Director and actor Sarah Polley, director Atom Egoyan, writer Michael Ondaatje, and documentarian Alex Gibney made noble use of the hordes of journalists gathered in town for TIFF Tuesday morning, hosting a press conference calling for the immediate release of imprisoned filmmaker John Greyson and Dr. Tarek Loubani. The pair has been detained in Egypt without formal charges since August 16, causing an uproar in the Canadian film and arts community.
Over 110,000 signatures have been collected on a change.org petition calling for the men’s release, according to Polley, with the goal of reaching 150,000 signatures by the end of TIFF. “We need to get them home now,” she said, sporting a hot pink button with the campaign’s hashtag—#FreeTarekandJohn—splashed across it.
According to Greyson’s sister, Cecilia Greyson, the men had attempted to enter Gaza, but found the border shut; they were arrested at the police station the next day when asking for directions. Schulich School of Medicine assistant professor of emergency medicine Loubani often journeyed to Egypt over the past two years as part of a partnership between Western University Hospital and the Gaza Strip’s al-Shifa Hospital; he provided training in advanced cardiac life support, and invited others to come along and witness conditions in the Gaza Strip. Greyson joined Loubani on this most recent trip, yet neither has returned home. “While we understand this is could be a lengthy process due to a backlog of legal proceedings, we are extremely concerned for their wellbeing and safety,” she said.
Egoyan read out an open letter to the Egyptian government, calling for their release. It has been signed by over 300 Hollywood luminaries, including Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Lena Dunham, Colin Firth, Frances McDormand, Mark Ruffalo, Charlize Theron, Michelle Williams and Willem Dafoe, and directors Todd Haynes, Paul Haggis, Mike Leigh, Mira Nair, and Wim Wenders. “I’ve known John for 30 years and he is a good friend,” Egoyan said. “He’s a highly respected member of the film community in Canada. We’ve all had passionate discussions with John and we don’t always agree about everything, but he has the right to speak his mind. It is about freedom of expression.”
Gibney, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, spoke about the necessity for the “international community of artists to have each other’s back. It’s important to rally around the artists and filmmakers—and the doctors—who are just doing their job.”
Ondaatje read a list of writers who also signed their name to the open letter, including Jonathan Lethem, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Miriam Toewes, Dionne Brand and Arundhati Roy. “Writers and artists travel to dangerous places in the real world,” Ondaatje said. “We have to defend the right to do so.”