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TIFF gathers to support imprisoned filmmaker/activist John Greyson

Will Perkins
TIFF
September 10, 2013

While they may not always agree with him, the international film and creative community has come together in a big way to support imprisoned Canadian filmmaker and activist John Greyson.

On Tuesday morning, some of Greyson’s most high profile supporters (including “The English Patient” author Michael Ondaatje, directors Sarah Polley, Atom Egoyan, and Alex Gibney, and TIFF artistic director Noah Cowan) joined Greyson’s sister Cecilia at the TIFF Bell Lightbox to make a statement calling upon the Egyptian government to release the filmmaker and his colleague Dr. Tarek Loubani.

Greyson (who is best known for his 1996 Genie-winning film “Lilies”) and Loubani were arrested in Egypt last month and have been held in a jail outside of Cairo for more than three weeks without charge. The pair was planning to travel to the Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza in order to work on a film, but were detained after stopping at a Cairo police station to ask for directions. Loubani is an emergency room physician and part of a Canadian program to train Palestinian doctors, who along with Greyson has been a supporter of human rights in the region for some time.

The imprisoned filmmaker, whose movies often centre on gay themes and human rights, has a controversial history with the Toronto International Film Festival. In 2009, Greyson withdrew his film “Covered” from the fest and boycotted the event for spotlighting Israeli filmmakers but failing to include “Palestinian voices.” Greyson’s past disagreements with TIFF have obviously been put aside in the wake of his current situation.

“We don’t always agree with his point of view or his politics, but we all fiercely defend his right to speak his mind,” said “Devil’s Knot” director Atom Egoyan after reading an open letter from Greyson and Loubain’s supporters. “This is about freedom of expression and freedom of speech.”

The letter was signed by over 300 artists, academics, and filmmakers from around the world, including Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Lena Dunham, Colin Firth, Todd Haynes, Mira Nair, Frances McDormand, Mark Ruffalo, Charlize Theron, Wim Wenders, Michelle Williams, and Willem Dafoe.

“Documentary filmmakers go all over the world - sometimes to very dangerous places,” Oscar-winning doc maker Alex Gibney said. “It’s important that they be able to do so with a sense that the international community of artists have their backs.”

“As artists we have a special responsibility to protest when human rights are violated,” novelist Michael Ondaatje said before reading off a list of fellow authors who are also supporting Greyson and Loubani’s cause.

“[John’s] film ‘Lilies’ really changed the way I looked at the medium of film, and left me thrilled and excited about the idea of being a filmmaker,” actress/director Sarah Polley said. “It's been so inspiring for all of us who love Tarek and John to see such incredible support come from around the world for them."

While legal and diplomatic efforts are currently underway to free Greyson and Loubani, the public and very high-profile TIFF declaration is designed to expedite the process by drawing attention to Greyson and Loubani's predicament. The festival press event goes hand-in-hand with a concerted online effort to help their cause that includes a Change.org petition that has garnered over 110,000 signatures. Those in attendance hope to get the petition to over 150,000 signatures by the end of the festival.

Greyson's sister Cecilia said she was overwhelmed by the huge outpouring of support.

"It's amazing to see," Greyson said. "I think it speaks a lot to who John and Tarek are as individuals."

You can learn more about John Greyson and Tarek Loubani's situation at TarekandJohn.com

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