The End Of Discourse: On Censorship & Boycotts
Some of you may have been following the discussion in the past few days about a proposed boycott of the City to City section of the Toronto International Film Festival. Leading the proposed boycott is filmmaker John Greyson who has pulled his own film from the festival in protest over the focus on films and filmmakers from Tel Aviv. His reasons are laid out in an open letter he wrote and TIFF’s response was penned by the section’s programmer, Cameron Bailey.
A number of blogs have picked the story up including one called The Evening Class by a San Francisco-based blogger named Michael Guillen. After writing what I felt was a very nice and thoughtful review of Raphael Nadjari’s A History Of Israeli Cinema, Mr. Guillen then spent the majority of his post endorsing Mr. Greyson’s call for a boycott of City to City. I joined in the conversation in his comment thread taking the position that intellectual and cultural boycotts are a shameful way to engage with ideas. That if one seeks to explore an issue, blocking communication is a poor way to accomplish it.
Mr Guillen has decided to delete my last comment and pen a new post attacking me for the contents of my comment without citing it directly. I think this, again, reinforces exactly the point of my comments throughout on this issue. Mr. Guillen (and company) would rather not have an exchange of ideas. Instead he would like to shut down the conversation and convert it to a ideological monologue. Here is an excerpt of Mr. Guillen’s post:
That being said, Mr. Noah “Shame On You” Harlan, whose earlier comment I published in the comments section of my previous entry, has sent a follow-up comment which—out of discretion and respect to him—I’ve decided not to publish. In gist, he once again hurls accusations that I am somehow responsible for the entire world not having the chance to see and appreciate Israeli cinema. It’s my fault, wouldn’t you know? Apparently, my entries covering the Covered controversy at TIFF and my vote of support for John Greyson’s right to protest at that festival means I have held a gun to the heads of ticket-buying audiences disallowing them their chance to attend these films. I just love knowing I have that much power! Don’t you wish you did? Further, because I won’t accept his shaming, Noah says I am not engaging his arguments. But this is something I’ve learned from watching old vampire movies and being on The WELL for 12 years: You don’t invite vampires—or trollish arguments—over the threshold. You just don’t, dude.
I have nowhere asserted that Mr. Guillen is going to hold a gun to anyone’s head. Mr Guillen tries to make the argument that he is in fact helping bring attention to these films by calling for a boycott and that is a bit precious in my opinion. Sure, more controversy helps, but by trying to shame these filmmakers for sharing their views with the world (as Udi Aloni did and Mr. Guillen repeated) is sad. Mr. Guillen is saying that by calling for a boycott and asking people not to see these films when they come to Toronto that he is helping the debate and that is where he and I disagree. But unlike Mr. Guillen, I would like to disagree civilly and openly. I called shame – and I stand by that – but I never asked Mr. Guillen to accept that, and it was Mr. Guillen who resorted to name calling.
In closing, since Mr. Guillen would rather you read about his thoughts on my comment without sharing it with you, here is the comment that inspired Mr. Guillen’s rant in its entirety (and unedited as you might tell from the grammar in paragraph 4). I’m not sure I see what is so trollish about the argument but I’m open to a civil discourse on the subject:
Michael, flippant responses aside, why do you want to stifle communication between artists? In particular, why do you want to take films that struggle with the very issue you want to bring attention to and ask that no one see them? Why not, instead, invite people to come and question and doubt and engage?
I recently was speaking on a panel and one of the other panelists mentioned that Nike had invited him to come speak about the subject of his film to their employees. They paid him to come and he was happy to do it. A member of the audience and I had a dispute over this afterward. She said he should be ashamed of himself for ‘promoting’ Nike, she felt that she would only support artists who could be entirely divorced from institutions she didn’t support.
I pointed out to her that the college she was sending her daughter to had facilities donated by people who had made huge sums of money from these big bad organizations. She said that that was different but couldn’t explain why.
I then explained to her that if she didn’t like Nike that sticking her fingers in her ears and crying “nya nya nya” when their name was mentioned is not a way to change their practices. Instead, she should support Nike when they do things right and condemn that when they do things wrong but that only by ENGAGING with them would she have any effect on them.
This is the same. Calling on audiences not to engage with tough issues is not how to solve them. Instead, invite them to come and then challenge their assumptions. Engage.
The irony here is that the separation wall that Israel built was an overt act of disengagement that you oppose. And you oppose it by disengaging yourself.
I also echo the points made here and elsewhere that holding artists, who clearly are not aligned with their government’s policies, to task for the actions of their government is absurd. Should Canadian artists have been boycotted for the government’s participation in the Iraq War? The entire Canadian film system is built on government support after all.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I have worked with several of the filmmakers featured in the City to City section of TIFF, though I am not directly involved with any of the films being presented.