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Much Ado About Little at the Toronto International Film Festival

September 15, 2009

I expected the godsawful ruckus over the “City to City: Tel Aviv” programme at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to fade once the festival got properly underway, but there’s little sign that this is happening. Critics of the programme held a press conference and demonstration the other day to explain their position, and critics of the critics have released a statement explaining theirs. There are celebrities and things on either side, and the level of sanctimonious rhetoric has reached alarming proportions.

I don’t know whether to be more annoyed/amused by the histrionic nature of the original anti-Aviv protest, or the extent to which the pro-Aviv side seems determined to willfully misinterpret the opposing position. To recap a bit, the anti-Aviv “Toronto Declaration” proclaimed:

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, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime.

In other words, the anti-Avivers didn’t mind the movies themselves – they just didn’t think they should be packaged as a special programme celebrating Tel Aviv. The words “propaganda campaign” referred to “Brand Israel”, an effort to refurbish the country’s image by reminding people of Israel’s considerable achievements in areas other than precision bombing.

Toronto has apparently been a testing ground for this campaign, and back in 2008 the Canadian Jewish News reported that “plans are in the works for a major Israeli presence at next year’s Toronto International Film Festival”. This vaguely suggests that the TIFF might have succumbed to marketing pressure in spotlighting Tel Aviv, although TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey insists that “the City to City series was conceived and curated entirely independently”. In any case, the distinction between (a) just showing Israeli movies and (b) making them the focus of a special programme hardly seems worth getting excited over. The anti-Avivers clearly have far too much time and indignation to spare.

The recent statement from the pro-Avivers, however, is an overwrought splutter that reads in part:

Anyone who has actually seen recent Israeli cinema, movies that are political and personal, comic and tragic, often critical, knows they are in no way a propaganda arm for any government policy. Blacklisting them only stifles the exchange of cultural knowledge that artists should be the first to defend and protect.

It’s a fine endorsement of artistic freedom, but it would seem more necessary if someone had suggested blacklisting something.

Basically, the controversy illustrates Canada’s dysfunctional approach to discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bombastic moral grandstanding; people talking past each other; disproportionate attention lavished on a festering territorial squabble on the far side of the world. Personally, I’d rather watch a movie.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2009 7:54 am

    Roger Ebert ran a blog post critical of the protest, describing it as a boycott and stifling to artistic freedom. Then he found out more about the “Brand Israel” involvement and completely reversed himself, adding the following comment to the top of his post:

    “I’m writing this the day after first posting this entry. I now regret it. The point I make about artists is perfectly valid but I realize I wasn’t prepared with enough facts about the events leading up to the Festival’s decision to showcase Tel Aviv in the City-to-City section. I thought of it as an innocent goodwill gesture, but now realize it was part of a deliberate plan to “re-brand” Israel in Toronto, as a pilot for a larger such program. The Festival should never have agreed to be used like this. It was naive for the plan’s supporters to believe it would have the effect they hoped for.”

    • corsullivan permalink*
      September 29, 2009 1:35 pm

      Exactly right – the problem, if there is one, revolves around the “Brand Israel” campaign. As I noted in my original post, the festival organisers seem to be insisting that this simply wasn’t a factor in the Tel Aviv showcase, and I can’t see any concrete reason to disbelieve them. However, the showcase certainly fitted into the goals of the Israeli campaign with suspicious seamlessness.

      With that said, I stand by my original opinion that none of this is a particularly big deal. The whole concept of “Brand Israel” strikes me as crass, pushy and propagandistic, but I feel that way about almost all large-scale marketing campaigns. Even if we assume that the Tel Aviv showcase really was a “Brand Israel” production from start to finish, some of the movies were apparently pretty good, so I don’t think it marred the festival from an artistic perspective. Politically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with reminding people that Israel has its peaceful and creative side. No real harm done, in my view, beyond perhaps a minor compromise of the festival’s independence.

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