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Flickers of hope from films with integrity

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Well, things looked dark as TIFF was gearing up, and they're still looking dark as it's winding down. But I do see some light. The strongest theme emerging from TIFF 2006, to me, is a return to the idea that the personal is political, and that being political is a necessity. "Maybe the eighties and nineties will be the aberration," someone said to me. "Maybe movies are becoming important again." Man, I hope so.

I saw it in The Lives of Others, in which a Stasi agent in East Berlin realizes that he no longer wants to be a pawn in the Communist machine.

He chooses compassion over self-interest. The violins don't swell at the end, but the world does move one inch closer to better.

I saw it in the stringent, layered, discomfiting Little Children, which is a true rarity, a gorgeous-looking, A-list American film that is entirely unpredictable. Director and co-writer Todd Field (In the Bedroom) gives us characters that do selfish, exasperating things, including a mother (Kate Winslet) who can't connect with her daughter. "We never used the words 'likeable' or 'sympathetic,' " Field told me. "Those are two words that I abhor. Kate understood that implicitly. She would take it even further, in terms of her indifference to her child. How she carried her like a piece of luggage, her total lack of tenderness. When the dailies came back, the studio called, saying, 'We're worried. She's not likeable.' I said, 'Yeah, isn't it wonderful?' " Field doesn't flinch from showing his characters' fear, loneliness, and bad choices. "I don't want to be so reductive as to categorize people," he said. "I think it's kind of tired. The setting for Little Children" -- white, well-to-do, small-town America -- "is almost irrelevant.

I could have set it in Afghanistan around a well, with women in burkas pointing at and gossiping about each other.

These people are dealing with shame and judgment, self-judgment and hypocrisy, and looking for evil where the facts don't support that it exists. That's the state of my country right now. We're living in a very anxious, fearful time where people are going around with their version of a bullhorn, saying, 'There're evildoers out there, evildoers, beware, beware.' "

As if to prove Field's point, the small, European co-production True North could not be more different in setting or style, but it, too, cries out for humane behaviour. In it, a British fisherman, in a desperate effort to save his father's boat, transports illegal Chinese immigrants in the hold with tragic consequences. First-time writer/director Steve Hudson was haunted by the true story of 60 Chinese immigrants who were found in a shipping container in Dover in 2000: 58 of them had suffocated.

"Mainly I remembered the politicians' reactions, how desperate they were to find someone to blame, how the party line was, 'People smugglers are evil,' " Hudson said. "To me, people smuggling is not the same as drug smuggling. Any immigrant would much prefer to spend $1,000 and get on a plane, but they can't. The evil is the danger they're exposed to in travelling, because it's prohibited. But demonization is now used to spin so much, politically. I remember one of our British diplomats, in justifying the Iraq war, said, 'It's evil people doing evil.' A diplomat. If that's the official analysis, then we're screwed. It's so lazy, so appallingly black and white."

That "with-us-or-against-us attitude" is gleefully crushed in Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, Barbara Kopple's rousing documentary about what happened to the country trio after their lead singer, Natalie Maines, uttered seven short words at a concert on the eve of the Iraq war: "We're ashamed President Bush is from Texas." As their fans and country radio shut them out in freakish lockstep, the women pull together, refusing to be silenced. Anyone who wants to write a chick flick should take a look at this doc first, because it's a glorious depiction of the way real women talk, act, integrate their families and their careers, nurture each other, and fight back to turn others' ignorance into art.

British writer/director Shane Meadows (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) also turned a wrenching life experience into meaningful art. In 1983, at the age of 11, he got mixed up with a group of skinheads, nearly becoming a virulent, unthinking racist, until witnessing an act of violence pulled him back. His feature about that summer, This is England, is funny, gritty, scary and completely humane.

Too bad it can't be called This was England. At a Q&A session after a public screening, Meadows said he sees too many parallels between then and now. "Thatcher went to war in the Falklands to distract from unemployment, just as Bush and Blair went to Iraq to distract their countries," he said. "It's massively obvious that everyone loses out, barring those at the very top who send them.

"You can see in the film that Sean [his lead character] was programmed," Meadows continued. "When I was a kid, I felt that rage, the rage of unfairness, economic difference. Someone clever can draw that out of you, use it against a group of people. But that night of violence, my body literally rejected it. I puked up, frankly. That night, the seeds of a filmmaker were born."

Exiting the theatre, the woman next to me said, "Wow, hearing him talk, I like the film even more now." Minds are malleable. People can change them. And movies -- too few movies, but after this TIFF, maybe more -- can help.

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