This year's Toronto International
Film Festival highlights the new direction in filmmaking: Iran is the
enemy du jour, but at the same time it is not longer kosher to praise
everything Israel does, notes Eric Walberg
The empire requires a nice juicy enemy to keep people's minds off its
own sins. During the Cold War, Hollywood responded admirably to the
challenge, churning out anti-communist thrillers with Russian bad guys,
most memorably during Reagan's surreal presidency, when "Red Dawn" and
"Rocky IV" reduced international politics to a comic book parody.
Given who the official enemy is these days, it is no surprise that the
Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which boasts of 72 participating
countries, did not include a 'Spotlight on Iranian cinema' this year.
On the contrary, it showcased the latest serving of propaganda against
Iran with the premiere of “Argo”, a docudrama depicting the escape of
six US diplomats from Iran following the November 1979 seizure of the
US embassy in Tehran, when 52 Americans were held hostage, and Iranian
student protesters dumped US diplomatic correspondence on the street
in a spectacular premodern WikiLeak.
"Argo" is based on then-Canadian ambassador Kenneth Taylor, who indeed
hid the six Americans who showed up at the Canadian embassy during the
1979 hostage crisis and issued them fake Canadian passports. Taylor
was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and awarded the Congressional
Gold Medal in 1981 for his help.
As if scripted in Hollywood, the Friday evening TIFF premier began just
hours after the announcement that Canada was closing its embassy in
Tehran, adding extra spice.
"Argo" was produced by George Clooney and directed by Ben Affleck, who
also plays the lead role of the CIA agent Tony Mendez, posing as director
of a fake Canadian science-fiction film (appropriately entitled "Argo").
Mendez convinces Iranian officials that Iran's stark desert panoramas
would make a convincing extraterrestrial terrain (the Hollywood subtext
being that Islamic Iran is loony and Iranian officials are easily duped).
Clooney and Affleck are not Zionist zealots. They are even criticized
for being 'pro-Palestinian' (though that means very little in the case
of Hollywood), and both are identified with opposition to US neocon
wars. So their production of this blatant propaganda potboiler is a
sad commentary on just how obsessed America is with the one country
to successfully stand up to it and Israel today. It's as if a muted
critique of US government crimes must be balanced by fawning displays
of patriotism. Affleck even entertained US troops aboard the USS Enterprise
on a USO-sponsored tour of the Persian Gulf in December 2003, despite
his reservations about US warmongering (no doubt mock-firing a missile
at Iran from the US naval base in Bahrain).
The CIA-cum-Hollywood producer of the movie-within-the-movie is another
icon of anti-war liberals, Alan Arkin, who starred in "The Russians
Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming" (1966), directed by Norman Jewison,
and the screen version of the satirical anti-war Catch-22 (1970). However,
he also did an HBO TV movie "Doomsday Gun" (1994) about a Canadian weapons
builder whom helped Israel ‘defend’ the Golan Heights, but then cynically
decides to sell his talents to the highest bidder -- Saddam Hussein,
who wants to build the eponymous weapon-of-mass-deception (excuse me,
'destruction'). Arkin plays an Israeli intelligence officer who politely
changes the misguided Canadian's mind. No doubt Bush junior saw this
nuanced bit of hasbara, prompting him to invade Iraq in search of WMDs.
"Argo" was received with raves and calls for an Oscar for Arkin. His
past displays of anti-war liberalism should not be a problem, given
his devotion to Israel as shown in "Doomsday Gun" and now this latest
sop to America’s Israel-firsters.
The timing of this screening of the fantasy Canadian embassy intrigue
must have been coordinated with the real-life Canadian embassy closing.
There's no other explanation. Worthy of an Oscar in itself. In sharp
contrast to the scandal at the 2009 Toronto festival. Despite Israel's
invasion of Gaza just months earlier, it featured a 'City to city Spotlight
on Tel Aviv', funded by the Israeli Embassy and the Canada-Israel Cultural
Foundation, the centre-piece of Israeli Consul Amir Gissin's "Brand
Israel" campaign. At the time, Gissin unashamedly was calling Toronto
"an arena for Israel from a PR, cultural and commercial point of view".
The idea was "to promote Tel Aviv as a city of peace", even after killing
more than a thousand Gazans in Operation Cast Lead a few short months
TIFF's cozying up to the Israeli propaganda machine blew up into a global
scandal, as a spontaneous movement of protest among a few filmmakers
turned into an international incident, bringing 1,500 signatures from
prominent Israeli public figures and the likes of Jane Fonda, Julie
Christie, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein, Guy Maddin, and Harry Belafonte
to the "Toronto Declaration" criticizing Israel and TIFF. It was a huge
embarrassment, a sign that Israel propaganda is becoming harder to swallow,
even by devotees of Hollywood.
Since then, no more tributes to Tel Aviv. Now, to show how open-minded
it is, TIFF even shows Arab films tsk-tsking Israel's mistreatment of
Palestinians, but all safely within the bounds of North American discourse
on Palestine, Syria etc. This year's include:
*"After the Battle", by Egyptian Yousry Nasrallah, about Mahmoud, who
makes a paltry living taking tourists on horseback rides at the pyramids
but was conned into participating in the "battle of the camels" during
the Egyptian revolution last year. He is now unemployed and ostracized,
and has a fateful encounter with a liberal rich divorcee from Zamalek.
*"As if We Were Catching a Cobra", by Hala Alabdalla, about the tradition
of caricature drawing in Egypt and Syria, filmed before, during and
after the uprisings of 2011--12.
*Inescapable", by Arab-Canadian director Ruba Nadda, about a former
officer in the Syrian military police who is forced to return to Damascus
when his globe-trotting daughter goes missing.
*"Fidai" and "Zabana!", celebrating the 50th anniversary of Algeria's
independence, the former reminiscences of a combatant, the latter a
biopic about the legendary freedom fighter guillotined by the French
in 1956 who inspired the Battle of Algiers.
*"The Attack", by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, about a Palestinian
doctor in Israel who faces discrimination and whose wife is involved
in a suicide bombing.
""When I Saw You", by Palestinian Annemarie Jacir, produced by Ossama
Bawardi, who produced “Paradise Now”.
*"A World Not Ours", by Mahdi Fleifel, about life in the Ain al-Helweh
Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.
*"State 194", a documentary by Dan Setton, on Palestinian Prime Minister
Salam Fayyad's plans for a Palestinian state, with Fayyad in attendance.
*"Inch' Allah", by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, about a Quebec doctor
who works in a women’s health clinic on the Palestinian side of the
barrier but resides in an apartment on the Israeli side.
Uprisings against Arab dictators, celebraton of Algerian independence,
Palestinian angst balanced by a paean to the chief Palestinian sellout.
As another sign of the times, there is now an annual Toronto Palestine
Film Festival (TPFF) following TIFF at the beginning of October, where
more probing films are shown and where Palestinian filmmakers invited
to TIFF (this year -- Jacir, Bawardi and Fleifel) can meet with local
activists fighting Israeli apartheid.
This year's line-up includes some hard-hitting documentaries:
*"The War Around Us", by Abdallah Omeish, about the Israeli invasion
of Gaza in 2008.
*"Road Map to Apartheid", by Ana Nogueira.
*"This Is My Land…Hebron", by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson, about
Hebron, where 160,000 Palestinians are confronted by an Israeli settlement
of 600 settlers, guarded by 2,000 Israeli soldiers, intent on expelling
the indigenous population and occupying their homes.
If patrons of TPFF have their way, Toronto may not be Gissin’s “arena
for Israeli PR” much longer.
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/
and is author of Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games
http://claritypress.com/Walberg.html. You can reach him at http://ericwalberg.com/