A film oasis
Screening a variety of viewpoints is more important than ever in a post-Sept. 11 world, writes PIERS HANDLING, the director of the Toronto International Film Festival
By PIERS HANDLING, Special to The Globe and Mail
August 31, 2002
I imagine the film festival and its related activities as an oasis. A place where travellers stop to refresh themselves. Not that the rest of the year is a desert, but unquestionably there is a sameness to the landscape that even concerns Hollywood veterans and pundits. The recent release of The Kid Stays in the Picture, a documentary about the famed producer Robert Evans, has reminded everyone of the sheer vitality and quality of Hollywood in the seventies. Today, with 90 to 95 per cent of our local screen time occupied by American films, the landscape is certainly a uniform one.
An oasis allows everyone to pause and literally look around at the lushness of the environment. It is vibrant with colour and diversity. There is much activity, some of it not visible. In the oasis, one can also rest one's eyes, absorb and reflect, free from the demands of the journey. The sameness of the landscape imposes a certain rhythm on daily activities, and these days that pace tends to be fast-forward. This is certainly reflected in the visual and verbal kineticism of commercial cinema.
The festival is full of many different rhythms, all different from our own. Last year's transcendental Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner took three hours to tell its story. Zacharias Kunuk paced his film to the rhythm of Inuit life. This year the Russian master Aleksandr Sokurov has made a film in "a single breath." Russian Ark lasts 96 minutes and is told in one continuous shot. There are no cuts, no editing ruptures. Abbas Kiarostami sets all of Ten in the front seat of a car, while Gyorgy Palfi's Hukkle is a murder mystery told without one line of dialogue. In the final analysis, it is clear that there is no single cinema, no one way of assembling images, just as there is no one way of making music or building a house. Diversity is, and should be, celebrated.
Last year, Sept. 11 bisected the film festival. It was a momentous event whose repercussions are still being felt. Subsequently, many people asked us how we were going to observe its first anniversary as it would fall in the middle of this year's event. We have cancelled all of our events on the morning of the 11th and will resume programming at 11 a.m. A larger question surrounded the actual film programming on the day itself. We quickly decided to wait and see which films would be made in the post-Sept. 11 world, and if they would be appropriate for screening on that day.
As luck and chance would have it, two films were offered to us which seemed entirely appropriate. Oddly enough, these two films were made by 12 filmmakers! One of them, The Guys, is directed by an American, Jim Sinclair. Based on a stage play that has been running in the United States, it is an imaginatively conceived piece of fiction. It is based on a true story. A fire captain who has lost eight men in the tragedy approaches a professional writer to help him craft eulogies for these men. Their conversations and his memories form the dramatic centre of the film.
The other is a film, really 11 short films, brought together to form one feature-length work. 11'09"01 September 11 was produced by a company in Paris. They approached 11 international filmmakers, most of whom are already well-known to Toronto festival audiences. Seven of them have been in attendance in past years. The selected filmmakers read like a Who's Who of contemporary cinema. There are Oscar winners and directors who have won the prestigious Palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival. All of them are recognized as serious artists. The filmmakers come from every part of the world. And one of them, Sean Penn, is an American. They were all asked to make a film lasting 11 minutes, 9 seconds and one frame - 11'09"01.
Clearly, the commissioning producers wanted to hear from the world, to gain an international perspective on a day that some might feel is owned by America but which resonated and still resonates around the world. In the shock of Sept. 11, one of the most commonly asked questions was why? If we do not at least try to answer this question, we are doomed to have this action repeated, perhaps again and again. These 11 short films are among the first considered attempts by a group of serious, respected, committed artists to offer some thoughts on the subject.
Last week, 11'09"01 September 11 was screened for the press in Paris. The industry bible, Variety, published an article by one of their correspondents, François Godard, on Aug. 20 headlined: "Canal Plus 9/11 pic courts controversy. Anti-U.S. elements permeate project." In the core of the article this sentence appeared: "The problem: several of the segments are stridently anti-American." The story was picked up by The New York Post and The Toronto Star. We have received mail from the United States protesting our screening.
I feel no need to defend our choice. We are not censors and everyone will soon have the opportunity of seeing the films for themselves. There is no question that the films are provocative and made to encourage discussion. There is also no question that they are all measured and respectful. There is no hate in these films. Some may take issue, but arguments are healthy, a normal part of life. People, and countries, who suppress argument are, finally, totalitarian in outlook. Anti-American? I think not.
The festival is, and should be, full of debate. This only proves that the medium is alive and well. Some films are meant to be consumed, others are to be thought about, discussed, argued over. Certainly there is no one way to interpret or read a film.
We found so many compelling elements in the 11'09"01 shorts and The Guys. We were intrigued by the fact that the two American filmmakers set both their films in the confines and privacy of one room. We were moved by the way in which the date - the 11th - summoned up different connotations in two of the other films: on the 11th of each month the women of Sbrenica hold a vigil in their city; and the 11th of September, 1973, was the date that the democratically elected government of Chile's Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup with the backing of the CIA. We were touched by the segment where an Iranian teacher tries to explain to her class of young children, living in the country, what a tower was, the youngsters never having seen one. A conversation between an Egyptian filmmaker and the ghost of a dead U.S. marine, killed in Beirut in 1983, was poignant and unsettling, as was the short that told the true story of a Pakistani-American firefighter who died helping the New York firefighters, but whose mysterious disappearance cast suspicion on what his role really was.
Showing the diversity of reactions from these 12 filmmakers on the first anniversary can only add to our knowledge of that day last fall. Don't we want to know what is going on in the minds of people from Egypt, Iran, India, Burkina Faso, England, France, Mexico, Japan, Israel and Bosnia when it comes to events that are this important? During the rest of the festival we will also be screening Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention, a brave and daring film by a Palestinian filmmaker. If anyone wants a snapshot of the state-of-mind of a Palestinian toward events in the Middle East, this film is mandatory viewing.
When you get to the oasis, you will often meet other travellers there, eager to rest in the shade and refresh themselves. The water is for everyone, no one owns it. It should not be fought over. It provides life and should be shared. Over the 10 days of our festival, many people from around the world will be enjoying what our oasis has to offer.
Piers Handling is the director of the Toronto International Film Festival. This year's festival begins on Thursday.