Filmmakers take sides over Tel Aviv spotlight

Friday press conference moved to Monday

TORONTO -- The still-growing debate in Toronto over its Tel Aviv spotlight now has actors and filmmakers taking sides.

New artists to back the protest of the Israeli film spotlight, which begins Sunday, include Canadian filmmakers Velcro Ripper, Min Sook Lee, Paul Lee and Lynne Fernie, and actors Harry Belafonte, Julie Christie, Michael Burg and Viggo Mortenson.

Canadian directors lining up to support Toronto's Israeli film showcase now includes Saul Rubinek, who charged "censorship has reared its ugly head," and Norman Jewison, who said the artist-led protest "smacks of anti-Semitic bigotry."

Toronto-based documentary maker Simcha Jacobovici, reflecting the growing vitriol in Toronto, said the festival "has been hijacked by a group of so-called activists bent on furthering their agenda -- to demonize Jews and to marginalize Israel, in order to bring about the destruction of the Jewish state."

Their comments were preceded by Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Weisenthal Center and a two-time Oscar winner, on Thursday telling a hastily-arranged press conference in Toronto that the protesters were "hypocritical" to signal out Tel Aviv and ignore totalitarian regimes elsewhere in the Middle East (HR, Sept. 10).

Undeterred by attacks from Tel Aviv sidebar supporters, protest organizers indicate that around 1,000 filmmakers, actors and academics have so far signed the Aug. 28 "Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation" addressed to the festival, which has backing from Jane Fonda, Danny Glover and other early signatories.

Posted online, the Toronto Declaration argues the Toronto festival has become a tool of Israel's propaganda machine.

Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, another of the Toronto Declaration's original co-authors, argued Friday that "publicly opposing TIFF's decision is not an act of censorship, but its opposite: the use of cherished rights of freedom of speech and opinion."

The groundswell of support has prompted organizers to delay a planned Friday press conference, to be attended by Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers, to Monday when a larger public forum will be staged.

The artist-led protest was sparked by Canadian filmmaker John Greyson choosing to withdraw his short film from TIFF over its Tel Aviv spotlight .

The festival's inaugural City-to-City spotlight kicks off Sunday night with screenings of Danny Lerner's "Kirot," a portrait of two women overcoming differences to bond in a south Tel Aviv house, and Efraim Kishon's "Big Dig," a 1969 comedy in which Tel Aviv is brought to a halt by a man with a jackhammer.

The Toronto festival, meanwhile, has attempted to stay above the fray, insisting it aims to encourage discussion around films in the Tel Aviv spotlight, and elsewhere in the festival lineup.

"We welcome that dialogue because film is an art form that we get passionate about," festival co-director Cameron Bailey told the 34th edition's opening ceremony Thursday night at Roy Thomson Hall.

The Toronto International Film Festival continues to Sept. 19.