adding that the Israeli state is also using gay and women’s rights against the fundamentalism of Hamas to win support : “It’s a very sophisticated strategy.
“That means we have to come up with equally sophisticated strategies that defend culture and human rights on the one hand, but that, on the other, reject all attempts to use our work and our values to whitewash the ugly reality of occupation and segregation.”
The debate produced by John Greyson’s actions have for the first time in North America that I know has put the BDS campaign onto the front page and produced a very educational and important discussion led by artists about not allowing their art to be used as propaganda at the same time as ensuring that a diversity of voices are heard.
Greyson’s open letter asks: “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, skilful 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…” Read the entire letter and TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey’s response
John Greyson’s action has mobilizing an entire artistic community to speak out in solidarity with the Palestinian movement against the defacto apartheid that Israeli has established in Israel/Palestine. There is a debate but it’s not about whether these artists are anti-Semitic as many critics of Israel have been called to silence debate but rather whether Israel deserves to be celebrated in any way and whether it is legitimate to protest one of Canada’s most prestigious cultural institutions doing just that.