Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Not Among The Brightest Stars

“So where’s the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?”  

  ---- Christina Aguilera              

Movie people have a long history of championing social causes.  Some have been less than laudable.


In one of the first successful feature films ever made, D.W. Griffith framed the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes. Leni Riefenstahl used her cinematic talents to burnish and sell the National Socialist agenda of Adolph Hitler. And now Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, writer/filmmaker Naomi Klein, British director Ken Loach and Hollywood stars Jane Fonda and Danny Glover (along with about 50 other artists) have combined their industry profiles to condemn the inclusion of Israeli films in the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival.

The basic tenet of their argument is that by celebrating films set or centred on the city of Tel Aviv, the Toronto Festival is “complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine”, supports an “apartheid regime” and thus becomes an unthinking foot soldier in the oppression of the Palestinian people.

Many might paint the artists taking this position as anti-Semites, self-loathing Jews or artists in favor of censorship, and those monikers may well apply to some who signed their names to a manifesto entitled “No Celebration of Occupation“ which can be found in its entirety here. But I think the truth is that wherever their motivation lies, most of them simply haven’t paused to consider what succeeding in their campaign really means.

Now, I’m about the last guy who’s ever going to untangle the problems of the Middle East. I’m not a Jew. I’m not Muslim. And to be honest, I figure boiling the Israeli-Palestinian issue down to a difference between religions is where any solution starts to get confused in the first place. As the Mayor of Dublin said during “The Troubles” in Belfast, “Ireland’s problem is there are a lot of Catholics and a lot of Protestants and not many people who understand what it means to be a real Christian”.

Arguing who was living where first or longest or why you shouldn’t have to negotiate with somebody who lobs missiles at your kids or blows up buses or ambulances or pizza parlors ends up being just about as pointless. And whichever side you choose to support, there’s a lot of what’s gone on that you might be able to justify or logically explain but you sure can’t be proud of owning.

“I find it a bid sad that there is no photo of me at the museum at Checkpoint Charlie."

--- David Hasselhoff


That said, by picking this particular target, these protesting artists have pretty much made it clear that they think it’s okay if the nations that side with them in their opposition to Israel deny other artists the same rights and privileges they expect for themselves.

John Greyson is a well-respected Canadian filmmaker, who sometimes makes movies exploring Gay themes. And while he could show those films in Israel, maybe even during the “Pride Week” that’s celebrated annually in Tel Aviv, he’d be taking his life in his hands doing the same thing in the Gaza Strip and virtually every other Middle Eastern country. In some of those places, even waving his rainbow flag could see him put in prison, raped and/or beaten to death.

You wonder if Mr. Greyson truly believes what he puts in his films or if it just gets him into a less populous funding stream or ensures his presence at every film festival afraid it may appear politically incorrect were it to exclude him. It would seem that enjoying his lifestyle and the freedom to espouse its values isn’t something he’d like to see available to Gay filmmakers in the countries who most enthusiastically support his anti-Isreal stance.

Jane Fonda’s movies and exercise tapes don’t get shown in Sudan, one of the countries which espouses the destruction of Israel. Forget tights and leg warmers, this week a female journalist there was sentenced to 40 lashes with a leather whip for wearing pants in public. An international outcry eventually had that sentence reduced to a fine. But several women who turned up to show their support for her were beaten by police for their trouble.

Jane didn’t say much about that. Nor have I heard her protest the fact that in many Arab countries men and women are not even allowed to be in theatres at the same time. Even if they’re married.

But that’s not really a surprise. For while she spoke out passionately against the Viet Nam war, Jane refused, despite several well-published opportunities to use her notoriety and perceived influence with the victorious South East Asian leaders, to say one word about the genocide that followed in Cambodia.

“Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can't help but cry. I mean I'd love to be skinny like that but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”
--- Mariah Carey

A similar kind of hypocrisy or moral relativism seems to reside in Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine”.

A friend, who recently returned from working in Saudi Arabia, described he and his fellow office workers being herded into the street one day by a number of police carrying the canes they used to regularly dispense justice to those who contravene various local laws. A bound man was brought into the street and my friend thought he was about to witness another beating. But instead, the man was beheaded.

And while Ms. Klein decries that sort of thing when it’s done by Chilean dictators, George Bush or the fuckwads who work for Blackwater. Her voice seems to go silent when the same kind of “shock treatments” go on in the countries she is helping to demonize Israel. Maybe that has something to do with ensuring that her husband, Avi Lewis, stays employed at Al Jazeera, an Arabic news organization that has often shown beheadings --- including those of terrorist hostages --- to inform and educate their audience.

song of the south

I don’t know how Danny Glover squares his participation in this protest. I heard one wag suggest he might’ve spent one too many “Lethal Weapon” sequels in the company of Mel Gibson.

But I wonder if Mr. Glover is aware that the “apartheid state” he opposes allows Arabs to vote or that there are elected Arab members in the Knesset, Arab judges in the Supreme Court and Arab professors in its universities. In fact, one of Tel Aviv’s most famous orchestras is almost equally comprised of Israelis and Palestinians. Does that sound like Apartheid to you?

Maybe he’s also unaware that American Congressman John Conyers, who founded the Congressional Black Caucus is on the Congressional record stating that applying the word apartheid to Israel belittles real racism and apartheid.

Maybe he doesn’t know that the slave trade still thrives in many Arab countries.  And while some of the victims are those who share Mr. Glover’s race and ancestry, most are now impoverished women and children. In 2004, the head of Interpol’s Iran Bureau published a report claiming that the sex-slave trade there was one of the country’s most lucrative industries.

“I've never really wanted to go to Japan. Simply because I don’t like eating fish. And I know that's very popular out there in Africa.”
— Britney Spears


Perhaps the member of this group who most disappoints me is Ken Loach. Loach is quite simply a master filmmaker. A couple of his early works, “Poor Cow” and “Up the Junction” had a major influence on my work and my understanding of the power of cinema. More recent pieces like “Fatherland”, “Carla’s Song” “Raining Stones” and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” have universally been recognized as monumental pieces of cinema.

He’s always been a filmmaker who wore his social conscience on his sleeve. But lately, it feels as if he’s lost the plot when it comes to determining where real injustice is most at home.

While (to the best of my knowledge) he never demanded that American films made during the Bush or Reagan eras not share the bill with his own at other film festivals, he’s begun to do just that with works from Israel. Last month, he pulled his most recent film, “Looking for Eric” from the Melbourne Film Festival over the same issue he’s espousing in Toronto.

Not as politically correct as Canadian Festival executives, the Australians were more than happy to tell Mr. Loach he was quite welcome to tuck his little movie up his air-tight Limey Starfish and stay home. As Melbourne Festival director Richard Moore correctly observed, “"to allow the personal politics of one film-maker to proscribe a festival… goes against the grain of what festivals stand for", adding that "Loach's demands were beyond the pale".

"Is this chicken what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna but it says Chicken, by the Sea.”

-- Jessica Simpson


By their very nature, film festivals program works that are controversial and ground-breaking. They are a forum where filmmakers censored, marginalized or misunderstood in their own countries can find an audience. They are places where ideas are exchanged, debated and shared. They are not places where the film lovers who choose what is to be screened should be pilloried by artists with their own ideological axe to grind.

Within the next few days, the Toronto Film Festival will screen Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist”, a film which will send Rosedale matrons screaming from the theatre and make grown men retch in the aisles, every single one of them scarred for life. There will probably be one or two other films that will offend somebody’s sensibilities, shatter their illusions or insult their core beliefs. Sometimes good films do that. Sometimes films we don’t like do it too. 

But nobody (least of all artists who enjoy such freedom) has the right to say who can make those movies or who should see them. But that’s what happens in Iran and Saudi Arabia and Syria and other countries who have also called Israel an Apartheid or Racist state.

Like the man says, “You can’t fix, stupid!” And it’s almost as tough to combat what’s fashionable or universally agreed as a priority within an ideology. But that doesn’t make it right or acceptable or anything else but beneath contempt.

If only some of those clear-eyed and committed Canadian filmmakers behind this protest were half as concerned with not screening films that were boring…


triumph of the will

“If, from the many truths, you pick one and follow it blindly, It will become a falsehood, and you – a fanatic.”


DMc said...


Well said, man. Well said. Artists for censorship. Wow.

Trevor B. Cunningham said...

Great post and I couldn't agree more!