Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

City to City: Ban or Brand?

In the past couple of days, there’s been considerable kerfuffle regarding the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to spotlight Tel Aviv in its inaugural City to City programme. On August 27th, John Greyson announced that he would be pulling his doc Covered from the festival in protest of the desires of the festival programmers to (allegedly) work to normalize Israel’s presence in the arena of global culture and "to pointedly ignore the international economic boycott campaign against Israel.”

In response, a band of cultural luminaries—amongst them Naomi Klein, Ken Loach, David Byrne, Danny Glover, Wallace Shawn, Slavoj Zizek, Noam Gonick and Judith Butler—signed off on the Toronto Declaration, an ad hoc memo-festo echoing Greyson’s sentiments. Says the Declaration: “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.”

That TIFF is being used as the latest staging ground for a bunch of liberal aesthetes and academics to stage their own Israel/Palestine intellectual tug-of-war is a shame, especially considering the dicey rhetoric this whole debate is steeped in. While it’s true that Cameron Bailey’s programme notes claim that “The ten films in this year’s City to City programme will showcase the complex currents running through today’s Tel Aviv. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009, Tel Aviv is a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity,” and that this centennial celebration mandate effaces matters of occupation, exile and the tense history of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area, it seems preposterous to evaluate programming notes with such grave interest.

Bailey’s phrasing seems to me less about chest-beating for Israel and more about chest-beating for the festival itself. (And to wit, the festival has denied that they received any funding from the state of Israel's Brand Israel campaign.) Certainly it’s a case of business-as-usual—I’d imagine the average TIFF day tripper coming up from Niagara-On-The-Lake isn’t going to be sold on a new programme if its promotional material were couched in talk of ethnic cleansing, suicide bombings, &c.—but the business at hand is cultural tongue-clucking, not pro-Israel propaganda. There’s no more reason to believe that the City-to-City spotlight on Tel Aviv will “celebrate diversity” than there is to believe that (according to its programming notes), “Life During Wartime revisits [Todd] Solondz's unsettling terrain with new maturity.” It’s pap, sure, but it’s the kind of thing a festival this size has to suffer. That we should be spoon-fed such drivel for any film playing in any of the festival’s programmes is another, much knottier, matter entirely.

Moreover, as George Jonas pointed out in last weekend’s National Post, the Toronto Declaration is maddeningly paradoxical. The protesting artistic coalition stresses that they’re not anti-Israeli filmmaking or anti-Israeli filmmaker, but anti-Israel. Fine. But what does that mean? It’s like saying you hate The Beatles but you love their music. Jonas explains the Declaration’s central contradiction thusly: “Pressure groups operating in democracies must reconcile their urge to bully cultural institutions with their society's residual inhibition against doing so. This requires some mental gymnastics. The Greyson-Klein method is do and deny. Who, us, objecting to Israeli films? Perish the thought. We're only objecting to Israeli propaganda. Okay; what's Israeli propaganda? Well, the Israeli films we're objecting to.”

While of course it remains Greyson’s right to withdraw his film, and anyone’s right to protest what they may perceive as TIFF’s complicity with the machinations of the Israeli culture industry, the ban on Israel means that many people may be tempted to take in the work of Israeli filmmakers which encourages a critical dialogue about the Israel/Palestine divide. (Example: Ari Frolman’s Waltz With Bashir, while ostensibly dealing with the 1982 Lebanon War, prodded important issues regarding the behaviour of the Israeli Defence Forces and the exercise of military force more generally that approach a more universal resonance.) It’s yet another deep irony of the Declaration that while its supporters champion thinking critically about the history of Tel Aviv, the violence in Gaza, &c., their mandate backhandedly slates the work of filmmakers who may be trying to do just that.

Worse: it’s a shame that all this dust had to be kicked up over something as silly and incidental as programming notes, the flowery bombast of which no serious filmgoer would take seriously.