Sunday, August 30, 2009

John Greyson Withdraws from Toronto's Film Fest over "Brand Israel"

John Greyson, a highly acclaimed filmmaker whose films, including Zero Patience (1993), Lilies (1996; winner of four Genie Awards, Canada's highest film prize), Fig Trees (a 2003 installation released as a film in 2009), and other films, decided last week to withdraw his new film Covered from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) because of the Festival's decision to make Tel Aviv a focus of its programming this year. Greyson's nuanced yet explicit critique of the TIFF's programming choice, and the reasoning behind his decision to reject "Brand Israel" by withdrawing his film, are contained in his letter to the TIFF reprinted beneath the following JPN editorial commentary.

Because Greyson's letter raises the question of whether a boycott of Israeli products and institutions is strategic at present as an activist program, JPN editor Joel Beinin discusses the tactic more generally immediately below.

* * * * *

The tactic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has much to recommend it as a strategy for confronting the consolidation of Israeli apartheid. Aside from its positive association with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, it is undeniably a non-violent tactic that can be used by large numbers of people and adapted to many different situations. The Palestinian people certainly have every right to choose whatever method they decide is most effective to achieve their national rights,

It is precisely the flexibility of the BDS campaign that has aroused concern among some who have long supported Palestinian rights. The original 2005 call for BDS advocates applying these measures until Israel recognizes the Palestinian right to self- determination and complies with international law by

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

These goals leave open the question: Is BDS directed against the occupation? Or is BDS directed against the existence of the state of Israel (because, in fact, the entire state is built on occupied and colonized lands)? Some, who either do not care about this distinction or who express their political activism in intentionally provocative ways, may actually be weakening the BDS movement. It is impossible and undemocratic to suppress any of the voices in the emerging BDS movement. Mass movements usually contain many currents of opinion (as was the case in both the anti-apartheid struggle and the US Black freedom movement), and this is entirely legitimate. The best way to ensure that BDS is seen as a reasonable and effective strategy is if those who have carefully explained their approach to BDS (Neve Gordon or John Greyson or Udi Aloni's very carefully argued statements) emerge as the dominant force in the movement. The renowned author, John Berger, initiated a practice of specifying carefully what he did and did not mean by a cultural boycott in the letter he appended to the December 2005 statement of 94 authors, film-makers and others who advocated a cultural boycott of Israel <>. Naomi Klein has said that her own approach to the cultural boycott was influenced by John Berger.

One thing we should be clear about: BDS will not disrupt the momentum for a political resolution to the conflict. There is no such momentum. There is momentum for more process. The Israeli press seems to have concluded that Obama is no longer a problem and that Bibi has outsmarted him. It's not a question of intelligence, but rather that the Obama administration is not prepared to go as far as is necessary to compel even a full settlement freeze. But, if they had threatened to withdraw aid or even announced it was a possibility, i.e. a form of BDS, more progress might have been made. Governments will only take such measures when it is clear that there is popular support for them, and the BDS campaign is one way to establish that.

Joel Beinin

* * * * *

A letter from John Greyson to the Toronto International Film Festival:

August 27, 2009

Piers Handling, Cameron Bailey, Noah Cowan
Toronto International Film Festival

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 Aviv.

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 year1s 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 it's 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 it's 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 it's origins, it's funding, it's programming, it's 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

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Unknown said...

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.

(cont. in next post...)

Unknown said...

(cont. from previous post:)

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