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Politics in spotlight at Toronto Film Festival

Organizers already taking heat for screening ‘Death of a President’
/ Source: Reuters

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival will offer more star wattage and world premieres than almost any edition of the event in its 30-year history, as well as the potential for a goodly amount of controversy.

Several films at the 10-day festival, which opens on Thursday, will examine the state of President George W. Bush’s America. Already the festival has had to issue a statement defending its decision to screen the contentious “Death of a President,” a mock documentary that depicts the fictional assassination of Bush.

But at this point controversy still plays second fiddle to the buzz of anticipation surrounding the appearances of Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Penelope Cruz, Russell Crowe and other stars, as well as the 352 films from 61 countries that will be shown.

The Toronto festival has been growing steadily in profile — this is its 31st edition — and now has a reputation as a launch pad for Oscar hopefuls, a sentiment not lost on the actors and directors who will be promoting films, and the distributors who will be bidding to buy them.

“We are a festival of discovery,” festival co-director Noah Cowan told Reuters.

“For some of these movies that have stars but no distributor... they can come here, get a distributor, and really make a difference in worldwide box office.”

Plenty of star power
Already several entrants are being touted as possible award contenders, such as “All the King’s Men,” starring Penn in a remake of the movie classic about the rise and fall of a political demagogue in the U.S. South, and “Babel,” which stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as tragedy-stricken tourists in Morocco.

The festival will kick off with the world premiere of “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen,” based on the writings of a 1920s Danish ethnographer about the clash of cultures between European Arctic explorers and Inuit natives.

It will close on Sept. 16 with Michael Apted’s “Amazing Grace,” an historical drama about William Wilberforce, the impassioned British parliamentarian who led abolitionists in their crusade to end the slave trade.

Also screening will be highly-anticipated offerings such as Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration,” Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn,” and Douglas McGrath’s “Infamous,” which follows last year’s Oscar-winning “Capote” with another take on U.S. writer Truman Capote.

Of the 261 features to be shown, 106 will be world premieres, while another 28 will be screening outside of their country of production for the first time.

British-made “Death of a President,” meanwhile, is one of a number of films with a decided political focus.

The documentary-style film raised hackles last week, as several British newspapers ran photos of the fictional assassination it depicts. The controversy elicited a terse “no comment” from the White House.

But it is not the only Toronto entry likely to raise eyebrows in Washington, particularly with U.S. midterm elections looming in November.

The festival will premiere the documentary “Dixie Chicks: Shut up and Sing,” which focuses on the aftermath and fallout of Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines’ criticism of Bush at a concert in London in 2003.

As well, controversial filmmaker Michael Moore will discuss the reaction he’s had to his anti-Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and show parts of upcoming release “Sicko,” which takes aim at the U.S. healthcare system.

“We’re in a period now in American cinema when I think the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the Iraq war are being digested, and that’s creating some very sophisticated cinema,” Cowan said.

“And we’re always on the lookout to showcase sophisticated cinema.”