Israeli Toronto envoy: Festival focus on Israel unrelated to PR

Comes after director withdraws 'Covered' from film festival.

John Greyson 88 (photo credit: )
John Greyson 88
(photo credit: )
The Israeli government was not involved in the decision by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to include a series of films on Tel Aviv in its City to City spotlight, consul-general in Toronto Amir Gissin told The Jerusalem Post this week. In a letter last month that sparked the campaign against the inclusion of Tel Aviv as the subject of the series, director John Greyson withdrew his film Covered from the film festival, complaining that Tel Aviv should not be highlighted when Palestinians were suffering in the West Bank and Gaza. He was further angered by a comment made by Gissin in a Canadian Jewish News article from August 2008. In the letter, Greyson accused Gissin of acknowledging that the prominent placement of Israeli films in this year's film festival was the result of country branding efforts by the Israeli government. Gissin categorically denied these claims. "TIFF is not part of Israel's country branding exhibit," he said, insisting he had never said anything to this effect. "I said there was going to be an increased presence of Israeli films in the festival, not that it was part of the brand." The boycott movement gained steam last week when dozens of artists, including Jane Fonda and Danny Glover, signed a letter claiming that TIFF "has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine." Nonetheless, Gissin said he believes the protesters have failed. "TIFF chose Tel Aviv as the city of focus this year and that's not going to change - the protesters are too late," he asserted. According to Gissin, the TIFF boycott is reminiscent of the protest against the Dead Sea Scroll exhibition currently featured at the Royal Ontario Museum despite demonstrations during its opening. For Gissin it's not about the politics, but about the cinema. "From a strictly nonpolitical point of view, Israel is making very good films," he said. On August 28, festival co-director Cameron Bailey responded to Greyson's original letter with "An Open Letter on City to City: Tel Aviv," in which he asserted: "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." Last week, Bailey also denied that the Brand Israel campaign had pressured the film festival into featuring Tel Aviv as the focus city, saying, "The City to City series was conceived and curated entirely independently. There was no pressure from any outside source." He then accused the petitioners of being guilty of censorship. "I met with a number of the signatories earlier this week, I encouraged them to see the films before passing judgment on the program," he said. "Regrettably, they chose a different route. "We know some of them to be veterans of Toronto's battles against censorship - all the more surprising to watch them denounce a film series without seeing the films in it," Bailey said. Last week, the United Jewish Appeal of Toronto joined in the debate, sending an e-mail blast to some 25,000 people in their database. The email message urged recipients, "to respond by attending the films that are part of the City to City spotlight on Tel Aviv and to encourage your friends of all cultural backgrounds to do the same." Howard English, vice president of corporate communications for UJA of Greater Toronto, described what he saw as an atmosphere of "anti-Zionism, censorship, and an attitude of hypocrisy. "There are films from Iran and China being featured; these countries are the true human rights abusers," he continued. According to a Globe and Mail article Monday, the boycott movement has more planned. A spokesman for the group has said that there will be a press conference on Thursday afternoon to correspond with the opening of the film festival. Details regarding location, time and speakers for the press conference were not provided.