Saturday, September 01, 2007

TIFF 2007: Who's Afraid Of The "I" Word...?

This year's TIFF should make for some incendiary evenings, as several major filmmakers with considerable Hollywood cred are risking the ire of Bill O'Reilly and the indifference of the theatre chains to tackle the subject of the Iraq War head-on.

Politics and film are an unavoidable collision, even when you think you're just gonna pass a morning with a splashy historical yarn.

September 11, 2001 began for me with an AM screening of "Musa: The Warrior"--a handsome but rather pedestrian South Korean Yuan vs. Ming melodrama. Still sleepy and craving coffee, I slipped out for one of the Alan Smithee Cafe's cups of oily java.

It was just before 9 AM, and I turned the corner into a tableau of frozen panic where on the monitors, Flight 11 had just impacted into the North Tower . People were weeping into their cell phones, the usually unattended bank of payphones (a rare sight in Toronto, even then) had lineups. Within a few minutes, Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. People have said it was "like a movie", but I didn't think so now or then--reality has no Tony Scott lighting, no "Waltzing Matilda" on the soundtrack or "Fail Safe" freeze frames. A great many of these people around me were industry types and journalists from the U.S. and all I could do was stand there, feeling like a voyeur.

The festival closed down for the remainder of the day, and after much debate, resumed with many screenings and events cancelled out of respect.

The response to 9/11 was surprisingly immediate, as a year later, the events of the day were explored in two contrasting Galas: the French omnibus 11' 09" 01/September 11, in which international filmmakers contributed an 11 minute film representing various voices of the global reaction, and The Guys, an agreeable drama starring Sigourney Weaver as a New York writer hired by Anthony LaPaglia's fire captain to help compose a moving eulogy to his fallen coworkers.

But since Bush declared his War On Terror and invaded Iraq in March 2003, the festival circuit and the cinema landscape in general have been light on debate, other than on the documentary front, of course: Barbara Kopple's "Shut Up And Sing" (chronicling the fallout from The Dixie Chicks' criticism of the administration) , "The Assassination Of George W. Bush" (a rather toothless British mockumentary as to how the world could possibly change in event of the titular event), Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11", and Michael Winterbottom's "Road To Guantanamo".

Critics have been asking: where is this the outrage in mainstream cinema? Where is this generation's "Coming Home" or "The Deerhunter" (hell, I'd offer "Rolling Thunder")? The following risk takers are among the most anticipated screenings at TIFF 2007, with a potential audience beyond the hoopla growing with every dismal news headline...


As in "“extraordinary rendition”, being "the policy by which alleged terrorists can be extradited to foreign prisons and tortured without their country of origin’s legal constraints getting in the way". "Totsi" director Gavin Hood follows up his TIFF People's Choice Award and 2005 Academy Award winner with an unflinching drama starring America's sweetheart du jour, Reese Witherspoon (following up her own Oscar win as June Carter in "Walk The Line") as a pregnant woman Isabella awaiting the return of Anwar (Omar Metwally), her Egyptian-American husband. But he never arrives home, and there's no record that he ever got off the plane from his business trip in Johannesburg . She finds out that her husband is a suspect in a suicide bombing that killed a CIA agent, and has been taken to a detention facility in the Middle East for "questioning". In a parallel plot, the murdered agent's partner (Jake Gyllenhaal) a patriotic go-getter who joined the CIA on September 12, 2001, questions his loyalties to the administration as he witnesses Anwar's brutal interrogations. Alan Arkin, Peter Saarsgard, and Meryl Streep costar.


Paul Haggis (a Canadian, yes, but he's worked and lived in Los Angeles for the last 30+ years) follows up his acclaimed directorial debut "Crash" with another look at the War On Terror's effects on the homefront. Based on a true story, it tells of a New Mexico family's search for their son who goes missing when he returns home from his tour of duty in Iraq. Career military man Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) and wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) enlist a police detective (Charlize Theron) to help them track down Mike (Jonathon Tucker)--and are devastated to learn is not AWOL, but has been murdered. Hank becomes obsessed with finding out what really happened on his last night alive, when he was last seen with members of his platoon. Its title refers to location of the Biblical battle between David and Goliath.


As in "text that has been blacked out or censored". Already one of TIFF 2007's "must-see"s and having received a 10 minute standing ovation at The Venice Film Festival, this is a radical change of pace for Brian DePalma, who's long been something of a TIFF regular (long ago I walked him to the Ryerson Theatre for 1988's "Criminal Law", when I came upon him lost on Yonge Street) and best known for his suspense classics "Carrie" and "Dressed To Kill" and mainstream hits like "Scarface" and "The Untouchables". With $5 million in seed money from Mark Cuban's HNet, DePalma partnered with Canadian producers Simone Urdl and Jennifer Weiss of The Film Farm to shoot this new and timely look at "The Casualties Of War" set on the front lines. Working with digital video for the first time (and with unknown actors since his "Hi Mom!" years), DePalma employs a number of styles--verite, security cams, websites, YouTube, a French documentary crew--to capture conflicting points of view between the American soldiers stationed in Samarra, and the locals who finds themselves in the crossfire of a civil war, and the horrible rape of a young Iraqi girl.

My reviews to follow...