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Filmmaker Pulls Out of Toronto

John Greyson yanks “Covered” because of his opposition to Israel’s policies

John Greyson yanks "Covered" because of his opposition to Israel's policies

Canadian director John Greyson has withdrawn his short film "Covered"  from 2009’s Toronto International Film Festival because he does not approve of the event’s decision to showcase 10 works shot in Tel Aviv.

Citing the festival’s choice of city as well as its purported involvement with the Brand Israel campaign — a plan to lend the country a fresh image — Greyson stated he could not condone placing his work in a festival that spotlighted a major city within a state with which he took issue.

In an open statement sent to three festival organizers, Piers Handling, Cameron Bailey and Noah Cowan, Greyson explained that “to my mind, this isn’t the right year to celebrate Brand Israel, or to demonstrate an ostrich-like indifference to the realities (cinematic and otherwise) of the region, or to pointedly ignore the international economic boycott campaign against Israel.”

The festival’s organizers chose Tel Aviv as the inaugural site of its City to City Spotlight, a program they said would highlight “the evolving urban experience by immersing audiences in the best films from and about a selected city.”

They called Tel Aviv a “diverse” place whose denizens “explore and critique the city from many different perspectives.”

"Covered" is about 2008’s Sarajevo Queer Festival, a happening cancelled as a result of anti-gay violence.

Greyson has explained the film explores the stories of those who protested that violence as well as those who said nothing, such as the Canadian ambassador in Sarajevo and the festival’s organizers themselves.

Greyson further elaborated that the subject of the film was one of the factors instrumental to “determining his decision” to withdraw it in the first place.

“The film focuses on the bravery of the organizers and their supporters of the Sarajevo Queer Festival, and equally, on the ostriches, on those who remained silent,” he wrote.

“To stand in judgment of these ostriches before a TIFF audience, but then say nothing about this Tel Aviv spotlight –,” he continued, “finally, I realized that was a brand I couldn’t stomach.”

Strongly unpacking his views regarding Israel, Greyson described a Gaza “massacre,” the “aggressive extension of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands,” “the viral growth of the totalitarian security wall” and the “further enshrining of the check-point system.”

But fest organizer Cameron Bailey responded with an open statement that said, “City to City series was conceived and curated entirely independently. There was no pressure from any outside source. Contrary to rumours or mistaken media reports, this focus is a product only of TIFF’s programming decisions. We value that independence and would never compromise it.”

He added that “John (Greyson) writes that his protest isn’t against the films or filmmakers we have chosen, but against the spotlight itself.”

“By that reasoning,” he said, “no films programmed within this series would have met his approval, no matter what they contained. For us, the content and form of films does matter. In fact, when I met with a number of the signatories earlier this week, I encouraged them to see the films before passing judgment on the programme. Regrettably, they chose a different route. We know some of them to be veterans of Toronto’s battles against censorship — all the more surprising to watch them denounce a film series without seeing the films in it.”

Neither Bailey nor Greyson could be reached for comment.

Greyson continued the polemic by asking “isn’t such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now akin to celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973, Nestle's infant formula in 1984 or South African fruit in 1991?”

But while Greyson has helped organize a Toronto Palestinian Film Festival for September, he has not clarified whether he would do so for other minorities.

His letter did not state whether he would withdraw his film were it not to concern the subject matter it did and were the Toronto International Film Festival to spotlight other such controversial centers as Darfur, Moscow or Madrid.

He added that he wanted to “be clear: my protest isn’t against the films or filmmakers (TIFF has) chosen. I’ve seen brilliant works of Israeli and Palestinian cinema at past TIFFs, and will again in coming years. My protest is against the Spotlight itself, and the smug business-as-usual aura it promotes of a ‘vibrant young city…commemorating its centennial.’”