The Toronto International Film Festival doesn't exactly have a reputation for being a lightning rod for political controversy, but it became one in the early days of this year's edition thanks to a new festival sidebar, City to City, designed to explore “the evolving urban experience by immersing audiences in the best films from and about a selected city.” This year, that chosen city was Tel Aviv, represented by nine recent and classic Israeli films, from the popular 1969 comedy Big Dig to director Raphaël Nadjari's two-part documentary, A History of Israeli Cinema.

Even before Toronto's opening night, a group of Canadian filmmakers and academics, including The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein and director John Greyson (who withdrew his short film Covered from the TIFF program in protest) drafted a manifesto entitled “The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation,” which went on to garner the signatures of an eclectic group of supporters including Palestinian filmmakers Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now) and Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), British director Ken Loach (who made news earlier this year when he threatened to boycott the Edinburgh Film Festival if it didn't return a £300 grant it received from the Israeli Embassy), Noam Chomsky and “Hanoi” Jane Fonda herself. The statement, which stops short of asking for an outright boycott of the festival, reads in part, “We object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and UN General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime.”

Meanwhile, pro-Israel forces on the ground in Toronto launched

their own counter-propaganda campaign, with Simon Weisenthal Center

founder Rabbi Marvin Hier winging in from L.A. to hold a news

conference, and Jewish Canadian eminences grises David Cronenberg and

Ivan Reitman accusing the Toronto Declaration supporters of promoting

artistic censorship. Ever the diplomats, festival director Piers

Handling and co-director Cameron Bailey issued an official statement

standing by their program, while noting, “We programmed City to City to

give our audience a window into Tel Aviv from the perspective of

filmmakers who live and work there — this includes filmmakers who cast

a critical eye on the status quo.” Then, just as the whole brouhaha

seemed about to die down, today brings with it a full-page ad in Variety

headlined “We Don't Need Another Blacklist” and signed by its own

celebrity who's-who, including Jerry Seinfeld, Robert Duvall and Halle

Berry. The irony that one actual blacklist victim, 90-year-old

screenwriter Walter Bernstein, signed his name to the Toronto

Declaration, has, one suspects, been lost on many from both sides of

this increasingly polemical divide.

law logo2x bWhat

risks getting obscured by all this campaigning is the fact that Israel

has been responsible for giving Toronto audiences one of this year's

great movie discoveries: Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, which received

its North American premiere here direct from winning the Golden Lion in

Venice and will go on to screen at next month's New York Film Festival.

Based on Maoz's own experiences as a wet-behind-the-ears army conscript

during the 1982 Lebanon War, the film shows us the first 24 hours of

the invasion as seen from inside a single Israeli tank.

And when I say inside, I mean inside. In a brilliant formal conceit that has earned Lebanon comparisons to Wolfgang Petersen's claustrophobic submarine thriller Das Boot,

Maoz confines the film's action entirely to the tank's interior,

showing us the outside world only as the soldiers themselves see it —

through the lens of a periscopic gun sight. And everything they see —

a poultry truck and its driver blown to smithereens, picture postcards

in a travel agency window, a rocket headed right at them — has the absurd, gallows quality of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and the acerbic war films of another combat vet turned moviemaker, Samuel Fuller.

Comparisons will, I suppose, also abound to Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir,

in which another veteran of the First Lebanon War used cinema to come

to terms with his own participation in the event. But whereas Folman's

film was a quest for lost memories, Maoz's recollections are

blisteringly vivid, the oily, sweaty tank becoming a surreal pressure

cooker of fear and uncertainty; its four young occupants yearning not

for victory, but to send messages home to Mom, and to find somewhere to

relieve their bowels. And this is but the first 24 hours of a conflict

that would rage on for three months, and spawn a 2006 sequel.

Even Lebanon

has not been fully able to escape from the pro- and anti-Israel

propaganda wars. At Venice and here in Toronto, rumors have circulated

that at least one major festival programmer who saw — and passed — on

Maoz's film earlier this year deemed it “appalling.” Why, exactly, I'm

not sure, except that there are many viewers of films who seem fatally

unable to divorce their own politics from those of the film in front of

them. And so, if you want to see Lebanon as a blind endorsement

of Israeli militarism, or as a one-dimensional depiction of Arab

insurgents, then I suppose you can construct that argument. But wars

are rarely so politically correct, and politically correct war movies

are virtually useless in conveying the actual, visceral experience of

warfare. Maoz hasn't set out to achieve piece in the Middle East, but

rather, hopefully, with himself. Lebanon is his waking nightmare, and for 90 minutes, we are just passing through.

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