À la recherche des polémiques perdues By Norman Wilner

in 31st Toronto International Film Festival

by Norman Wilner

A great film festival will produce not just great films but great conversation — arguments, rhapsodies, surprises, shocks — that ripple through the assembled community of cinéastes, scavengers and posers in waves.

The Toronto International Film Festival, of course, is forever scarred by what are commonly known as “the events of September 11th” — the day when the conversation stopped: Attention shifted roughly, horribly away from the big screen and onto the small ones.

Five years later, it’s probably both a good and bad sign that the biggest controversy to rock the 2006 edition of TIFF involved Sean Penn smoking a cigarette at a press conference, which resulted in a $600 fine being levied upon the hotel that failed to stop him.

I can’t help but think that Penn might have generated more controversy had the assembled media spent more time focusing on his comments about the sorry state of American politics; after all, he did talk about it, and his opinions certainly have relevance given his connection with New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina looms like a pall over his new film, All the King’s Men, and of course it’s the focus of Spike Lee’s magnificent documentary When the Levees Broke, in which Penn appears both as an interview subject, and as a participant in the rescue effort.

But, no. Sean Penn smoked a cigarette! Indoors! However will our culture endure!

As I write this, the Penn-Man-Smoking story has moved into its eighth day, with the revelation that, while the actor will not face a fine or criminal charges, Ontario’s Minister of Health has written him a stern letter.

Eight whole days.

In contrast, just hours after Penn’s press conference, Gabriel Range’s Death of a President had its world premiere. It was the hottest ticket of the year, thanks to the Festival’s canny orchestration of press coverage: The film was listed in advance materials and on the screening schedule only as “D.O.A.P.”, guaranteeing no one would think twice about it until its content was revealed by the essay in the program book, thus triggering a flurry of entirely speculative comment from the usual frothing idiots in the days leading up to its first screening.

An hour and a half later, Range’s faux documentary was revealed, semi-shockingly, as just another movie. It’s a movie with an elegance of construction, an audacious repurposing of reality and a mournful sadness at what America has already become; those elements, among others, led my jury to award the film the FIPRESCI prize.

Never mind all the barking about “lefty wish fulfillment”, which was the phrase I heard most often in the days leading up to the screening; no matter what political perspective one brings to Death of a President, it can’t honestly be read as an incitement or endorsement of its premise. (Two words: President Cheney.)

But perhaps all the shrieking over “D.O.A.P.” — try pronouncing it as “dwop”; it makes you smile — served another purpose, distracting chattering commentators from films that made genuinely scathing political statements.

Spike Lee has always been a political filmmaker (just ask him), but in When the Levees Broke, he does something he’s never done before: He stays out of his subject’s way, nurturing indignation into outrage by the simple, steady accrual of detail. Four hours later, it’s painfully, miserably clear that New Orleans was lost long before Katrina made landfall — and that every level of American government could do nothing other than stand and watch.

Another documentary made similar points about systemic corruption, though it did so in a fraction of the running time: Vincenzo Marra’s The Session is Open (L’Udienza è aperta) takes flyweight digital cameras into an appellate court in Naples, and emerges with an indictment of the Italian justice system as a chummy, casually corruptible fiefdom of helpless wonks, genial madmen and distressingly effective bullshit artists.

And it’s strange, but not entirely unexpected, that the festival’s Midnight Madness program should produce three of the most opinionated and contentious films of the festival.

Anders Morgenthaler’s Princess, a Danish film about a man who decides to protect his young niece from the images of her dead porn-star mother by embarking on a campaign to wipe them — and, eventually, anyone who’s ever looked upon them — from the face of the earth, was deeply disturbing and strangely engaging in the same moment. It simultaneously condemns the global pornography industry and the ridiculous lengths to which people will go to protect “the children” from accidental exposure to content produced explicitly for adult consumption. And it does so through the magic of animation.

In Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (Gue-mool), the classical Godzilla template is applied over an incisive sociopolitical satire of contemporary Korea, where a dysfunctional family learns that their clueless, ineffectual government is almost as dangerous to their continued happiness as the giant, hungry fish-thing rampaging along the Han River.

And finally, there was Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’ Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which said more about the fear and loathing lurking just beneath the surface of American culture — and said it in set-pieces so sharp and hysterical you may not even notice they’ve cut you until hours later — than any other film I saw in Toronto this year.

Of course, Sean Penn didn’t smoke at the screening, so no one’s talking about it.