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  •   17. Juni 2019  

Aktuelle Print-Ausgabe:
CARGO Film/Medien/Kultur 41
vom 22. März 2019

CARGO 41 Cover, CARGO 40 Cover,

Container vom 11. September 2009 von Cargo

Notes on the Tel Aviv «City to City» Controversy

CARGO-Autor Michael Sicinski schickt Notizen vom International Filmfestival Toronto - zu einer aktuelle Kontroverse rund um die geplante Reihe City to City, deren äußerer Anlass der 100. Geburtstag von Tel Aviv ist. Ein Protestbrief zirkuliert im Netz, der mittlerweile eine beachtliche Unterzeichnerliste vorweisen kann: Hany Abu-Asad, John Berger, David Byrne, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Mike Hoolboom, Fredric Jameson, Ken Loach, Yousry Nasrallah, Wallace Shawn, Elia Suleiman, Howard Zinn, and Slavoj Zizek. Im Mittelpunkt steht der kanadische Filmemacher John Greyson, der seinen aktuellen Film Covered vom Festival zurückzog und stattdessen bei Vimeo einstellte (siehe unten).

Aber lesen Sie selbst, was Michael Sicinski schreibt:

By now, many readers are no doubt aware of the controversy surrounding the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to create a featured program this year called City to City, highlighting films from and about Tel Aviv on the 100th anniversary of its modern founding. The brief outline of the controversy is as follows.

Canadian filmmaker John Greyson first went public with his dismay over the program in a letter of 27 August, withdrawing his own short film Covered from the festival and articulating his reasons for choosing to boycott TIFF 09. As he explained in his open letter to the festival regarding City to City, Greyson identified the series as the culmination of a broadly based media p.r. campaign on the part of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, unofficially called «Brand Israel». Greyson went on to detail the various governmental and corporate interests which he saw as playing a part in City to City’s promotion of an uncritically pro-Israeli agenda. Greyson writes, «This past year has […] seen: the devastating Gaza massacre of eight months ago, resulting in over 1,000 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.» In light of these acts and policies, Greyson considers the City to City series little more than propaganda, and its inclusion in the festival a de facto violation of the international economic (as opposed to cultural) boycott against Israel launched in 2005 by various Palestinian NGOs.

For their part, the TIFF brass has taken full responsibility for the series and rejects outright any outside pressure or affiliation with the «Brand Israel» campaign. In his open letter response of 28 August, festival co-director Cameron Bailey accepts responsibility for the decision to program the series and for the films contained therein, on behalf of himself and the TIFF programming team. He also chides Greyson’s proviso that the boycott, as conceived, is against the series and not the films within the series. Bailey writes, «By that reasoning, 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. We know some of [the petition’s signatories] 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.»

Since Greyson’s initial boycott, a letter of support dated 2 September has been published, signed by 59 artists, filmmakers and scholars. Among them: Hany Abu-Asad, John Berger, David Byrne, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Mike Hoolboom, Fredric Jameson, Ken Loach, Yousry Nasrallah, Wallace Shawn, Elia Suleiman, Howard Zinn, and Slavoj Zizek.

These are the facts as they stand today, 9 September, one day prior to the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival. But there remain some curiously underexplored aspects to the controversy that trouble me. The main question that I have had since Greyson lodged his protest (one with which, I should acknowledge, I am in agreement) is that Bailey’s response has been to defend City to City without modulation, without responding like a cultural or civic leader who might find cause to further his own stated agenda – dialogue and discourse through the arts – by taking the protesters’ concerns into account. In the initial press release announcing TIFF’s City to City program, dated 23 June, TIFF (presumably Bailey) promised to «include a public forum that will bring leading filmmakers and thinkers from Tel Aviv and Toronto into debate». As it stands, there is no such component in TIFF’s City to City presentation. Given the inherent controversy in highlighting a major Israeli city at a time when Israeli policy toward Palestine and its other Arab neighbors has taken what many (myself included) would consider a significant turn toward bellicosity – the country’s actions in the 2008 Gaza War alone drew condemnation from governments and NGOs across the political spectrum, including those U.N. members who contended that both Israel and Hamas had in fact violated international law during the conflict – it hardly seems out of bounds to expect a project such as City to City to incorporate some kind of educational, academic, or public-debate component. Its absence is both perplexing and irresponsible. When TIFF conceives of the program with such ancillary panel discussions in mind and yet quietly drops them from the docket as the series comes to fruition, it implicitly points to tacit collaboration with the «Brand Israel» project. When the controversy arises and the forum component (which had been part of the original plan for the series) is not reactivated in response to local and international concerns, TIFF’s intransigence becomes insulting, a kind of willful disregard of the festival’s social role, along the lines of «don’t let the terrorists win.»

And what exactly is «Brand Israel»? The ad hoc program, launched approximately one year prior to the kickoff of this year’s festival, is the brainchild of Toronto’s Israeli consul-general, Amir Gissin. The plan? To «re-brand» Israel as a cultural force in the world whose benefits exist as entirely separate from the nation’s messy political realities. Gissin writes, «Our goal is to make Israel relevant and attractive to Canadians and to refocus attention away from the conflict.» The article in the Jerusalem Post describing the project explains that modern, multicultural Toronto will serve as a laboratory for a major international p.r. offensive, and that the program will rely on the usual advertising elements (bus signs, billboards, radio spots) but requires the help of concerned individuals to take up email campaigns and the like – Zionist «street teams», if you will. Now, was there any official link between this project and TIFF’s City to City? Gissin himself seems to think so; the «smoking gun» is his interview with Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf in the Canadian Jewish News, dated 21 August. In it, Gissin expresses his optimism that «Brand Israel» will continue to build steam. The article reads, «With the help of the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, Israel will also have a ‘significant presence’ at this year’s TIFF, he said.» The question remains, of course, whether or not this explicitly refers to City to City, since the only officially listed sponsor of the series is the Government of Canada.

And so, how difficult would it be for Cameron Bailey and TIFF co-director Noah Cowen to get representatives from the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation in a room with, say, Elia Suleiman, already in town to promote his new film The Time That Remains? Or say? Wasn’t he a signatory on that petition? He hasn’t gone the way of Greyson, pulling his film out of the festival. (Given that Remains came and went from Cannes with no prizes or North American distribution deal, dropping out of TIFF would be a financially risky thing to do, especially since the film also failed to secure a berth in the New York Film Festival.) What do other filmmakers from the region have to say about the City to City controversy? Amos Gitai, probably Israel’s best-known international auteur and an equally well-known political liberal, has a new film at TIFF also – Carmel, featuring Jeanne Moreau – but thus far he hasn’t weighed in. Likewise, the director of the new breakout festival hit Lebanon, Samuel Maoz, has kept out of it, marking Toronto as just another point on a very successful itinerary, between Venice and the NYFF. Now, I am in no way suggesting that these filmmakers are somehow obligated to opine on this brewing crisis, although I would say that Suleiman is somewhat remiss given his participatory split-decision. I am merely citing some participants I would ideally like to see in this mythic “debate” that seems to be happening exactly nowhere, certainly not in and around TIFF.

And from the beginning of the controversy, Bailey has argued that those critical of Israel, the series, or the series’ lack of Arab or Palestinian directors should participate in the dialogue by «watch[ing] the films», and then allowing «dialogue» to occur, as it will, after the films, presumably in Q&A. On 25 August, before the whole mess broke out, Bailey described the series as being the result of his own interests, the first of many future City to City efforts. Permit me to quote Bailey at length, because his comments are worth it: We’re going to look for cities where there’s interesting work happening, and perhaps an interesting group of young filmmakers coming up that are making films that are really expressing something about the changes that are happening in that city. «Tel Aviv seemed like the perfect choice for us this year, because it is one of those cities where there is an incredibly diverse mix of cultures. There’s a lot of debate that’s happening, people really talk and argue about things, and also it’s a city people may think they know but until you spend some time watching the films in a more comprehensive way, you don’t get the full range of what’s happening there. So that’s why we wanted to start with that city. We think it’s going to provoke a lot of great conversation.»

Well, yeah. But how, and where?

I certainly have my own differences from Bailey in taste and critical evaluation about what is happening in global cinema that seems vital and important enough to warrant a city-based spotlight. Apart from the convenience of the round-number 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv, I personally think that a focus on Manila or especially Kuala Lumpur (what with new films by Chris Chang Fan Lui, Ho Yuhang, Amir Muhammad, and the tragic recent passing of the great Malay director Yasmin Ahmad) would have been far more justifiable on aesthetic grounds alone. But the presumption in all of these pronouncements seems to be that films – works of cinema in and of themselves, objects that unspool in a darkened room for a specified running time, and then stop – are a kind of substitute for the public sphere. We’re expected, in the end,  to accept these ten films in City to City as «the conversation» itself, which seems ridiculously lopsided, and grossly unfair to the film artists under consideration (to whom, it must be reiterated, Greyson and his cosignatories bear no animus). TIFF’s position puts us in a classic bind. If the films are the political realm, tout court, then we are signing over all hope of art’s aesthetic autonomy, its potential for beauty and power that could jolt our senses on a purely visceral level. Anyone who cares about cinema shouldn’t want to concede this power. But at the same time, if we «defend» the films and filmmakers (and, by extension, the festival) from the political realm, pretending that capital-A Art is a neutral zone apart from such transitory considerations, we’re yielding not only to the rankest Romanticism, but also to one of bureaucratic capitalism’s favorite fictions. These simply cannot be the choices with which we’re left.

So what can a critic do? For my part, I choose to direct you to Greyson’s film Covered, a meditation on what happens when the exigencies of a hostile outside world come crashing into what, in a better world, would be, at least temporarily, a rarified sphere for the contemplation of artistic worth. The film documents (or «covers») the violent raids on the first Queer Sarajevo Festival, which had to be cancelled for the safety of its participants. (As a former Berkeley, California, resident, I recall feeling dismayed when the organizers of the San Francisco Arab Film Festival chose to cancel the event in October of 2001, for similar fears. At the time, they seemed unfounded to me, but I think quite differently now.)  Greyson, I should note, is a political filmmaker whose wit, dialectical thinking, and supple facility with images I have admired for well over a decade. Covered plays the documentary material against the maudlin treatment of the Sarajevo War by Western liberals, as represented by the idée fixe of the dead blackbird. In addition to examining what it means (if I may paraphrase another Canadian) to be (art) lovers in a dangerous time, Covered depicts the limits of the empathetic imagination when caged by convenient platitudes fomented by capitalist democracies. One of those ideas is the belief that art transcends its social / bureaucratic / governmental container. And, in the end, I must concur with Greyson that this shopworn bromide no longer holds. (Greyson’s film Covered can be viewed here until the end of the Toronto International Film Festival on 19 September.)

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