Organizers under fire for Tel Aviv spotlight

As the Toronto Film Festival got under way Thursday with the premiere of Darwin drama “Creation,” skies were blue and the red carpets long, but fest organizers were needled by a few hot-button issues.

The thorniest one is the outcry against the fest’s City to City program, which this year spotlights Tel Aviv. Industryites are protesting fest’s inclusion of Tel Aviv in light of the Israeli and Palestinian tensions.

One of the key figures leading the protest, Canadian writer Naomi Klein, told Daily Variety: “The reason we object to the spotlight is not past events but present-day ones — for instance, the fact that Tel Aviv, far from being outside the conflict, is the military center of Israel, a place from which fighter jets departed on their missions to Gaza last December/January.”

The group raising the objections drafted a letter, “The Toronto Declaration — No Celebration of Occupation,” and reported Thursday that more than 1,000 people from around the world had signed on to the protest, including Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Julie Christie and Viggo Mortensen. Group emphasized that the letter does not call for a boycott of the Toronto Film Festival, and “several of the signatories have much-anticipated films in this year’s festival and many others plan to attend. Nor is it a protest against Israeli filmmakers, many of whom signed the letter.”

Mirroring recent controversies at the Melbourne fest, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson withdrew his short docu “Covered” from the fest to protest the showcase of Israeli filmmaking.

A parallel resistance was going on in the Middle East: AP reported that Palestinian filmmakers staged a protest outside Canadian reps’ offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday.

Festival co-director Cameron Bailey, who wasn’t available for comment, said in an open letter on Aug. 28: “The goal of City to City is to take a closer look at global cities through a cinematic lens, especially cities where film contributes to or chronicles social change in compelling ways. … We recognize that Tel Aviv is not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground. As a festival that values debate and the exchange of cultures, we will continue to screen the best films we can find from around the world.”

Bailey and his fest colleagues also had to deal with local distributors’ gripes this summer. Distribs said they’d been footing the steep costs of jetting in and putting up actors and filmmakers to support their pics shown at the festival. Main beef was that distribs felt the fest was getting all the benefits of the talent showing up and wasn’t contributing to the costs in a meaningful way.

Ted East, president of the Canadian Assn. of Film Distributors and Exporters (CAFDE), said distribs met with Toronto fest brass “to find a more equitable way of bringing films to Toronto, and the festival agreed to contribute more money.”

A deal was reached in early August between the distributors and the fest.

Deal specifics were sketchy, and none of the parties involved would elaborate on just how much more support the fest is giving Canuck distribs to help shuttle in and house talent, but most reported being happy that the issue had been addressed.

With registration continuing at the fest’s Sutton Place Hotel HQ, industry registrations on opening day stood at around 3,060. Organizers expect attendance at the fest, which runs through Sept. 19, to reach about the same level as last year, when it drew 3,160.

Delegates from 62 countries have signed up so far this year, with higher numbers showing up from Australia, China, Germany, Italy and Denmark. Attendance from Spain doubled this year. Fewer will be on hand from Argentina, Japan, South Korea, Mexico and the U.S. The Stateside dip is mainly attributed to indie producers who have opted to stay home this year.

Toronto’s Sales & Industry Office director Stefan Wirthensohn reported two last-minute registrations from Japanese buyers on the eve of the fest, which could bode well for film sales companies hoping to increase business to a territory that’s been a tough sell recently.

On the fest side, organizers have amped up the red carpets at fest theater locations to boost marketing efforts for the films bowing in Toronto. The red carpet entry to the fest’s gala venue, Roy Thompson Hall, has been moved to the opposite side of the amphitheater, adding considerable space for photogs and news crews to cover talent arriving over the upcoming days.

The Roy Thompson Hall carpet looks to be about three or four times the length of prior years.

As one fest worker said, “It’s the 50-yard dash now.”

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