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The Toronto film festival is traditionally held in early September, about a month before the festival here, and in the 20-odd years I’ve been attending I’ve never been so aware of the ideological gulf between Canada and the U.S. as I was this year. It was evident on-screen, in, for example, the pointed comparisons between the two countries in one of the best films there, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which takes up issues such as why people shoot one another, keep their doors locked or unlocked, and (more implicitly) do or don’t have national health care. It was also apparent offscreen, in the frequent anti-American slant of headlines and stories in Toronto newspapers. And it was visible in the feuding between a couple of high-profile American reviewers, Roger Ebert and Variety’s Todd McCarthy, who both expressed anger about not getting into certain press and industry screenings, and several members of the local press, who called the two spoiled and arrogant for making such a fuss.

Some of the tension was a symptom of war nerves, and it sharpened national stereotypes, making Americans seem pushier than they often are and Canadians meeker, in their willingness to queue up and behave and be more egalitarian. I suspect paranoia about America’s war fever is causing similar polarizations in other parts of the world. That’s unfortunate, given that this country now desperately needs to be more in touch with the world and the many people in other countries who fear World War III could be set off by a preemptive American attack on Iraq.

From this point of view, film festivals are important events, in that they can blow fresh air into an environment where only one limited reading of September 11, ecological policy, or foreign diplomacy is allowed to be called patriotic. Certainly this was true of the most popular of the press and industry screenings I attended in Toronto, held on the evening of September 10 (one had to stand in line at least 40 minutes). This was the most important single event I attended at the festival. It wasn’t the best film I saw, though in many ways it was the most moving: a French-financed collection of 11 shorts from around the world–a miniature film festival in itself–called 11’09″01. It was important not just as an indication of the opinions of an extremely varied batch of artists–Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Alejandro Gonzalez IƱarritu, Shohei Imamura, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mira Nair, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Sean Penn, and Danis Tanovic–but as an emotionally cohesive experience.

Sadly, most Americans are being denied this experience, because the film won’t be released in this country anytime soon. One reason it won’t be is the bullying of a vocal minority. A characteristic, unsigned editorial in the August 24 New York Post, headlined “A French Obscenity,” was written by someone who obviously hadn’t seen the film but nonetheless concluded that some of the filmmakers, because they disagreed with certain American positions, supported the September 11 terrorists. Here’s a sample sentence: “There is something truly disgusting about commemorating the mass murder of nearly 3,000 people (and the attempted mass murder of 25,000 more) by giving voice to filmmakers who in varying degrees admire the murderers themselves.” Of course not one of the 11 episodes warrants this absurd accusation; clearly the writer simply resents all the people who view the world a little differently than George W. Bush and his team. (At his press conference, Michael Moore responded to a query about “Islamic terrorists” by observing that he found “millionaire terrorists” a more appropriate term.)

By the time I saw 11’09″01, only a few days after its world premiere in Venice (where all the profits were to go to the welfare organization Handicap International), it had already been sold to 15 countries. Its coproducer Nicolas Mauvernay tactfully noted that it couldn’t be released here for a while because “Americans are in mourning”–presumably a reference to the bullies, not to those of us who prefer to mourn and think at the same time. As a consequence, many of us won’t be able to see this movie when we need to the most.

Imamura doesn’t even mention September 11, devoting his episode–the last in the film–to a former World War II soldier who crawls around on the ground after the destruction of Hiroshima thinking he’s a snake. The film’s final statement is: “There’s no such thing as a holy war.” (Which might also apply to Bush’s “crusade” and to Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran, which the U.S. supported.) Maybe the objections are to the Chahine and Loach episodes, which are probably the most anti-American. I find Chahine’s the weakest of all the segments, because it’s so scattershot, and Loach’s the strongest, because it’s so intelligently focused–undoubtedly the reason it won a critics’ prize in Venice. Loach’s segment takes as its subject a letter by a Chilean friend of his that’s addressed to relatives of the people killed last year on September 11. In it he recalls the coup of September 11, 1973, that led to the CIA-backed torture and murder of 30,000 of his countrymen and concludes, “On September 11 we will remember you. I hope you’ll remember us.” This isn’t diminishing the 3,000 American deaths, and it isn’t “admiring” the perpetrators, though it does suggest that we ought to think about both crimes.

Some episodes approach the September 11 tragedy through other recent massacres– Gitai’s through massacres in Israel, Tanovic’s through ones in Bosnia. Some come at it through the difficulty Afghan or African children have comprehending it (Makhmalbaf and Ouedraogo). Still others look at the difficulty some Americans or Europeans in America have had grasping aspects of what happened (Lelouch, Nair, and Penn), though the sheer visceral horror of the event is rendered most powerfully in the only experimental segment, by Mexican filmmaker Gonzalez Inarritu.

The point, in any case, is that all these diverse filmmakers and all the diverse viewers of 11’09″01 are allowed to define their responses, whether well or badly, as members of a single global community. We in Chicago may not be able to see this film, but by attending the Chicago International Film Festival we can establish other links to that community.

Films are often seen as art or entertainment, but it’s just as important to see them as windows on other parts of the world, as sources of truth and revelation. The best films of course tend to be all of these things, and since most mainstream films aren’t, this is a chance to see what else is around. The most interesting aspect of Samira Makhmalbaf’s 11’09″01 episode is the meaninglessness of terms like “September 11” or even “America” to small children in an Afghan refugee camp outside Tehran, who won’t even observe the moment of commemorative silence requested by their teacher. (When she tells them September 11 might lead to World War III, that term seems equally abstract to them.) In the longer and somewhat less provocative documentary by Makhmalbaf’s father showing at the festival, Afghan Alphabet, about Afghan refugee children in a village near the Iranian border, the passion of these kids for education is a lesson in itself.

Having seen only a dozen of this year’s 99 programs, I can’t make many generalizations about the selections, except to note that, as usual, the difference between what this festival wants to show and what it’s able to get is substantial. The reasons often have as much to do with the industry’s opinion of Chicago as with the festival’s clout. Sometimes we’re at an advantage: most Chicago critics don’t have publicists breathing down their necks as often as critics in New York and Los Angeles do, which theoretically means that they can operate more independently of industry pressures. But more often we’re at a disadvantage, because we frequently can’t see important films early on. In addition, the festival lacks resources, which means it can’t acquire some of the films it wants. (The loss over the past few years of such skillful programmers as Marc Evans and Jim Healy, who now works for Rochester’s George Eastman House, is also symptomatic.)

Of course sometimes it doesn’t matter where the festival is. For my festival critic’s choice I proposed four possibilities: Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (one program), Leo McCarey’s My Son John, Lewis Milestone’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, and Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera–all old films, with the exception of the Suzuki. The festival organizers were able to track down the Lang films, but not good prints that were also subtitled. They discovered that Pistol Opera had acquired a small U.S. distributor (one of the best pieces of news I’ve heard all year), but that prints wouldn’t be available here for another few months. And they couldn’t track down any print of My Son John. So they settled on Hallelujah, I’m a Bum–a wonderful and scandalously neglected film, but one that’s already available on DVD.

Of the 30 films I saw in Toronto, the best dozen that won’t be showing at the Chicago festival are Abbas Kiarostami’s 10, 11’09″01, Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours, Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls, Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, Claire Denis’ Friday Night, Michael Almereyda’s Happy Here and Now, Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s The Son, and David Cronenberg’s Spider. With the possible exception of the second, all of these are bound to turn up here sooner or later (the English-language items will probably appear this year), so the fact that they’re not in the Chicago festival is a minor issue.

More important is that a good many films on the program will never show here again, though I can’t predict exactly which ones. My own list of the films I most want to see, based on the accounts of colleagues that I trust, includes Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing, Pablo Trapero’s El bonaerense, Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon, Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, Gyorgy Palfi’s Hukkle, Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past, Otar Iosseliani’s Monday Morning, Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, Bertrand Tavernier’s Safe Conduct, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town, and Ted Wilde’s Speedy (Harold Lloyd’s last silent film), and of those, I want most to see the Iosseliani, Suleiman, and Tian. My favorites among the films I have seen, in roughly descending order, are Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Milestone’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, Sokurov’s Russian Ark, Jia Zhang-ke’s Unknown Pleasures, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Uncertainty Principle, Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, Alexander Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Afghan Alphabet.

I don’t wish to imply that attending the Chicago Film Festival is the only way one can keep abreast of the best in contemporary cinema, much less the most important works from the past. The same weekend that this year’s festival starts you can also see at Facets Cinematheque the best film I’ve seen all year, Michael Snow’s *Corpus Callosum, a magnum opus by one of North America’s major experimental filmmakers. And around the time the festival closes, Facets will start a weeklong retrospective devoted to one of the greatest and most neglected French filmmakers, Jean Gremillon, whose films are virtually impossible to see here. Nevertheless, the festival is offering this town a treasure trove over the next couple of weeks, an opportunity to be celebrated.

Screenings this year are being held through October 17 at the Chicago Theatre (175 N. State), Landmark’s Century Centre (2828 N. Clark), and the Music Box (3733 N. Southport), followed by two special screenings of Speedy at the Gateway Theatre (5216 W. Lawrence) on October 18. Single ticket prices are $6 for weekday matinees (Monday through Friday before 5 PM); $7 for weekend matinees (Saturday and Sunday before 5 PM); $10 for all shows after 5 PM, $8 for Cinema/Chicago members. Passes for everything but opening night, closing night, awards night, critic’s choice programs, and special presentations are also available, good for up to two tickets per screening; they cost $50 (six tickets, seven for Cinema/Chicago members), $110 (16 tickets, 18 for Cinema/Chicago members), or $250 (50 tickets). The special presentations, which include critic’s choice programs, are $15, $13 for Cinema/Chicago members. Tickets can be purchased at theater box offices at least one hour before the screening; they can also be ordered by mail (Cinema/Chicago, 32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601), by fax (312-425-0944), or by phone (312-332-3456; Ticketmaster, 312-902-1500). For more information call 312-332-3456.

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