An open letter to Robert Lantos: In defence of the Toronto Declaration

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Dear Robert,

Thanks for your two interesting letters of last week, responding to our Toronto Declaration. For me, the 1000+ signatories are an inspiring and eclectic group, reading like the cast list of a new Guy Maddin movie (David Bryne, Julie Christie, Alice Walker and Slavoj Zizek, together in Saddest Music: The Sequel). Guy himself signed on Friday.

Yet for you, Robert, we 1000+ signatories are (and I quote):  opportunists, hypocrites, fascists, censors, storm-troopers, apartheid-supporters, intolerant totalitarians, a mob of homophobic anti-Semitic terrorist regime supporters. Ahem! Much to respond to!

Censorship? I don't think so. From the start, our protest was against the Tel Aviv Spotlight frame, not the films – so we emphatically stressed that we weren't boycotting either the films or filmmakers, or calling on anyone else to pull their films. From the start, we've encouraged others to speak out, which they have by the many hundreds. The last time I checked, this is called free speech.

Opportunism? I don't think so. It turns out that pulling a film from TIFF is a lousy career move. Industry and mainstream media response has been extremely harsh, and this may make it tough for me to raise funds for my next project.  Some have written to my university, demanding that I be investigated, fired, deported.

Whatever. Of much greater importance is the opportunism of TIFF, which seems increasingly eager to court dubious partnerships, such as the Israeli consulate's Brand Israel Campaign. I'm reminded of last year, when the opening night party for Passchendaele featured real soldiers posing on a Canadian Armed Forces tank. Many of us were disturbed by this uncritical collaboration with the Canadian army, currently fighting in Afghanistan. So I have to ask: who is politicizing TIFF?

You say we're anti-Semites, yet Israelis and Jews were at the forefront of initiating the letter and signing it. You lecture us about gay rights in the Middle East, yet you ignore our explicit statements supporting queer Palestinians and Israelis who don't have the luxury of partitioning their human rights into neat, discreet categories. You say that I'd end up dead if I showed my queer-themed films in Ramallah. Well, I guess you'll be surprised to learn that I've been invited to screen my films in Ramallah this coming year. You're welcome to attend -- you might find your sweeping generalizations about gay rights, the Arab world, Israel, Islam and homophobia don't even start to capture the complexity of what's going on.

Instead of hiding behind such inflammatory buzzwords, I wish you and TIFF would answer our key Spotlight questions which remain unanswered. Why were no Palestinian filmmakers included? Why hasn't TIFF explicitly explained and repudiated the perceived Brand Israel connection, beyond vague disavowals? What's the extent of Israeli sponsorship, beyond airfare, receptions, and the Mayor's presence? Why an exclusive program of Israeli state-sponsored features, when shorts could have provided critical alternative voices? Why do you keep repeating your CBAS (Censorship, Boycott, Anti-Semitism) accusations when you know they're not true? Why did TIFF's planning of the Spotlight continue during the Gaza massacre?

I just got back from South Africa yesterday (I apologize for the jet-lag bags). While there, I visited the Hector Pieterson museum, dedicated to the memory of the Soweto massacre, where over 500 school children and anti-apartheid activists were killed by security forces. Among other things, the museum documents how this event became a turning point for the world, a line in the sand, a moment when we ostriches finally woke up and expressed our outrage against South Africa's apartheid regime.

During my visit to the museum, the 2008 words of former Israeli Education Minister Shulamit Aloni echoed in my head: "Israel practices a brutal form of Apartheid in the territory it occupies. It's army has turned every Palestinian village and town into a fenced-in, or blocked-in, detention camp." That night, I learned that the Toronto Declaration had just passed the 1000 signature mark. What triggered this extraordinary outpouring of protest, mostly from working filmmakers and artists, gathered by a handful of volunteers in under two weeks? I think there are many answers, but one word predominates: Gaza. I think for many of us, Gaza represents a similar turning point to Soweto, a similar line in the sand. A moment when it's imperative to speak out against the outrages of the Occupation. A moment when it's vital to turn the spotlight back on TIFF, and demand a return to the sort of ethical engagement with cinema that used to characterize our festival.


John Greyson


This letter was read by John Greyson at the Celebration of Solidarity: A Different Kind of Spotlight, held Sept. 14 in Toronto.

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