Controversy at the Toronto Film Fest

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has been causing quite a stir, and it wasn’t just because Megan Fox was there promoting Jennifer’s Body.  The real ruckus-raiser was the fact that over 1,000 artists, authors, academicians and others including Jane Fonda and Danny Glover have signed the “Toronto Declaration” which calls for a boycott of the TIFF for hosting a program focusing on Tel Aviv.

In its inaugural year, the TIFF sidebar “City to City,” shines a spotlight on Tel Aviv and features 10 films coming out of the multi-cultural Mediterranean city.

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum or your thoughts on the Israeli government, this boycott is a misguided and dangerous effort that threatens the entire filmmaking community and, indeed, freedom of speech and artistic expression.

Israeli films and filmmakers haven’t been threatened by their participation in just the TIFF.  Earlier this summer, director Ken Loach (who has signed the Toronto boycott) almost successfully forced an Israeli film, Surrogate, to withdraw from the Edinburgh Film Festival. The film focuses on a 30-something-year-old man coming to terms with the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Mind you, the film was not boycotted because it features frank sexuality and full frontal nudity, but for the sole reason that it was produced in Israel.

Proving even further that the protest is off target, the Israeli director Shmulik Maoz whose film Lebanon will be screened at the festival (and which just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) noted that “most of the filmmakers in the City to City program are as critical of the Israeli government as anybody.”

Thankfully there are some celebrities speaking out against the protest including actors John Voight and Minnie Driver and filmmakers Ivan Reitman and David Cronenberg. As Rabbi (and sometime filmmaker) Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has pointed out, “Tel Aviv is one of the freest cities in the world –warts and all: a model city of diversity, freedom of expression and tolerance, for Arabs and Jews. It is the height of hypocrisy to signal out Tel Aviv.”

How ironic that the films being boycotted include more than 25 Arab/Palestinian actors and crew.

Unfortunately, I imagine that we can expect this type of boycott in the future which makes it imperative that each of us become an active promoter of free speech and ideas.  We cannot censor creativity nor allow the distortion of reality. One thing is for sure — if you’re looking for Israeli Cinema, both narrative and documentary and from wide-ranging points of view, look no further than the Washington Jewish Film Festival, December 3-13th.

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