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Festival Life, by Alexandra Gill
Gala premiere a homecoming, Egoyan says

By ALEXANDRA GILL, The Globe and Mail
With a report from Gayle MacDonald
September 6, 2002

Toronto film director Atom Egoyan and his wife, actress Arsinée Khanjian, arrived fashionably late for last night's launch of the 27th Toronto International Film Festival.

As flashbulbs popped and stargazers gawked, the favourite couple of Canadian cinema emerged from a stretch limousine in front of Roy Thomson Hall and swept up the red carpet for the gala premiere of Mr. Egoyan's film Ararat.

This is the third time in six years that one of Mr. Egoyan's films has opened the Toronto event, touted as the second most important film festival in the world, next to Cannes. But as Mr. Egoyan said last night, this year feels more like a homecoming than ever before.

Weaving between present-day Toronto and 1915 Turkey, this controversial film tells a very personal and strongly opinionated (some have said one-sided) tale about the Armenian genocide and a Canadian family's struggle to come to grips with its people's history. Denounced as propaganda by the Turkish government, which denies that more than a million Armenians were massacred before and during the First World War, Ararat sparked protest at Cannes when it made its debut in France earlier this year.

"There are a lot of controversial issues in the film," said Mr. Egoyan, whose grandparents were both orphans of the massacre. "I didn't know how timely they would become in the wake of Sept. 11," he added, referring to the film's Armenian fighters, ethnic rivalries, airport customs interrogations and meditation on the process of writing history.

"We are experiencing firsthand the process of creating history. We're seeing how fragile history can be. I'm looking forward to seeing the emotional effect on the audience."

Although no protesters were on hand last night, Ararat is a fitting premiere for a festival that feels more subdued than usual. Last year's festival was dimmed by the events of Sept. 11. Parties and gala events were cancelled. The memory of that tragic day still haunts this year's festival like a somewhat guilty hangover.

"It's a very heavy film," actor Eric Bogosian remarked earlier in the evening during a reception at the Rosewater Supper Club, where several hundred people were crammed in around him, swilling back complimentary champagne.

"It's a bit hard to think about parties and things."

Asked if the film was perhaps too heavy for opening night, producer Robert Lantos laughed somewhat apprehensively. "We have a great tradition here of presenting dark opening-night films."

Over at Thomson Hall, where festival sponsor Astral Media was holding a pregala dinner, the company's chief executive officer, Ian Greenberg, was wondering how his darkly funny trailer would be received later that evening.

The short film noir, which will be shown before this week's gala films, features Mr. Greenberg tied to a chair in an empty warehouse, being interrogated by a Russian gangster.

"Are you going to talk" the gangster barks. The joke? For 30 seconds or so, Mr. Greenberg never stops talking, welcoming the audience to the festival. Not even when the Russian opens fire into his chest.

"Is there a pall over this year's festival" asked festival director Piers Handling, who later joined 4,000 guests when they descended on the Liberty Grand entertainment complex at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds to dance and nosh on chocolate fondue until the wee hours of the morning.

"On the contrary. I think there's a real upbeat mood this year. People are really up for the parties, especially since there was really no sense of closure last year."

Not everybody felt so confident about mixing pleasure with painful memories. "The problem with an apocalypse," cracked Yuk Yuk's founder Mark Breslin, "is that you never really know how to dress for it."

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