Toronto protest over Israeli sidebar widens

50 artists and academics join protest over Israeli spotlight

TORONTO -- First a single filmmaker withdrew his short film from the Toronto International Film Festival over its spotlight on Tel Aviv. Now the artists are piling on.

Toronto is set to open next week with a widening artist protest and possible boycott over its spotlight on Israel and its filmmakers.

British director Ken Loach, Jane Fonda, Wallace Shawn, musician David Byrne and actor Danny Glover are among 50 directors, writers and activists who have signed an open letter to the Toronto festival that went online Thursday.

The document, titled "The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation," alleges that Toronto, "whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine."

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The list of international filmmakers signing on to the declaration includes U.S. producer Joslyn Barnes, distributor Cornelius Moore, screenwriter Jeremy Pikser and Canadian documentary maker Mark Achbar, whose films have screened in Toronto.

Middle Eastern filmmakers joining the protest include Egypt's Ahmad Abdalla, Palestinians Hany Abu-Assad, Yousry Nasrallah and Elia Sulieman, who has a film screening in Toronto next week, and Israeli directors Guy Davidi, Eyal Eithcowich and Shai Carmeli Pollak.

The latest protest, which follows the withdrawal last week of Canadian director John Greyson's short film "Covered" from the festival, reiterates the opposition is not to the presence of Israeli films in the festival.

"We object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of an apartheid regime," the letter continued.

Toronto has drawn heat for choosing Tel Aviv as the subject of its inaugural "City to City" program, which celebrates films from a selected city. As part of program, Toronto will screen Etyan Fox's "The Bubble," Uri Zohar's "Big Eyes," Efraim Kishon's 1969 farce "Big Dig" and Niv Klainer's "Bena," among other titles.

The open letter argues the Toronto festival's claim to encourage diversity with its city-to-city focus is "empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program."

The letter further argues Tel Aviv cannot be looked at in isolation from Israel's ongoing conflict with the neighboring Palestinians.

"Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city's past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto," the letter states. Greyson and other protesters, including Canadian author Naomi Klein, allege the Tel Aviv-to-Toronto spotlight is part of a "Brand Israel" campaign supported by major Canadian media companies that is using the festival to polish Israel's international image.

Toronto festival co-director Cameron Bailey last week expressed disappointment over the festival boycott over the Tel Aviv spotlight, and insisted the sidebar was programmed independent of the Israeli government.

In an open letter posted on the Toronto festival Web site, Bailey defended the city to city focus he programmed.

"We recognize that Tel Aviv is not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground," he wrote.

But Bailey also defended the festival curatorial independence: "There was no pressure from any outside source. Contrary to rumors or mistaken media reports, this focus is a product only of TIFF's programming decisions."
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