SPECIAL REPORT

THE SACRED AND PROFANE

Brian D. Johnson September 8 1997
SPECIAL REPORT

THE SACRED AND PROFANE

Brian D. Johnson September 8 1997

THE SACRED AND PROFANE

SPECIAL REPORT

It opens with an intimate Canadian movie shot in the mountains of British Columbia, and closes with a grand Hollywood epic set in the mountains of Tibet. In between is a kaleidoscope of cinema that spins from backstage Broadway to backwoods Bulgaria, from the dance floors of South Miami to the sniper alleys of Sarajevo. This week, the 22nd annual Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 4 to 13)—the largest event of its kind in North America—puts on the glitz. Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, which opens the festival, and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet, which ends it 10 days later with a promise of Brad Pitt in the flesh, are worlds apart. But they represent the split personality of a festival that, like its counterpart in Cannes, has learned to reconcile the sacred and profane extremes of cinema, the high art and the celebrity voyeurism.

The festival, which offers 281 films from 58 countries, generates a feeding frenzy among Toronto film buffs. When its downtown box office opened last Friday, a two-hour lineup of pass-holders anxious to reserve tickets stretched for several blocks. The féstival has also become an industry mecca, a schmooze-fest for producers, distributors, agents and actors. Some of the stars expected to show up this year, aside from Pitt: Anthony Hopkins, Robert Duvall, Jeremy Irons, Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Danny De Vito, Donald Suther-

land, Steve Martin, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Kevin Spacey, Claudia Schiffer, Robin Wright, Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson, Elle Macpherson and Farrah Fawcett.

There is always a danger, of course, that small films with undiscovered talents can get lost in the celebrity glare. And festival director Piers Handling admits he gets frustrated by the attention the media lavishes on visiting stars. But the Hollywood show of force delights the sponsors and helps subsidize the festival’s less commercial fare, such as the African and Latin American programs. Besides, adds Handling, “there are so many stars who want to come. Joni Mitchell, who only did the music for a film [Loved], wants to come. Carol Burnett [featured in the documentary Moon over Broadway] wants to come. What are we going to say—don’t come?”

Handling insists that the festival’s real stars are still the films. And this year’s lineup looks seductive. When you throw together several hundred new films from around the world, it is like sampling the Zeitgeist. Whether by serendipity or design, some striking patterns emerge. In fact, the opening and closing night movies—The Sweet Hereafter and Seven Years in Tibet—happen to represent two prominent trends in this year’s crop: both stories focus on children, and both are adapted from novels.

The issue of trust between adults and children crops up again and

again—in films haunted by a yearning sense of parental responsibility towards children shining with innocence and wisdom. In The Sweet Hereafter, a teenage girl (Sarah Polley) is jarred out of an incestuous relationship with her father. Seven Years in Tibet focuses on an 11-year-old Dalai Lama Qamyang Wangchuk) who learns the ways of the world from an Austrian climber (Pitt). And in The Mirror, Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s sequel to his impressive debut, The White Balloon, a young girl gets lost in the street among insensitive adults. But British director Charles Sturridge offers the strangest glimpse into a child’s imagination with Fairytale—A True Story, based on the 1917 controversy over two English girls who produced snapshots of fairies in a summer garden that photographic experts could not dispute. Peter O’Toole plays Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who

Toronto's festival gets stars, big movies and cinematic curiosities

jumps to the children’s defence, while Harvey Keitel plays escape artist Harry Houdini, who condemns their claim as a fraud.

Children also figure heavily in a number of films set in the Balkan states. In Exile in Sarajevo, an impassioned documentary, Australian actor Tahir Cambis returns to the Bosnian capital—where his mother was born—and films an emotional portrait of the embattled city that focuses on two young girls. On a more lavish scale, British director Michael Winterbottom’s harrowing Welcome to Sarajevo tells the true story of a journalist trying to smuggle a child out of Bosnia. The film presents a suspenseful, heartrending blitz of on-location drama, documentary footage and TV news clips, with the Rolling Stones on the sound track and an eclectic cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei and Stephen Dillane. The Perfect Circle tells a similar story of rescuing Sarajevo children. It is a more humble film, a Bosnian-made drama that was actually shot during the war. But in both movies, devastating panoramas of Sarajevo’s bombed-out wasteland make the city the central character.

Perfect Circle is one of 17 films in a special festival program on indigenous Balkan cinema. A number of them touch on the war, and once again children are everywhere. In Felix, a school bus filled with classmates on a field trip gets trapped between two army barricades on a high mountain road in Slovenia. Bosnia’s Awkward Age, which

was smuggled out of the country during the war, depicts a group of students whose pranks get them into trouble on the eve of the Second World War. And in the whimsical Thalassa, Thalassa, Return to the Sea, a ragamuffin band of Bulgarian peasant children commandeers an abandoned white Jaguar convertible and drives it to the coast While the Balkan films shed fresh light on a part of the world usually seen only through news clips, there is also a surprising number of movies that illuminate the literary landscape. Most are period films. Literary adaptations include two versions of Henry James novels about inappropriate romance: Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square, with Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Iain Softley’s Wings of the Dove, featuring Helena Bonham Carter. Bonham Carter also stars in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, based on George Orwell’s gently satirical love story about an aspiring poet and a woman in advertising. Dutch director Marleen Gorris follows up her Oscar-winning hit, Antonia’s Line, with an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Bringing to life yet another literary heroine, Britain’s Beeban Kidron directs Swept from the Sea, based on “Amy Foster,” Joseph Conrad’s short story about a servant’s tragic romance with a shipwrecked sailor.

In a more contemporary vein, there are two film adaptations set against the horrors of 20th-century war. Regeneration, a powerful drama based on Pat Barker’s acclaimed novel, features Jonathan Pryce as a psychiatrist dealing with shell-shocked soldiers on leave from the trenches of the First World War. And Spain’s Mañuel Lombardero makes his feature debut with a new twist on Stephen Vizinczey’s novel In Praise of Older Women, setting the love story against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War Despite the large number of feature debuts—47 of the festival’s 233 films are from first-time directors—the program also includes new work by some established stars of American independent cinema. Following the success of last year’s Lone Star, John Sayles unloads Men with Guns. Lone Star was a modern western set on the U.S.-Mexican border. Crossing that frontier, his new movie is set in Mexico: shot entirely in Spanish, it tells a Heart of Darkness tale of a doctor travelling into Indian country. Jim Jarmusch weighs in with Year of the Horse, a rough-hewn documentary on rocker Neil Young’s 1996 tour. Other documentary directors include Michael Moore (Roger and Me), who returns with Big One, a chronicle of his iconoclastic tour to promote his book Downsize This! And Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line), presents a gallery of eccentrics in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

While the festival showcases films from around the world—many of which may never receive commercial distribution—it also serves as the year’s most important venue for new Canadian movies. The 21 features in the Perspective Canada program are wildly diverse. But there is a bizarre coincidence. In both The Hanging Garden, a compelling first feature by Halifax director Thom Fitzgerald, and The Planet of Junior Brown, a sensitive urban parable by Toronto’s Clement Virgo (Rude), the main character is a 350-lb. teenage boy. In another coincidence, Toronto director Kari Skogland has made a brutal little action movie called Men with Guns, just like the Sayles movie. Perhaps she should think of a new title: even though the Toronto festival goes out of its way to celebrate undiscovered talent, and Canadian cinema, sometimes it makes sense to defer to a master.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON