Already the howls of protest against the boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival can be heard across Canada and beyond. Ten films highlighting Tel Aviv are to be shown at TIFF, and a lot of people, including world-class artists like Alice Walker, aren't happy about it. They see this as a "Brand Israel" propaganda exercise, while its supporters argue that it offers an opportunity to examine the complexities of human existence in a modern, vibrant city.
An artistic boycott?
Censorship! Intimidation! Anti-Semitism!
Free expression, we are told in a kneejerk Globe and Mail editorial this morning, is being threatened. Yet it is unclear to me why those boycotting the festival, yanking their films and so on, should not be permitted their own freedom of expression. The Globe editorialist slams the boycotters' "one-sided world view," but the editorial takes a pretty one-sided world-view of its own: free expression must be reserved, it seems, for those on the pro-Israel side of things.
But of course it's more complicated than that. Are the ten films "pro-Israel" in some narrow, polemical sense? Clearly not, although they don't really cover the range: as John Greyson (who has withdrawn his own short film from the festival in protest) points out, the films chosen include none by Arab directors or by underground Israeli filmmakers. They're all "big-budget Israeli state-funded features." But in any case, it is the showcasing of Tel Aviv, not the content of the films, that is really at issue here.
I think there's a valid point to be made on the boycotters' side--how would we have felt about running a series of films centred in Johannesburg at the height of apartheid? Or, to be less inflammatory, perhaps, in Moscow after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia? Context is everything, and even if the films are non-political (a proposition that I can't accept), the circumstances of their showing are anything but. There is an entire herd of elephants in the theatre.
There is also no end of hypocrisy here. A few months ago, Caryl Churchill's play, "Seven Jewish Children," was performed in Toronto. B'nai Brith called for its suppression. Earlier, in 2006, the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie was actually shut down because it might offend Jewish sensibilities.
Where were the loud voices for free expression then? Were there any thundering Globe and Mail editorials? Nope. Just, in the case of Churchill's play, a vicious polemic by Rex Murphy, offering a grotesque misreading of a deeply humane work that (to borrow the words of a letter-writer in the Globe today) reflects "the messiness that is humanity in...microcosm."
Is the difference in approach here a coincidence? Or does it indicate a wider frame of vision and involvement, an extended Middle East battleground where sides are taken and art is of necessity caught up in a clash of forces in which it is only incidental? Or, conversely, does art somehow retain its central place in these controversies?
One might argue that the two examples just offered were themselves intensely political, whereas the films to be shown are not. But I have always found such distinctions specious. I have not seen the Rachel Corrie play, but I've read and seen Seven Jewish Children. Churchill reaches deep into the souls of people in crisis. Her work is not, despite some motivated claims, a mere piece of propaganda. It calls aloud for engagement, as all art must, and that engagement is not solely aesthetic. No work of art exists in a bubble: the fuss over Churchill's work was rarely based upon artistic criteria per se.
And that is all to the good. Art is a form of social conversation, not merely a critic's playground. No art can be apolitical: works of art become political as soon as they are observed. The films set in Tel Aviv, by the very fact that they look away from the excruciating larger issues (Gaza, the security wall, Palestinian dispossession, a continuing brutal occupation, and so on) are unavoidably making a statement about those issues. That palpable absence inevitably finds its own voice. And the act of showing these films is, in the same way, a political act.
There is no neutrality in art, and its works are not bounded. We should not pretend otherwise. The films, the boycott, the festival defenders, the polemicists, the editorialists, the legion of commenters, are all part of one vast dynamic. That art, in its manifold complex ways, can be such an active site of struggle doesn't alarm me--on the contrary, the wide conversations sparked by artistic production are positive and engaging.
Situating myself in this current conversation, I am obviously sympathetic to the boycotters' cause, if a little uneasy about a boycott as a tactic in this case. I'm not necessarily opposed to it, but I wonder if there might be other more productive approaches to the TIFF decision: a counter-festival, perhaps, or a public debate about the value, function, social character and politics of art.
Oh, wait--we're having that now. And if we can avoid the clichéd responses that falsify it, we might actually get somewhere.