Tel Aviv program raises furor

Arab filmmakers are finding themselves caught in the middle of the furor over the Toronto Film Festival’s decision to program a sidebar dedicated to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv.

Sections in the Arab media are calling on filmmakers to boycott the fest, despite the fact that Arab cinema has a strong presence at both Venice and Toronto this year.

The row broke out last Thursday when Canadian director John Greyson withdrew his short “Covered” from Toronto in protest at the fest’s inaugural City to City event, which features 10 films about Tel Aviv by Israeli directors.

Greyson’s move was followed by the online publication of a petition, signed by Jane Fonda, Danny Glover and Naomi Klein among many others, criticizing the fest for becoming a pawn in the Israeli government’s attempts to improve its public image abroad after it launched a multi-million dollar PR campaign last year.

“We protest that TIFF, whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine,” read the statement, which has been signed by a number of Israeli and Arab filmmakers. “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.”

Arabs planning to attend Toronto with their films support the petition and oppose the sidebar but they are resisting pressure to boycott the event altogether, preferring cultural dialogue via their work.

Regardless, the row has dampened the buoyant mood among Arab filmmakers here.

“I feel that now instead of discussing films, all of a sudden we’re back to discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict again,” said Egyptian helmer and petition signatory Yousry Nasrallah, whose “Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story” world preemed to a positive critical reception at Venice and is playing at Toronto.

“It’s a pity that it’s become so politicized by something that could have been avoided. I welcome the Israeli films themselves but not this special section which is part of a PR campaign by the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs,” he added.

Toronto co-director and City to City programmer Cameron Bailey has attempted to defuse the situation by personally speaking with a number of the protesting filmmakers as well as highlighting the number of Arab films at the fest. That has only made things worse, however, with Arab filmmakers resentful of being drawn into the row.

“Why is it only Arab filmmakers who have to withdraw? This is not only a pan-Arab issue. It’s an issue for the world and this is a global petition, not an Arab one,” Palestinian filmmaker and petition signatory Elia Suleiman, whose “The Time That Remains” is playing at Toronto, told Variety. “What does it benefit us if we pull out? Our presence will be much stronger than our absence.”

The protest organizers are holding a confab in Toronto on Thursday to explain their grievances in greater depth. Until now, they have been at pains to ask signatories not to boycott Toronto and have also stressed that their actions are not aimed at Israeli filmmakers.

Whatever the outcome, the Arab-Israeli conflict has once again spilled over into cultural debate, even if some filmmakers from the region itself are bemused by the situation.

“The Arab world is so empty that it takes something like this to make them protest,” said one Arab filmmaker who will be attending Toronto. “They could protest about a million things Israel does every day. Instead, now we’ve become part of a balancing package in this situation rather than individual filmmakers.”

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