TORONTO - Dozens of filmmakers, artists and activists, including actress Jane Fonda and musician David Byrne, have signed on to a campaign denouncing the Toronto International Film Festival for celebrating the films of Tel Aviv and Israeli culture.

A core group of largely Toronto-based Jewish filmmakers is accusing the festival of playing into "the Israeli propaganda machine" with its inaugural "City to City" program, which it says excludes Palestinian voices from the 10-film program.

"The most disturbing part about this is there was no consultation with the community, there was also no sensitivity to the way that this issue affects many people in the community," said filmmaker Kathy Wazana.

"In terms of what we would want (the festival) to do is to respond ...perhaps (with) some apology to the people who have been offended by this, or (make) some commitment to future consultation with community before deciding on programs that focus on issues that are hot topics."

She said the group is not advocating a boycott and has no plans to demonstrate during the 10-day festival, which is expected to draw a host of A-list celebrities including George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey and Penelope Cruz.

The group is circulating a letter of protest and has drawn support from more than 50 artists around the world including American writer Alice Walker, Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein, U.K. filmmaker Ken Loach and American actor Danny Glover.

"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," the letter states.

The letter goes on to accuse the festival of being unduly influenced by the Israeli government's year-long Brand Israel campaign, which it says is geared towards sanitizing Israel's controversial political and military history.

It also links the Royal Ontario Museum's Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit to the Brand Israel campaign.

Festival co-director Cameron Bailey responded with a statement defending the program, although he acknowledged, "Tel Aviv is not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground."

"As a festival that values debate and the exchange of cultures, we will continue to screen the best films we can find from around the world," said Bailey, adding that the "City to City" program was conceived and curated independently without pressure from any outside sources.

"This is our contribution to expanding our audiences' experience of this art form and the worlds it represents."

The filmmakers' protest elicited strong reaction from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which both came out in strong support of the "City to City" program.

In a letter to UJA members dated Wednesday, Toronto chairman David Koschitzky urges them to attend the films that are part of the spotlight on Tel Aviv and to encourage friends of all cultural backgrounds to do the same.

"Together we can ensure that our community continues our unwavering support for Israel," Koschitzky writes in an email blast to 25,000 Toronto members.

The controversy follows a decision by Toronto-based filmmaker John Greyson to pull his film "Covered" from the festival in protest last week. In a letter to festival organizers, he said it was a difficult decision to make and raised questions about "City to City's" origins, funding, programming and sponsors.

"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," said Greyson, who is helping to organize a screening this month for the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival.

"(The festival) 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."

Wazana stressed that the protest was not directed at the work of Israeli filmmakers involved in the festival spotlight and said the campaign is drawing wide and diverse support from artists around the world.

"We're not just a small group here in Toronto who are outraged by this," she said, noting that the collection of signatures was ongoing.

"The international film and media arts community is also very much opposed to this."

The Toronto film festival runs Sept. 10 through 19.


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