The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

The End Of Discourse: On Censorship & Boycotts

Posted in Distribution, Theory by Noah Harlan on September 3, 2009

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.


8 Responses

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  1. KK said, on September 4, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Thanks for this post!

    (correction – Canada didn’t go to Iraq, and it was quite a nationally proud moment to hear the PM announce that we would not support that war…we did however go to Afghanistan, and are still there…)

    Really, thank you for this article. Extremely well-put, and as Marshall McLuhan said (I badly paraphrase of course), “if you support free speech then that INCLUDES defending the rights of those opinions that you don’t like”.


  2. Noah said, on September 4, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks KK – nice call on the McLuhan reference.

    As for Canada, though the government stated that they were not participating they did, in fact send military personnel. That being said, they were very, very few and largely out of combat positions but, since the boycotters are taking an absolutist position I took one in response. I agree with you that Canadians should be proud about Chretien’s opposition, if it wasn’t entirely complete.


  3. Sera said, on September 7, 2009 at 12:06 am

    Thanks for your interesting post. I was wondering where that Twitch article went.

    You may find these interesting, although they don’t focus on censorship to the degree you do:

    Response to TIFF protesters, including Danny Glover, Jane Fonda and Naomi Klein:

    What if you wrote a smug boycott letter full of omissions? Response to John Greyson about his letter to the Toronto International Film Festival:

  4. Noah said, on September 8, 2009 at 1:24 am


    Thanks for the links. I think what’s important in this argument is not to be dragged into a rehashing of old facts on both sides. Keeping the focus narrowly and intensely on the logic of these actions is enough.

  5. John Clarke said, on September 10, 2009 at 10:05 am

    It is John Greyson who is politicizing TIFF and abusing for his own political ends.

    I wonder if John Greyson’s big public hissy fit about TIFF has anything to do with him being on the Advisory Board of the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival and always pushing for a world-wide boycott of anything even remotely related to Israel?

    Knowing what TIFF’s plans were, one wonders why he waited to the last moment to withdraw, rather than just in the beginning many months ago withdrawing?

  6. Noah said, on September 10, 2009 at 11:37 am

    I don’t disagree with you however I think you know exactly why John withdrew when he did. Of course it’s for publicity. If you boycott something and nobody knows about it then what’s the point. While I disagree with Greyson enormously on this, I don’t think he’s not smart.

    I would also say that part of my objection is to Greyson is that he does not object to the politicization of the festival (after all, his works are overtly political) but rather the presence of views that he has not judged as acceptable.

  7. Fruit_Loopz said, on September 10, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Over 1000 famous people have signed the letter attacking the zionist agenda of the Toronto International Film Festival. Only 3 filmakers are against it the jews Robert Lantos, Norman Jewison and David Cronenberg

  8. Noah said, on September 12, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    1) 1,000 famous people? I’m curious as to your definition of “famous”.

    2) Because famous people sign something, does that mean it is legitimate? You fail to address any of the reasonable objections to a cultural boycott. Over half of American voters voted for George Bush in 2004, does that make it the smart thing to have done?

    3) You also reinforce my comments about reasonable discourse. Come, leave a comment, but you are too afraid to use your name or real email address? What are you afraid of? If you had genuine conviction you would stand behind your statements but, alas, you choose to cower.

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