Film: Serious Films for a Serious Time

Toronto International Film Festival was awash in political statements

Sep 20, 2006 at 2:06 pm
IFC Films

U.S. President George W. Bush was at the center of several Toronto International Film Festival entries, including the Ohio-based documentary ...So Goes the Nation and the highly controversial D.O.A.P.

TORONTO — From fictional dramas like Babel and The Wind That Shakes the Barley to documentaries like The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival was awash in politically-minded films.

"There's no denying that there's a sort of zeitgeist thing going on right now where, for whatever complex reasons, everyone starts to think the same way about the world at the same time," says The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald during an interview early in the festival's 10-day run.

Macdonald's comment would prove prophetic, as nearly half of the 26 films I watched here had some sort of overt reference to our current political climate. Even a relatively harmless comedy like Borat had its share of pointed observations about our beloved "U, S and A," as Sacha Baron Cohen's title character puts it.

One of the most talked-about movies of the festival (besides the ribald Borat) was British filmmaker Gabriel Range's D.O.A.P. The title stands for "Death of a President," although its acronym can certainly be taken as a descriptor of the president in question, George W. Bush.

A faux documentary about the assassination of Bush by an unknown gunman, Toronto Festival Co-Director Noah Cowan calls D.O.A.P "easily the most dangerous and breathtakingly original film I have encountered this year."

I was unable to catch a screening, but I did talk to several people who did, most of whom had the same reaction: "I can't believe they got away with (making) it."

Critical response was mixed, which makes its Fipresci Prize win a surprise. Awarded by the International Federation of Film Critics "for the audacity with which it distorts reality to reveal a larger truth," the film's praise ends up sounding like wishful thinking.

Newmarket Films — the same company that distributed Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ — has picked up the rights to distribute it in the U.S. Will D.O.A.P. actually make it to American theaters?

I'd bet against it.

With 352 films screened in just over a week, Toronto is as much about the films you miss as the ones you see. My most painful omissions were Pedro Almodovar's Volver, Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, all of which proved logistically impossible for me to attend.

Mediocre word of mouth led many to skip Emilio Estevez's star-studded love letter to Robert Kennedy. The aptly-titled "work-in-progress" Bobby is a fictional re-creation of the presidential candidate's assassination at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968, and features more familiar faces than an episode of Hollywood Squares.

Tangentially, Bobby was responsible for my most surreal experience at the festival: I shared an elevator with cast member Christian Slater, an actor who once had a profound place in my teenaged movie-going heart. (Heathers and Pump Up the Volume remain deeply nostalgic pleasures to this day.)

Oh, how you have devolved, Christian. I'm pretty sure even Jeff Fahey would pass on Hollow Man 2. Of course, I withheld this information, as Slater seemed preoccupied by one of our elevator mates.

I also missed Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye's 152-minute black-and-white documentary about the inflamed, highly contentious abortion debate. Fifteen years in the making, it left a strong impression on many due to its epic, even-handed scope and uncompromisingly graphic images.

I did catch the world premiere of ...So Goes the Nation, James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo's documentary about Ohio's role in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. The filmmakers arrived in the state five days before Election Day, a prescient decision when Ohio became the most important place on the planet that fateful evening.

Straightforward and balanced, ...So Goes the Nation is an intriguing look at contemporary political campaigns and the passionate people who take part in them — from the dedicated grassroots volunteers on the ground to the many strategists and consultants on each side. (Of the party bigwigs, Democratic consultant Paul Begala steals the show, offering keen, frequently funny insights that are critical of each side.)

One such volunteer was Bush backer and current Cincinnati Coucilwoman Leslie Ghiz. She's one of three major figures in the film's narrative (the other two were Democratic volunteers in Cleveland and Columbus), a humanist approach that effectively conjures the deep emotions of an election that would be the most bitterly divided in a generation.

Several scenes come off as eerily ironic two years later. The film also confirms what is now obvious: The Democrats, wrong-headedly enamored with "data research," have no clue how to run effective campaigns.

Even an otherwise politically-neutral effort like Canadian actress Sarah Polley's Away from Her couldn't help but comment on the ironies of today's situation. A still-luminous Julie Christie, deftly playing a woman dealing with early onset Alzheimer's, delivers this simple, misty-eyed observation as she watches footage of the Iraq War on TV: "Don't they remember Vietnam?"

Affecting and uncommonly poignant, Away from Her belies its first-time director's youth, bravely investigating what it means to love someone who can no longer reciprocate in kind.

Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing is an entertaining, surprisingly insightful look at the travails of modern Pop stardom. Ostracized by Country radio after frontwoman Natalie Mains dared to say what was on her mind — even if it was essentially a harmless, off-the-cuff diss on President Bush — the film is yet another reminder of just how powerful certain forces are at chilling any type of dissent.

Groggy from the onslaught of culturally relevant offerings, I took a much-needed mid-week hiatus via a quadruple-header of Asian films. A parable about obsessive love and plastic surgery, Kim Ki-duk's conceptually intriguing Time is much less penetrating than his previous melodramas; its circular plot mechanics become more important than the believability of its central couple's over-the-top relationship.

Johnnie To's latest deftly choreographed action extravaganza, Exiled, is a melancholic tale centering on a group of cold-blooded hit men. To's loving exuberance for such lowlifes was a welcomed diversion for a festival burdened by conscience.

The polar opposite in content and technique, Hong Sang-woo's Woman on the Beach eventually won me over with its slow-moving, laid-back tale of a narcissistic movie director (is there any other kind?) who beds women in the name of research for his next film. One question, Hong: How much is based on your own experiences?

By the time humanist master Hirokazu Kore-eda's HANA wrapped up the quartet, I was in dire need of caffeinated nourishment. A nice change of pace following the director's spare, emotionally wrought Nobody Knows, HANA's detailed period setting (1702 Japan) and unique investigation of genre (it's Hirokazu's version of a samurai film) ultimately left me aching for fresh air. I lasted about an hour before fleeing to the bustling, remarkably unsullied Toronto streets.

Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth largely lives up to the strong reputation it garnered at Cannes. Essentially a fairy tale for grown-ups, the film focuses on precious Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl who combats the harshness of her surroundings — it's set amid Franco's dictatorship in 1944 Spain — by creating elaborate fantasies that del Toro renders with whimsical, typically imaginative results.

Darren Aronofsky's long-awaited The Fountain is a puzzler, an ambitious movie so immersed in its own head that one has trouble keeping up. I think it's trying to make a statement about the perils of eternal life, but I was more intrigued by its 2001-esque sci-fi visuals and its oddly touching love story between Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weitz, both of whom play multiple characters in the free-floating, century-hopping narrative.

The Fountain is sure to be met by much consternation upon its U.S. release later this year, which is probably how the uncompromising Aronofsky would want it.

Not many people are talking about Ethan Hawke's The Hottest State, but I found it both formally interesting and emotionally resonant. Based on his own 1996 novel, Hawke's loosely structured story centers on William (an affecting Mark Webber), a 20-year-old actor who falls hard for Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an aspiring singer whose main objective is to live an "artist's life." A perceptive, undeniably heartfelt look at the irrationality of first love, The Hottest State was one of the few films that exceeded expectations.

For its first 90 minutes, Todd Field's Little Children was as good as anything I saw here. Based on Tom Perotta's (he co-wrote the script with Field) satirical novel of the same name, this corrosively funny film nails the surreal rhythms of contemporary suburban America as well as any movie in recent memory. Echoes of American Beauty abound, complete with deadpan voice-over narration and gloriously choreographed visuals.

Alas, its drawn-out, slightly heavy-handed final third merely makes it a very strong follow-up to Field's similarly denouement-challenged In the Bedroom. ©