Toronto Film Fest 2006: Politics on its Mind

Critics often like to find a dominant theme in the program of a major festival. Such was the case of the 2006 Festival de Cannes, where at leats a dozen film deals with various isses of sex and seuxlaity.

However, in Toronto Festival this year, the prevalent issue seems to be politics, or rather movie about American and foreign politics. This line is reflected in both the fictional and nonfictional fare.

Some of the political movies don’t shy away from shock value. Even before the festival officially opened, it became clear that partisan films, both right-wing and left wing, creating the most buzz.

Take the very opening night, the Canadian-Danish coproduction, Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn’s “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.” The event kicked off with a live solo of Inuit chanting, followed by kudos for sponsors like Bell Canada.

As for the hot-button pictures, the festival has programmed “Death of a President,” a film featuring the fictional assassination of President George W. Bush. Media outlets worldwide picked up a photo mocked up as a scene of the murder. That production still landed first on the Drudge Report and was talked up by Rush Limbaugh.

Similarly, though he’s only showing segments of his next documentaries “Sicko” and “The Great ’04 Slack Uprising,” Michael Moore received frequent mentions, as did the Weinstein Co.’s “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing” docu about the outspoken music act. Less high-profile, but potentially controversial features, also include the docu “The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair.”

Fox’s upcoming satire “Borat,” which found itself parsed for anti-Semitism in a New York Times article. (A midnight screening of the pic was nevertheless one of the hottest tickets on the festival’s first night.)

The first deal since the festival started was IFC Films’ pickup of doc “… So Goes the Nation,” a war-room view of 2004’s closely fought presidential race.

Statistically, political films may only represent a tiny fraction of the 352 films unspooling at Toronto this year, but major fests are often assigned a thematic throughline before a single feature screens.

As noted, at Cannes, sexually explicit pictures such as “Shortbus” from Jonh Cameron Mitchell (playing at Toronto this week), which includes many scenes of unsimulated sex, were held up as representative, along with titles like “Red Road” and the artistic porn experiment “Destricted.”

Festival co-director Noah Cowan said he wasn’t looking to put an emphasis on hot political titles in this year’s program. Which is the reason why they select to open with “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen,” a 1920s-set film about Canada’s Inuit population.

“It’s always good to go into an event of this size with something to talk about,” he told Variety. What bothers him as a fest planner is when the outside world overlooks the nuances of the pictures. “The thing about the coverage of ‘Death of a President’ that drove me crazy is that people like to reduce extremely complex things to a single image. Film as an art form allows you to deal with subtlety,” Cowan said.

But Peter Carlton, senior commissioning editor for Film4, the movie arm of Channel 4, which will air the docu in the UK, acknowledged that a buzzy hook helps sell pics. There is a downside, though. “If it gets blown out of proportion, the film can be seen as a cynical media exercise rather than a film that wants to be seen for what it has to say,” Carlton said.

IFC Films’ head Jonathan Sehring said the political flavor of “So Goes,” as well as an opportunity to release the film before the upcoming November elections, made him interested in it.

This year’s emphasis on political controversy has also given heat to the documenatry market. There’s a stronger-than-usual presence at the fest of mini-majors docus. In addition to “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing,” films arriving in Toronto with a deal already in hand are “Deliver Us From Evil,” to be distribbed by Lionsgate, and “American Hardcore” by Sony Pictures Classics.

Other docuss drawing early buzz include “Lake of Fire,” Tony (“American History X”) Kaye’s unflinching exploration of the abortion debate.

Contributing to the momentum for pictures on social and political issues was the success of last year’s “Capote,” “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” all of which were Oscar-nominated.

“There’s no doubt that the reaction to last year’s films probably gave courage to many film distributor executives over the last nine months as they picked up movies,” said Phillip Noyce, whose “Catch a Fire,” which is set against the backdrop of the struggle against South African apartheid, premiers in Toronto.

Andrea Calderwood, a producer of Fox Searchlight’s “The Last King of Scotland,” said that the project moved away from being a picure about Uganda’s tyrant Idi Amin and more focused on the relationship with the young Scottish doctor he picks in the film to be his personal physician. Lisa Bryer, another of the film’s producers, said that it could backfire to pitch it as a political history lesson. “We would have looked really stupid because everyone would know we were playing it up.”

Cowan says that whatever the pre-fest buzz, it’s the audience reaction that will make pictures memorable as pre-festival themes are speculative.