Directors at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and a host of Hollywood heavyweights are getting behind the campaign to free Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and humanitarian doctor Tarek Loubani from the Egyptian prison in which they have been detained for 24 days.
At a press conference at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Sept 10, Canadian filmmakers Sarah Polley, Alex Gibney and Atom Egoyan, writer Michael Ondaatje, Greyson's sister Celia Greyson and TIFF artistic director Noah Cowan made a plea for support and called for the immediate release of Greyson and Loubani. (See Xtra's video coverage here.)
Despite ongoing diplomatic pressure, Egyptian officials continue to detain the pair in Cairo’s Tora prison.
Celia Greyson says the men are being held in an overcrowded cell, but they are reported to be in “good health” and “good spirits."
"Their health is as good as one can expect in a cell with 38 other people and a bucket for a toilet," she says. "[John's] family is extremely worried. It's incredibly stressful for them. The two families are working together, but it's been very hard on all of us."
Polley has been distributing #FreeTarekandJohn buttons, which she says have been a hot commodity at TIFF. "I first met John Greyson when I was a teenager," she says. "I was so struck by his openness and his gentleness. I was in awe of his work. His film Lilies really changed the way I looked at the medium of film and made me thrilled and excited about being a filmmaker. He has such a bold and limitless imagination."
More than 300 artists, filmmakers and academics from around the world, including Ben Affleck, Colin Firth, Danny Glover, Paul Haggis, Frances McDormand, Mark Ruffalo, Sharmila Tagore, Isabella Rossellini and William Dafoe have signed a letter calling for the release of Greyson and Loubani.
Egoyan became emotional while describing his friendship with Greyson. "He's a great friend. I don't always agree with John, with his views and his politics, but we fiercely defend his right to speak his mind, because that's what this is about — freedom of expression and freedom of speech."
Gibney says documentary filmmakers and journalists often risk their lives to tell important stories. "Documentary filmmakers go all over the world to very dangerous places, and it's terribly important that they are able to do so knowing that the international community of artists has their backs."
Canadian consular staff, a doctor and a lawyer met with Greyson and Loubani for about 30 minutes on Aug 22 at the Cairo prison, which has been condemned by human rights groups for alleged abuses carried out there.
Egyptian police arrested Greyson and Loubani on Aug 16, incarcerating them under a 15-day detention order issued by Egypt’s public prosecutor. No formal charges have been laid.
Greyson and Loubani were in Egypt en route to Gaza, where Loubani had planned to work with Doctors Without Borders. Celia Greyson says her brother likely planned to film Loubani's work for a documentary.
Aug 16 has been described as a “very bloody day” in Egypt that ended in the deaths of more than 60 people, according to CBC. Exactly what happened in the hours leading up the pair's arrest is not clear. It appears that police arrested Greyson and Loubani when they stopped at a police station to ask for directions to their hotel.
"Hundreds of people were detained that day, and unfortunately, John and Tarek were among them," Celia Greyson says. "They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time."
In this Xtra interview from Aug 20, Elle Flanders, Greyson's long-time friend, discusses the events leading to the pair's imprisonment and provides an update on their condition and efforts to free them.