Artists protest Tel Aviv focus at Toronto film fest

TORONTO (Reuters) - The Toronto International Film Festival is under attack for its decision to present a series of films spotlighting the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, which a group of high-profile artists and celebrities say constitutes complicity in “the Israeli propaganda machine”.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk on the beach in Tel Aviv January 14, 2009. REUTERS/Sharon Perry

At issue is the festival’s new City to City program, which will present 10 films focused on Tel Aviv.

The 34th edition of the festival will begin next Thursday.

Canadian filmmaker John Greyson last week pulled his documentary “Covered” from the festival in protest, and a statement published online on Thursday and signed by more than 50 artists, academics, and filmmakers likened the program to a celebration of apartheid-era South Africa.

“This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the (Tel Aviv) area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries,” say the signatories, which include actors Jane Fonda and Danny Glover, author Naomi Klein, and filmmaker Ken Loach.

They accuse the festival of taking direction from the “Brand Israel” campaign, which seeks to improve the country’s image and has focused on Toronto as a test city.

“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,” they say.

“However... we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign.”

With a diverse multicultural population, including sizable Jewish and Arab groups, Toronto frequently sees public demonstrations of support for both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Earlier this year, the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees passed a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, while “Israeli Apartheid Week”, founded in Toronto in 2005, is held annually on several Canadian university campuses.

In a blog posting last week, City to City festival programer Cameron Bailey said he was attracted to Tel Aviv because “the films being made there explore and critique the city from many different perspectives”.

He also said the series was conceived independently and was not the object of pressure from any outside source.

Festival director Piers Handling said on Thursday the films speak for themselves and are meant to promote discussion.

“If there are issues that have been raised by these films, that’s exactly what the festival should be about, to show work that’s challenging, work that raises questions, work that’s contemporary, work that deals with today’s issues,” he told Reuters.

Officials at the Israeli consulate in Toronto did not immediately return requests for comment.

The festival will showcase more than 300 films from 64 countries when it begins its 10-day run on September 10.

Reporting by Cameron French; editing by Peter Galloway