FILM: Post-9/11 Cinema at Toronto's Film Festival

Major FILM festivals like Cannes and Toronto have split personalties. They serve as a media circus for the famous faces in the world, yet specialize in smashing taboos, honouring the avant-garde and showing us things we've never seen before.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 25, 2006

Major FILM festivals like Cannes and Toronto have split personalties. They serve as a media circus for the famous faces in the world, yet specialize in smashing taboos, honouring the avant-garde and showing us things we've never seen before.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 25, 2006

FILM: Post-9/11 Cinema at Toronto's Film Festival

Major FILM festivals like Cannes and Toronto have split personalties. They serve as a media circus for the famous faces in the world, yet specialize in smashing taboos, honouring the avant-garde and showing us things we've never seen before. At the 31st edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, aside from getting a glimpse of Penélope Cruz or Brad Pitt in the flesh, you could see U.S. President George W. Bush being gunned down by a sniper, and Dick Cheney delivering a eulogy at a state funeral after taking over his job. D.O.A.P.: Death of a President, a faux documentary that imagines Bush being assassinated in 2007, manipulates actual footage of Bush and Cheney to paint a chilling scenario. It was the hottest ticket at TIFF - scalpers were selling seats to the sold-out premiere on eBay for $250. But it was just one of a glut of post-9/11 films at the festival that challenged conventional wisdom about terrorism, along with the strategies of surveillance, incarceration, torture and censorship that are employed to fight it.

In recent years, indie cinema has become a rallying ground for anti-war sentiment and environmental politics. Filmmakers like Michael Moore and George Clooney have become the de facto faces of a leaderless left. And over the past week, TIFF premiered a bumper crop of films devoted to resistance. But instead of offering pat answers, many of them seem designed to arouse fear and uncertainty. These are not message movies.

It's as if government and entertainment have reversed roles. Bush stole his chest-thumping rhetoric for the war on terror straight from Hollywood. He reduced geopolitics to a cowboy scenario of Western heroes and Eastern evildoers that would shame the most clichéd screenwriter. Filmmakers, meanwhile, are trying to tell political stories in emotional terms that go beyond morality tales: they're saying the world is stranger and more complicated than we are being led to believe. And their work occupies every conceivable genre - from documentary to dignified period drama to lewd farce.

Several films at TIFF raised the spectre of assassination in America. Aside from D.O.A.P., there was Bobby, an epic drama directed by Emilio Estevez that unfolds at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot. A Louisiana governor is gunned down in All the King's Men, and although this Southern Gothic tale takes place in the 1930s, it casts a long shadow of original sin across contemporary American politics. And in Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, the lead singer of the top-selling female group in history receives a harrowing death threat.

A documentary directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, Dixie Chicks follows the band for two years, starting with that London concert in 2003 when, as bombs fell on Baghdad, lead singer Natalie Maines said, "We're embarrassed that the President is from Texas." As the band endures a massive protest campaign of CD burnings and radio boycotts, Maines first tries to shrug it off. "It wasn't even a political statement - it was a joke made to get cheers and applause." She even tries to apologize. But the redneck backlash stiffens her resolve. After Bush weighs in, saying the Chicks "shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records," she rolls her eyes: "What a dumb f--k."

The hindsight of the documentary lens reveals some rich ironies. Early in the Iraq war, a marketing man frets about Lipton tea withdrawing its sponsorship. "Try not to be judgmental of the President," he advises the Chicks. "He's got sky-high approval." Meanwhile, the band's Brit manager, Simon Renshaw, blithely suggests, "I don't think we should shy away from controversy. Wouldn't it be great if they started burning CDs and banning us on the radio." Careful what you wish for.

What's touching about the movie is the ingenuous nature of the Chicks' political engagement, and the way they soldier on with their lives as they fall from grace. There's a remarkable scene where they're chatting about the Iraq war as Emily Robison lies in a hospital bed, about to give birth to twins. And as Maines funnels her persecution into songwriting, you can just see the impudent inner rock star dying to shatter the mould of the milk-fed country singer. At one point, she's shown a photo of the man suspected of sending her a death threat. With Jagger-like insouciance she says, "He's kinda cute."

The Chicks had controversy thrust upon them because of a careless bit of patter. No pop star had created such outrage with a casual comment since John Lennon observed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. But Lennon was a far more deliberate voice of dissent. And he's the subject of another film unveiled at TIFF. The U.S. vs. John Lennon chronicles Lennon's galvanizing effect on the anti-Vienam war movement, and the Kafkaesque campaign to have him deported from the United States.

A number of movies at the festival focused squarely on violent protest, aiming to explode the terrorist stereotype with smart bombs of empathy and insight. The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair mixes documentary with comic book graphics to tell the story of a journalist who was wrongly imprisoned and tortured by U.S. authorities in Iraq for nine months before being released with a one-word apology: "Sorry." My Life as a Terrorist: The Story of Hans-Joachim Klein explores the troubled conscience of a German revolutionary from the 1970s. And in Babel, a Moroccan peasant boy's idle gunplay triggers fears of a terrorist attack.

D.O.A.P., meanwhile, turned out to be less inflammatory than it sounds. It's not a mockumentary. It's a sombre drama delivered as a documentary conceit, without a soupçon of satire or irreverence. The assassination takes place in 2007, in Chicago. Amid the confusion of anti-war protesters converging on a Bush appearance in the Sheraton hotel, a sniper strikes from a high-rise window. As an aftermath "documentary," the events are constructed through interviews with Secret Service men and FBI officers, seamlessly portrayed by unknown actors. With generous footage of the real Bush visiting Chicago, there's a weird suspense in waiting for the assassination of a living president. Then the story slows down into a whodunit.

The political gist of D.O.A.P. is to criticize a rush to judgment, as Cheney tries to build a conspiracy case against Syria. The closest it comes to justifying Bush's murder is a line from a suspect, who says, "If you believe in the death penalty, he was a candidate. He was responsible for over 100,000 deaths." When the assassin's identity is revealed, there are grounds for empathy. But the film never implies killing Bush would be desirable. And it paints a grim scenario of civil liberties under siege as President Cheney draws up a sequel to the Patriot Act that creates "unprecedented powers of detention and surveillance."

At least one movie at TIFF, Catch A Fire, depicts terrorists as heroes. But considering their target was South African apartheid, it was hard not to agree. A movie that is certain to generate serious heat at the Oscars, Catch a Fire dramatizes the true story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a foreman at a South African oil refinery who joins the military wing of the African National Congress after being arrested and brutally interrogated for a bombing he had nothing to do with. What's heartbreaking is that his alibi hinges on a secret visit to an ex-lover who bore his child, and that his wife is dragged into the ordeal.

A man falsely accused of terrorism is terrorized into becoming a terrorist. We would call Chamusso a freedom fighter. But the head of the security force, played with insidious precision by Tim Robbins, keeps using the word "terrorist," and the contemporary resonance is inescapable. Directed with eloquent force by Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence), this movie is not just another earnest saga of injustice. It's a potent, heart-pounding thriller. Hollywood attaches high-priced warheads like Tom Cruise to action pictures and wonders why they don't fly. As Chamusso, Luke incarnates a kind of heroism that can't be contrived: when the real-life Chamusso joined him for a rapturous standing ovation at the premiere, tears flowed with the force of a dam breaking.

Another superb period drama dissecting the psychology of a police state was The Lives of Others. This masterful feature debut by German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is about a popular Berlin playwright, his actress girlfriend, and an austere Stasi officer who wiretaps his apartment for East Germany's secret police. As the eavesdropper develops a clandestine sympathy for his subject, the drama plays like The Conversation rewired with Stalinist circuitry. With silent compassion trickling through an apparatus of state terror, the drama affords a microscopic view of the erosion that finally brought down the Berlin Wall. Although The Lives of Others is fiction, it's based on scrupulous research. And Ulrich Mühe, who plays the Stasi officer, discovered after the Wall came down that he had been a Stasi victim - spied on for a decade by his wife at the time.

At TIFF, the ultimate proof that post-9/11 paranoia has become fodder for mainstream movies was Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. A gross-out comedy with a subversive spin, it landed like a terrorist stink bomb. But this hysterical mockumentary - directed by Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) - is smarter than it pretends to be. Sacha Baron Cohen, creator and star of Da Ali G Show, plays a bumbling, sexist, anti-Semitic goof from Kazakhstan. As he embarks on a documentary-making tour of America, he becomes a lightning rod for bigotry and cultural ignorance. Borat's antics include stalking Pamela Anderson, wrestling nude with his obese producer, and riling a rodeo audience with a mangled version of The Star-Spangled Banner.

It's hard to believe Borat is being released by a major studio (20th Century Fox). But then there's Shortbus, starring Canada's Sook-Yin Lee. Hitting Toronto via Cannes, it's now the object of a mainstream love-in. It seems everyone and her aunt is dying to see this feel-good pageant of hard-core sex, which includes guys singing The Star-Spangled Banner into each other's butts. America may still be on the alert for terrorism, but as taboos crumble, the big screen has become one long, undefendable border.

Maclean's September 25, 2006