By William Wolf


Once again packed with an eclectic works from throughout the world, 352 of them, the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival offered a tantalizing variety from which to choose. Aware that one could only see a fraction of what was available, those of us covering it were faced each day with decisions as to which to select, often painful decisions, as so many worthy films had to be scheduled up against one another and up against major press conferences. I chose well. Apart from a few missteps, those films that I saw were exceptional at best and worthy at the very least. I left Toronto feeling ahead of the game, able to get a jump on important films eventually to be released commercially and others that deserved to find a distributor.

There were several superb political films. For example, a powerful film from Germany, “The Lives of Others,” zeroed in on life under the Stasi secret police before the wall came down. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the drama portrayed climate in which citizens were spied on and pressured to conform, with portrayals of key characters presented in a convincingly human way, whether it be the interrogator troubled by what he was doing (played brilliantly by Ulrich Muhe), a writer who was targeted (played appealingly by Sebastian Koch), and a renowned actress (complexly portrayed by Martina Gedeck), who was trapped into submission because of her drug addition and her career.

The film was involving down to its meticulous detail, and effectively concluded with an ironic outcome after tragic circumstances. For an American, “The Lives of Others” has special relevance, as the tactics of the Stasi were similar to what the Bush Administration has insisted on doing with respect to secret surveillance techniques involving the right to wiretap citizens. The point is not lost even though the circumstances were different in East Germany. Sony Pictures Classics is distributing this one.

Costa-Gavras, who has directed such sizzling films as “Z” and “Stage of Siege,” has co-produced and co-written “Mon Colonel,” which is set during French efforts to hang onto Algeria. The film, directed by Laurent Herbiet from the screenplay co-authored with Cost-Gavras by Jean-Claude Grumberg based on a book by Francis Zamponi, questions the immoral use of torture and the effect it has on a young officer who resists with dire consequences. Olivier Gourmet is excellent as the hard-bitten colonel of the title, and Robinson Stevenin is superb as the soldier caught in events that he cannot stomach. Charles Aznavour has a key role as his father, and the use of Aznavour is a welcome coup.

Once again it is a film that packs a special punch for an American, as so much of what is shown makes one think of Iraq and the questionable practices that are being challenged with respect to policies of the U.S. occupation facing insurgency as the French did as the colonial power in Algeria. At the time the Toronto showing of “Mon Colonel” it was in search of an American distributor.

Another political film is “Catch a Fire,” a thriller set in South Africa at the time of resistance to the oppressive apartheid government. It’s an individual story in epic circumstances, with Derek Luke making a deep impression in the role of Patrick Chamusso, who joins the resistance despite its dangers. There are some tough scenes, with Tim Robbins menacingly effective as a security officer whose job it is to root out the resisters and use whatever methods he deems necessary to do so. The intense drama, being distributed by Focus Features, has a very human face with an excellent cast, a script by Shawn Slovo that illuminates the emotional cost of fighting for principles, and astute direction by Phillip Noyce, who makes the story seem as real as a documentary.

Other films that created a political buzz included “The Last King of Scotland,” in which Forest Whitaker is being hailed for his portrayal of Idi Amin, the ruthless ruler of Uganda, and “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” depicting efforts to deport him in retribution for his outspoken opposition to Vietnam War.

A political film of a different, very entertaining sort is Barbara Kopple’s documentary, “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing.” The lively work, a Weinstein Company release, chronicles the lives and careers of the singing group who ran afoul of right wingers in America when lead singer Natalie Maines told an audience in England that she was ashamed to be from Texas because of President Bush. She had no idea of the trouble the statement would cause, as country music stations subsequently refused to play their music in response to a campaign of public pressure.

As a result, there were death threats when the group performed in Texas and police protection had to be called upon. But the episode, while taking a financial toll, opened the opportunity for fans to hail the singers’ stand and the group also broadened its repertoire to go beyond dependence on country audiences. Kopple’s portrait of the Dixie Chicks is fascinating and stirring.

British director Ken Loach has come through with yet another powerful film, “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.” harking back to Irish resistance to England in an emotionally grabbing story that focuses on one town and its resisting inhabitants who fight for freedom only to see their position compromised, with painful results for those who want to stick to their guns and principles. Loach makes the film extremely realistic, with excellent performances all around, and a lyrical tone alongside of the inevitable bloodshed.

(More to come)


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