Tel Aviv mayor weighs in on Toronto flap

Filmmakers disappointed over event's politicization

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TORONTO -- Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai on Sunday defended the right of filmmakers and artists to protest a controversial Israeli film sidebar at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"If they protest, let them protest. We are for freedom of speech," Huldai told a gathering of Israeli filmmakers Sunday in Toronto.

The Israeli mayor took the high road as TIFF's spotlight on films and directors from Tel Aviv got under way in Toronto.

"To represent a democratic, pluralistic city, with a creativity and film community such as we have, if that's a shame, I take the blame," Huldai said.

He was responding to a growing artist-led protest over the Tel Aviv program in Toronto that includes support from actors Jane Fonda and Danny Glover, British director Ken Loach and around 1,000 signatories to an open letter to the Toronto festival.

Israeli filmmakers in Toronto to showcase their latest work expressed disappointment that the online protest was undermining the film festival and their premieres.

"My film doesn't speak about war or the Holocaust. It's a love story," said Leon Prudovsky, who is debuting his first feature, "Five Hours From Paris," in Toronto. "No one should read the film as a piece of the Middle Eastern puzzle. It's just a film. It's cinema," he said.

Prudovsky and most directors in the Tel Aviv spotlight are graduates of that city's Tel Aviv University department of film and television, which sponsored a Toronto festival gathering on Sunday.

Other Israeli films in and out of the City-to-City spotlight in Toronto deal with war and religion, including Eytan Fox's "The Bubble" and the Venice award winner "Lebanon," by Samuel Moaz, which has its North American premiere here on Monday.

But other Israeli directors in the Tel Aviv spotlight said they just want to present their latest work like other international directors in Toronto.

"We're so enthusiastic. It's such a huge festival, and everything is happening so fast," said Yoav Paz, director of "Phobidilia," a portrait of a young man afraid to leave his house in Tel Aviv.

"This film is not political. It can happen in any city worldwide. So we feel sorry to be dragged into this political controversy," Paz added. But Yaron Shani, co-director of "Ajami," which earned a Camera d'Or special distinction award at Cannes, accepts it's the lot of all Israeli filmmakers to be called on to comment about their country's ongoing regional conflicts, if only out of public curiosity.

"I'm here to present a film. But it's always the same story, when you come from Israel, people expect you to represent something," said Shani, who made "Ajami" with Palestinian filmmaker Scandar Copti. "They (festivalgoers) want to hear what I think about issues and events that they see on TV," he added.

But Shani said awards for his own and other Israeli films mean his country's cinema is breaking out with international film audiences, and can now stand on its own, outside of ongoing controversies.

Kino International this week picked up the U.S. rights to "Ajami," a four-fold drama on the cycle of violence in the Middle East.

As Toronto's City-to-City spotlight gets under way Sunday evening with a screening of Danny Lerner's "Kirot," the artist-led protest plan a public forum Monday.

And Toronto newspapers on Monday are to feature full-page advertisements lending support to the Toronto International Film Festival over its Israeli film spotlight.
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