Progressive cinema at 2006 Toronto film fest

1491.jpgTORONTO — Many consider the Toronto International Film Festival one of the greatest film events of the Western Hemisphere, certainly the most viewer-friendly. Toronto is hosting over 350 films from 60 countries. Some 250 are feature film premieres categorized under the headings of “The Masters,” “Real to Reel,” “Midnight Madness” and others.

Films are projected digitally in state-of-the-art theaters, providing clarity and immediacy to screen images. Most filmmakers and cast attend the openings, offering viewers an educational experience and involvement.

Issues like the war on terrorism, torture, military occupation and the devastating effects of globalization are major themes this year, mostly from a progressive point of view. The New York Times coyly suggested that American conservatives concerned about the left should pay attention to the anti-Bush and antiwar films being screened north of the U.S. border.

At least 60 films would interest progressive viewers. Some have already been released in the U.S. like “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” Spike Lee’s epic HBO production, and “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” which opened in theaters Sept. 29.

The biggest buzz this year was “Death of a President,” based on the fictional assassination of George W. Bush. It was picked up by a distributor and will be released in American theaters this fall. The movie, by British director Gabriel Range, won the Fipresci award, the most prestigious prize at the festival, granted by a jury of international film critics.

Another prizewinner was “Dixie Chicks — Shut Up and Sing,” by Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple. It was a festival favorite as well as runner-up for the People’s Choice Award.

Other films focused on American politics, such as “Bobby,” directed by Emilio Estevez, a re-creation of the last hours of Robert Kennedy and his appearance at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968. Another was “So Goes the Nation,” referring to the pivotal role Ohio voters played in the 2004 national elections.

World politics took center stage in several documentaries. “Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution” chronicles the world-shaking events of Iran through the eyes of several filmmakers. “My Life as a Terrorist: The Story of Hans-Joachim Klein” describes the harrowing experience of a former member of a German terrorist ring during the 1970s.

Another film focuses on Iraqi journalist Yunis Abbas, who was wrongfully imprisoned for nine months in Abu Ghraib. A film from Mali portrays the destructive impact of World Bank policies on Third World countries.

Several Cannes Film Festival winners also were screened in Toronto, including best film award winner “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” directed by British working-class champion Ken Loach, about the beginnings of the IRA in Ireland. “Indigenes,” whose male actors collectively won best actors at Cannes, honored North Africans who fought for France in World War II.

Michael Moore presented clips from his upcoming films, “Sicko,” which exposes the health care crisis in the U.S., and “The Great ’04 Slacker Uprising,” about youth activism in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. A new film about the abortion debate, a work 20 years in in the making, profiles proponents of both sides of the issue.

Historical themes highlighted the Spanish Civil War, the Algerian War, the Middle East, the Cuban Revolution, the occupation of Palestine, the Bosnian war, South African apartheid, the Jewish Holocaust and the Afghan war.

There’s more: a scathing parody about former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi by Italian director Nanni Moretti; an expose of Iran’s drug culture; several films about the realities of modern day China, including Gianni Amelio’s “The Missing Star”; a profile of an elderly Kurdish oud player; and two profiles of musicians in Mexico.

The Toronto festival is a feast every year for those seeking meaningful film fare — intelligent, humanistic documentaries of the world’s people. Unfortunately, many of the films may never see the darkness of an American movie house. Cable television, DVDs and independent film theaters will be the best source for many of these extremely relevant films.

I plan to review some of the films mentioned above, and others, in upcoming columns.