Powerful films progressives will want to see

Progressive Cinema: Toronto International Film Festival 2009, Part 4

Among the more than 350 films shown this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, several are of importance to a progressive audience. In addition to titles mentioned in previous columns (“The Time That Remains, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “The Informant!” “Men Who Stare at Goats” and others), the following are just a few of the many at the festival that draw interest for progressive filmgoers.

Of course one of the most famous political activists in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, receives his very own personal documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” This is the tag Richard Nixon affixed on Ellsberg when he exposed the Pentagon Papers. The film recounts the events in detail and is a thoroughly engrossing account of how Ellsberg enlisted his friends (and son) to photocopy thousands of pages of classified Pentagon documents. His actions certainly shortened the war in Vietnam and Ellsberg went on to support antiwar causes to this day. He and his wife, Patricia, received a five-minute standing ovation from the sold-out Canadian showing.

Another likely box office hit shown in Toronto was “Creation,” a British drama centered around the time in Charles Darwin’s life when his 10-year-old daughter died of a tragic illness. Darwin and his God-fearing wife, played by real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, struggle with differences around religion, at a time when Charles is writing his “Origin of the Species” and developing a more secular humanist approach. The plot centers mostly around his struggle writing while his daughter is suffering from her illness. Friends and associates encourage him to continue writing what they feel will be a groundbreaking study of evolution. It changed the world. The acting, sets and music are stunning, and you can certainly say it’s the best drama ever made about Charles Darwin. There are no others.

A Chinese film, “City of Life and Death,” deals with the relatively unknown 1937 Japanese attack on the then Chinese capital, Nanking. It is controversial in that Japan denies the death toll count of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the reported rape of 20,000-80,000 women during the surprise attack and six-week-long brutal occupation. The black and white Chinese production is awesome and epic in scope, utilizing thousands of extras and extensive special effects. The acting, sets and music are of topnotch quality, far surpassing, as the recent Chinese Olympic festivities showed, audience expectations. An amazing antiwar film! (See mediaasia.com/cld/eng.)

Another historical drama, “The Front Line,” examines the Italian extreme left terrorist group that formed in the ’70s patterned after the Red Brigade but more violent and extreme. What starts out as idealist youth angered by corporate power and exploitation leads to bombings and assassinations, and an eventual and tragic disconnect with the masses they felt they were fighting for. The film follows the core leaders and their advancing destructive tactics which led to imprisonment for all of them that survived. The film separates itself from others by its compassion for all the subjects on both sides of the struggle. There is a real attempt to understand motivation, responsibility and commitment to a cause. The non-stop action and growing tension among the members of the failing faction make the film engrossing and rewarding cinematic fare.

And one more well known historical event is addressed in the film “Jean Charles.” After the 2005 London subway bombings, a young Brazilian man was tracked down and shot as a suspect in the alleged terrorist plot. The film follows his arrival in London and experiences in finding employment and housing. Jean Charles became well liked in his community and was just making headway when he was fatally shot by the police. The rest of the film follows his friend’s attempts to prove his innocence and find consolation for his Brazilian family.

Another of the many titles that warrant viewing is “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” by Marc Levin, director of “CIA: America’s Secret Warriors” and “Slam.” “Schmatta” beautifully tells the story of the New York garment industry and the workers and unions that kept it going. Loaded with political awareness, the film is a testament to the working class and its rich history.

And finally, to briefly mention a few more films that should be of interest to progressive viewers: “Max Manus,” the epic adventure film about the famed Norwegian World War II resistance fighter; “Moloch Tropical,” a Haitian allegory on the abuse of power, by Raoul Peck (who also did “Lumumba”); and “Balibo,” which relates the chilling murder of five Australian journalists during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.

Photo: Rape victims in “City of Life and Death.”



Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.