At the Toronto Film Festival, Liberal Politics as Usual
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER
TORONTO, Sept. 8 — American conservatives itching to go another round with Hollywood liberals may want to redirect their ire to the north this time of year.
The Toronto International Film Festival, which opened here on Thursday, has been all but overrun with films attacking President Bush or the protracted war in Iraq — in subtle ways and like sledgehammers, with vitriol and with dispassionate fly-on-the-wall observation.
However they make their points, the various critiques of American policy and its execution have been as impossible to miss here as Michael Moore, the ubiquitous documentary maker, who has been bad-mouthing the administration at every opportunity — even at the “Midnight Madness” premiere of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”
The BBC television movie “Death of a President,” a faux-investigative documentary about the imagined assassination of Mr. Bush, is just the most obvious and excoriated example, but there are plenty of others. Another direct indictment is Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” about the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which is being shown by HBO in the “Masters” category.
Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s documentary “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing” is more of a bank shot, chronicling that popular country group as it copes with, and rallies from, the venomous reaction to the singer Natalie Maines’s March 2003 remark in London, after the start of the war in Iraq, that “we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” (That episode has hardly been forgotten: the film’s distributor, the Weinstein Company, noted with some surprise that workers hired to lure an audience to an Aug. 22 test screening outside Kansas City, Mo., were verbally assaulted on the street; only 100 seats out of 250 were filled.)
Easily one of the most damning new films, though, is “The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair,” by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, which had its origin in a haunting moment from the couple’s successful 2004 documentary about the Iraq conflict, “Gunner Palace.”
In that film, one handcuffed Iraqi man, pulled from his home in a nighttime raid, says to soldiers and to the camera, repeatedly, that he is a journalist, not a terrorist — and then is hauled off into the dark. The new movie tells the man’s story.
He is Yunis Khatayer Abbas, he was tortured by Uday Hussein for writing about an embargo of Iraq, and he is indeed a journalist. As portrayed in the documentary, faulty American intelligence, perhaps based on his freelance camera work for British television, leads to suspicions that he has plotted to kill Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mr. Abbas winds up spending nine months in confinement at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, subjected to American interrogation techniques, before being released with a base commander’s simple “Sorry.”
The filmmakers report that the Army now says that it has no records on file of Mr. Abbas’s stretch in detention. But he exists, and he faces the camera to tell of inedible food, of old men dying for lack of the medicine they had taken for years, of young men dying in prison riots and on and on. With nothing else to write on, Mr. Abbas recorded the deaths of other prisoners in ink on his white undershorts, and smuggled them out.
Mr. Moore, who attended Friday’s screening of the movie, said afterward, “It’s humiliating to know that this is being done in your name.”
But a more significant response to the screening came from Benjamin Thompson, an Army reservist, now deactivated, who knew Mr. Abbas because he was a prison guard when Mr. Abbas was a prisoner. While Mr. Tucker said that Mr. Abbas had often been dismissed as a fabricator, Mr. Thompson, who came forward a few weeks ago, confirmed and elaborated on Mr. Abbas’s description of the prison camp. He said that it was also under frequent attack by insurgents, that there was no sanitation for long stretches, and that many suffered malnutrition.
“I wouldn’t have kept my dogs in that condition,” said Mr. Thompson, who said he was now a student but would not say where. “The Prisoner” is screening with a 22-minute short, “Sari’s Mother,” a study of a woman struggling to care for an AIDS-stricken young son with no help from the Iraqi government and no way to feed her larger family but by tilling the dusty soil and milking a single cow.
A much more oblique take on Iraq comes in the director Ken Loach’s insurgent’s-eye view of a rebellion against an occupying power, set in 1920’s Northern Ireland. In Mr. Loach’s new feature, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” Padraic Delaney stars as a Republican fighter and Cillian Murphy as his brother, a doctor planning to take a job in a London hospital when the British government sends its Black and Tan soldiers to suppress the uprising.
On the home front, Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby,” set against the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, delivers its political message implicitly, invoking its subject without explicitly comparing him to Mr. Bush.
And James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s “... So Goes the Nation,” a documentary about the 2004 presidential campaign in Ohio, tries to show why Democrats can’t seem to elect presidents. It uses the Ohio battleground to contrast Democratic chaos and ineptitude with the Republican equivalent of a close-order drill. The film was picked up by IFC Films for release on Oct. 4 in 15 cities and simultaneously on its on-demand cable channels.
The film festival also includes its share of cinematic examinations of the post-9/11 world. One, “The Host,” an entertaining South Korean horror film about a river beast, shows a government suppressing its own citizens and lobotomizing a witness, but failing utterly to focus on the monster that is actually terrorizing the public. (The anti-Americanism pops up here, too, of course; a United States military officer orders the river pollution that spawns the monster, and an American doctor orders the needless lobotomy.)
At Thursday night’s premiere of “Borat,” meanwhile, Mr. Moore was drafted into service after the theater’s projector broke down 15 minutes into the movie, which caused the closest thing to a riot by Canadians: a minute of howling from the packed house, then an hour of patient sitting, punctuated by a round of slow clapping and a performance by a self-proclaimed mentalist who got up and began bending spoons.
Mr. Moore, a Toronto favorite who is here to promote his upcoming health-care documentary, “Sicko,” helped kill time by taking audience questions alongside Larry Charles, the director of Mr. Baron Cohen’s movie. He allowed that he had contingency plans to flee to Toronto if things got much worse in the States, and worried aloud that the administration had “a whole list of places we still have to invade.” And when an audience member noted that it was well past 1 a.m., Mr. Moore said it didn’t matter.
“I never go to bed,” he said. “You can’t sleep these days if you’re an American.”