Should selecting films be political? Sometimes it seems hard to avoid, at least when it comes to controversial subjects like the Middle East. The Toronto Film Festival, which opened yesterday, has found itself at the centre of a storm after including a strand on the city of Tel Aviv.
"Tel Aviv is a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity," proclaims the festival's website, but many people in the film industry see it differently. "Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city's past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto," says the Toronto Declaration, which is endorsed by the likes of Ken Loach, Pratibha Parmar, John Pilger, Viggo Mortensen, Jane Fonda and Danny Glover. Though they insist they have no enmity towards the individual filmmakers involved, they contend that the festival is supporting a propaganda campaign by the Israeli government.
Opposed to this are not only the affected filmmakers and the Israeli Film Fund which made their participation possible, but also a group of filmmakers who feel that the principles of the Toronto Declaration threaten freedom of speech. "Empowered groups of people deciding whose stories can and cannot be told does nothing but remind us of oppression that has no place in filmmaking," said Minnie Driver. Ivan Reitman argued that "Film is essentially about telling global stories, about exploring the complexities and contradictions of the human condition. Any attempt to silence that conversation, to hijack the festival for any political agenda, in the end only serves to silence artistic voices." David Cronenberg has also joined the ranks of those supporting the contested strand.
Speaking for the film festival, director Cameron Bailey asserted that "We will continue to screen the best films we can find from around the world."