Connect to share and comment

A TIFF over Israel

Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF, is reeling with controversy over allegations of propaganda for Israel

Actress Julie Christie speaks at the news conference at the 34th Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 16, 2009. She is one of many signatories to a letter condemning what some feel is a disproportionate focus on Israeli cinema at this year's festival. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada – A protest over a Toronto International Film Festival spotlight on Tel Aviv cinema has galvanized the globe’s creative community.

From Cairo to Calgary, artists can often be divided on their Middle East views but most agree on the need to draw the line between cultural expression and political advocacy.

As a glamorous parade of celebrities walk the red carpet here, increasing numbers of  Hollywood stars are speaking out for or against the festival’s critics, who say the Tel Aviv program boosts Israel’s tarnished image eight months after its devastating bombing raids in the Gaza Strip.

“We protest that TIFF, whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine,” said the Toronto Declaration, signed earlier this month by 65 artists, including actresses Jane Fonda and Julie Christie, musicians David Byrne and Harry Belafonte and writers such as Alice Walker and Wallace Shawn.

Since then, 1,500 have added their names to the document, including 60 Israelis. The letter denounces the TIFF focus on Tel Aviv as being subverted by “the Israeli propoganda machine.”The letter itself does not however call for a boycott of the festival, which is on through Sept. 19, nor of the 10 films featured in the program. But Palestinians have demonstrated at the Canadian consular office in Ramallah, and Egyptian filmmakers have pulled their three films from what is arguably the most important international film forum after Cannes.

The controversy has generated a great deal of heated debate. Jane Fonda modified her position after signing the letter saying she had not considered how some "unnecessarily inflammatory" wording in the declaration could "exacerbate the situation." Dozens of American and Canadian actors, directors and producers signed a full page ad in a Toronto newspaper to “applaud” the festival and its 10-film Tel Aviv program.

“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,” said the ad co-sponsored by the Toronto and Los Angeles Jewish communities.

That statement is signed by actors Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jerry Seinfeld, Lisa Kudrow, Lenny Kravitz and dozens of entertainment industry executives.

For many who are angry about the protest, it is less about the Middle East than about the politicization of an event that has in recent decades put Toronto on the world’s cultural map.
 “A film festival should be like the Olympics. You should put politics aside for the sake of the films,” said American director Jason Reitman.

Visiting celebrities and local filmgoers appeared to do just that, as the festival carried on with as much excitement and glitz as ever, despite the ongoing scandal.