Protesting the Process of the TIFF Protest

in 34th Toronto International Film Festival

by Denis Seguin

On one hand: It takes guts to make a stand. John Greyson, the Toronto filmmaker made a stand, withdrawing his short film, Covered, from the Toronto International Film Festival and calling on his peers to join him in a written chorus of disapproval. The stated target: the state of Israel, its policies vis a vis Palestine and its “Brand Israel” marketing campaign.

Greyson is an opportunist but then so are we all. Press releases are issued according to or against the news cycle – bad news is usually issued on Fridays after 5pm. Trash collectors go on strike in the summer. TIFF is a spotlight – the only time of the year when Toronto appears on the international media radar – and hence an ideal moment to air strong opinions.

Greyson and a number of others, including Naomi Klein, issued their Toronto Declaration on August 28 and in a matter of days it attracted signatories such as Jane Fonda, Ken Loach and Viggo Mortensen.

On the other hand, Greyson’s tactic was mushy. The letter reads: “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. We object instead to the use of our festival in staging a propaganda campaign…”

It is disingenuous or naive to protest the Israeli state and yet declare that Israeli filmmakers are exempt from said protest. In Israel, as in Canada, no film gets made without some form of state support, be it direct investment or tax credits. By this reasoning, Israeli filmmakers – even those, like Udi Aloni, a Toronto Declaration signatory, who claim themselves in opposition to the government policy — are inherently part of the state apparatus. How is Israeli-funded filmmaking not Israeli-funded propaganda?

This disconnection led to a near-universal albeit understandable misapprehension that the Toronto Declaration was a call to boycott Israeli films and filmmakers, which lead to more extreme counter-reaction – including the tendency among pro-Israeli factions to label as anti-Semitic anything that questions the actions of the Israeli state. The situation spiraled – thanks in part to TIFF.

Its first mistake was not to have seen this problem coming a mile away. Surely someone within the vast TIFF enterprise was aware – as Greyson was – that, as long ago as August 2008, representatives of the Israeli government had targeted TIFF 2009 as an opportunity to promote the state.

Israel has been a hot button issue since its foundation. TIFF should have been prepared for protest against its choice of Tel Aviv as the inaugural city in the program, with both a backroom defusing strategy and a public argument prepared.

Whatever Greyson’s ultimate objective, the Toronto Declaration was an attack on the integrity of TIFF. And TIFF should have come out swinging. But TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey issued an open letter that erred on the side of caution. And the powers that be decided the letter should not be issued through a press release but rather on the TIFF website. The effect was that TIFF lost control of the message. I am aware of the irony of a columnist finding fault with an organization’s spin control. But when you know how the system works one hates to see a pro make a misstep. 

Another error was not to embrace Greyson by inviting him and his fellow travelers to take part in City to City. This would have put the Toronto Declaration signatories on notice, challenging them to put their words into action. It was a missed opportunity to do exactly what TIFF espouses in its charming promotional trailer.

As it happened, according to Dan Fainaru, the Israeli journalist and critic who participated in the City to City discussions, the Toronto Declaration did not even come up as an issue.

Canada could stand to have more energetic discussions. That the entire debate seems to have transpired within a media bubble (and I am aware of the irony as I write this column) says something about the weight of the original declaration.

It will be interesting to see which hot zone TIFF picks for 2010. Beijing, Tehran or Kabul…

Edited by: Steven Yates