Toronto fest director addresses Tel Aviv tiff

Piers Handling says protests have created 'nervous festival'

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TORONTO -- Toronto International Film Festival director Piers Handling has weighed in on the growing artist protest over next week's Tel Aviv and Israeli cultural spotlight, saying it will stir debate and an exchange of cultures that film festivals should encourage.

"Films are designed to do a bunch of things. And a (festival) program can pose a series of questions," Handling said as a growing list of filmmakers, actors and activists, including Danny Glover and Jane Fonda, sign on to a campaign criticizing Toronto for its 10-film Tel Aviv spotlight.

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

Handling recalled earlier festival sidebars that stirred nationalist accusations and division, including in 1997 when Toronto presented 19 films from ex-Yugoslavia under the banner of "Balkan Cinema: Home Truths."

The films, which included Emir Kusturica's Cannes award-winner "Underground," and Dusan Makavejev's "WR: Mysteries of the Organism," came from new republics of the former Yugoslavia, and countries like Romania and Bulgaria that shared a recent communist past.

"There were lots of communities, strong memories. And they all protested the inclusion of another community's films," Handling remembers.

Different this time around is the inaugural "City to City" program presenting 10 Israeli features and documentaries that, protesters contend, exclude Palestinian filmmakers and voices.

And the Tel Aviv spotlight critics add it will serve to polish Israel's international image while it is locked in a civil conflict with the Palestinians.

The result is a "nervous festival," Handling concedes, but one not likely to pit filmmaker against filmmaker as lines in the continuing Israeli and Palestinian divide are drawn.

"It's a little early to tell. Once we see the debate that comes out (of the screenings), then we can comment," Handling said as he unveiled an emerging filmmakers competition in partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada.

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off Thursday.