Artist Takes Up BDS Campaign – Pulls Out of TIFF in Protest

John Greyson withdraws his film Covered from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to protest the festival’s promotion of Israeli government’s strategy for cultural export.

The film Covered is about the cancellation of the Sarajevo Queer Film Festival. For the duration of the Festival, Covered can be seen at:

August 27, 2009

Piers Handling, Cameron Bailey, Noah Cowan
Toronto International Film Festival
2 Carlton St., 13th floor
Toronto Canada M5B 1J3

Dear Piers, Cameron, Noah:

I've come to a very difficult decision -- I'm withdrawing my film Covered
from TIFF, in protest against your inaugural City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv.

In the Canadian Jewish News, Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin described
how this Spotlight is the culmination of his year-long Brand Israel
campaign, which includes bus/radio/TV ads, the ROM's notorious Dead Sea
Scrolls exhibit, and "a major Israeli presence at next year's Toronto
International Film Festival, with numerous Israeli, Hollywood and Canadian
entertainment luminaries on hand." Gissin said Toronto was chosen as a
test-city for Brand Israel by Israel's Foreign Ministry, and thanked
Astral, MIJO and Canwest for donating the million-dollar budget. (Astral is
of course a long-time TIFF sponsor, and Canwest owners' Asper Foundation
donated $500,000 to TIFF). "We've got a real product to sell to
Canadians... The lessons learned from Toronto will inform the worldwide
launch of Brand Israel in the coming years, Gissin said."

This past year has also seen: the devastating Gaza massacre of eight months
ago, resulting in over 1000 civilian deaths; the election of a Prime
Minister accused of war crimes; the aggressive extension of illegal Israeli
settlements on Palestinian lands; the accelerated destruction of
Palestinian homes and orchards; the viral growth of the totalitarian security
wall, and the further enshrining of the check-point system. Such state policies
have led diverse figures such as John Berger, Jimmy Carter, and Bishop Desmond
Tutu to characterize this 'brand' as apartheid.

Your TIFF program book may describe Tel Aviv as a "vibrant young city... of
beaches, cafes and cultural ferment... that celebrates its diversity," but
it's also been called "a kind of alter-Gaza, the smiling face of Israeli
apartheid" (Naomi Klein) and "the only city in the west without Arab
residents" (Tel Aviv filmmaker Udi Aloni).

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. Launched by Palestinian NGO's in 2005,
and since joined by thousands inside and outside Israel, the campaign is
seen as the last hope for forcing Israel to comply with international law.
By ignoring this boycott, TIFF has emphatically taken sides -- and in the
process, forced every filmmaker and audience member who opposes the
occupation to cross a type of picket line.

Let's be clear: my protest isn't against the films or filmmakers you've
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
metropolis [and] dynamic young city... commemorating its centennial",
seemingly untroubled by other anniversaries, such as the 42nd anniversary
of the occupation. 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, Nestles infant formula in 1984, or South
African fruit in 1991?

You're probably groaning right now -- "inflammatory rhetoric!" -- but I
mention these boycott campaigns because they were specific and strategic to
their historic moments, and certainly complex. Like these others, the
Israel boycott has been the subject of much debate, with many of us
struggling with difficult questions of censorship, constructive engagement
and free speech. In our meeting, for instance, you said you supported
economic boycotts like South Africa's, but not cultural boycotts. Three
points: South Africa was also a cultural boycott (asking singers not to
play Sun City); culture is one of Canada's (and Israel's) largest economic
sectors (this spotlight is funded by a Canadian Ministry of Industry
tourism grant, after all); and the Israel rebrand campaign explicitly
targets culture as a priority sector.

Many will still say a boycott prevents much needed dialogue between
possible allies. That's why, like Chile, like Nestles, the strategic and
specific nature of each case needs to be considered. For instance, I'm
helping organize a screening in September for the Toronto Palestinian Film
Festival, co-sponsored by Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and the Inside
Out Festival. It's a doc that profiles Ezra Nawi, the queer Israeli
activist jailed for blocking army bulldozers from destroying Palestinian
homes. Technically, the film probably qualifies as meeting the technical
criteria of boycott -- not because it was directed by an Israeli filmmaker,
but because it received Israeli state funding. Yet all concerned have
decided that this film should be seen by Toronto audiences, especially Jews
and Palestinians -- a strategic, specific choice, and one that has
triggered many productive discussions.

I'm sorry I can't feel the same way about your Tel Aviv spotlight. Despite
this past month of emails and meetings, many questions remain for me about
its origins, its funding, its programming, its sponsors. You say it was
initiated in November 2008... but then why would Gissin seem to be claiming
it as part of his campaign four months earlier? You've told me that TIFF
isn't officially a part of Brand Israel -- okay -- but why haven't you
clarified this publicly? Why are only Jewish Israeli filmmakers included?
Why are there no voices from the refugee camps and Gaza (or Toronto for
that matter), where Tel Aviv's displaced Palestinians now live? Why only
big budget Israeli state-funded features -- why not a program of
shorts/docs/indie works by underground Israeli and Palestinian artists? Why
is TIFF accepting and/or encouraging the support of the Israeli government
and consulate, a direct flaunting of the boycott, with filmmaker plane
tickets, receptions, parties and evidently the Mayor of Tel Aviv opening
the spotlight? Why does this feel like a propaganda campaign?

This decision was very tough. For thirty years, TIFF has been my film
school and my community, an annual immersion in the best of world cinema.
You've helped rewrite the canon through your pioneering support of new
voices and difficult ideas, of avant-garde visions and global stories.
You've opened many doors and many minds, and made me think critically and
politically about cinema, about how film can speak out and make a
difference. In particular, you've been extraordinarily supportive of my own
work, often presenting the hometown premieres of my films to your legendary
audiences. You are three of the smartest, sharpest, skillful and most
thoughtful festival heads anywhere -- this isn't hyperbole, with all of you
I speak from two decades worth of friendship and deep respect -- which
makes this all the more inexplicable and troubling.

What eventually determined my decision to pull out was the subject of
Covered itself. It's a doc about the 2008 Sarajevo Queer Festival, which
was cancelled due to brutal anti-gay violence. The film focuses on the
bravery of the organizers and their supporters, and equally, on the
ostriches, on those who remained silent, who refused to speak out: most
notoriously, the Sarajevo International Film Festival and the Canadian
Ambassador in Sarajevo. To stand in judgment of these ostriches before a
TIFF audience, but then say nothing about this Tel Aviv spotlight --
finally, I realized that that was a brand I couldn't stomach.


John Greyson

For the duration of TIFF, I've posted Covered

Covered from Albino Squirrel Channel on Vimeo.

Protest Toronto International Film Festival
City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv:
TIFF Celebrating Israeli Colonialism,
Ethnic Cleansing and Apartheid!

CAIA urges its supporters to write to the Toronto International Film Festival protesting its decision to Spotlight Tel Aviv for its inaugural City-to-City program. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued a statement urging all filmmakers and audiences to boycott this Spotlight on Tel Aviv.

As the PACBI statement points out:

“The ‘diversity’ celebrated by the Spotlight is in fact based on the erasure of the physical presence of the Palestinians, their culture, heritage and memory. The adjacent Palestinian city of Jaffa and numerous villages were emptied of their indigenous inhabitants to make way for Tel Aviv. Many refugees from Jaffa and other destroyed villages that Tel Aviv replaced reside in Toronto today, denied the right to return to their homes.

Such a celebration at this time, therefore, can only be seen by Palestinians and supporters of a just peace around the world as an act of complicity in whitewashing Israel’s war crimes and other grave violations of international law. It is a cynical and immoral politicization of the TIFF.”

Please send letters of protest to TIFF co-director and City-to-City programmer at and to TIFF’s press office at

A sample letter is provided below, though it is always better to draft your own original letter.

For more information please email us at:

In Solidarity,

Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid


Re: City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv

I am writing to you out of my concern about the Toronto International
Film Festival's City-to-City spotlight on Tel Aviv.

According to your website, the spotlight "will showcase the complex currents
running through today's Tel Aviv. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009,
Tel Aviv is a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity."

Nowhere in this description of Tel Aviv is there mention of the fact that Tel Aviv
is built on destroyed Palestinian villages. In 1948, the inhabitants of these
villages were forcibly removed in order to make room for the city of Tel Aviv.
Today, many of the former inhabitants of these villages and Tel Aviv's
neighbouring city of Jaffa reside in Toronto because they are refugees who
have been denied the right to return to their homes.

In addition to ignoring Palestinian history, the spotlight is also part of
an Israeli propaganda campaign known as "Brand Israel". In 2008, Israel chose
Toronto as a test city for "Brand Israel". This campaign is an effort by
the Israeli government to improve its image globally. The campaign's goal
is to draw attention toward Israel's medical, scientific and cultural
accomplishments in order to shift attention away from its numerous crimes
against the Palestinian people. The "Brand Israel" campaign is a blatant
example of how Israeli cultural institutions play a vital role in whitewashing
Israeli war crimes. Israeli consul general Amir Gissin said that the culmination
of the campaign would be a major Israeli presence at the 2009 Toronto
International Film Festival. Whether or not TIFF sees it this way, the
City-to-City program is being viewed by the Israeli state as an important
aspect of its international propaganda campaign.

This past winter the world watched in horror as Israel launched a full-scale
military assault on the people of Gaza. Over 1400 Palestinians were killed in
this attack, including over 400 children. TIFF showcasing Tel Aviv and Israel
is equivalent to the festival choosing to showcase Cape Town at the height of
South African Apartheid. It is simply unacceptable and inexcusable.

In support of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott
of Israel (PACBI) statement calling for a boycott of the Spotlight, I will not
be attending any of these films and will be encouraging others to do the same.
I strongly urge TIFF to reconsider its celebration of Tel Aviv and Israel --
a state that has been described as an Apartheid regime by prominent figures
such as South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter.

More information on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign

John Greyson is a Canadian director, writer, video artist, producer and political activist, whose work frequently deals with gay themes.