Among the new American narrative films stirring talk at the Toronto International Film Festival on 9/11 are two high-profile, provocative independent titles — backed by powerhouse producers — that have secured U.S. distribution today here at the festival: Alan Ball‘s “Nothing is Private” and Tom McCarthy‘s “The Visitor.” Ball’s “Six Feet Under” fame stirred anticipation for his feature directing debut and McCarthy’s success with 2003’s “The Station Agent” created substantial interest in his new movie. Tonight (Tuesday) in Canada, Warner Independent Pictures closed a deal for Ball’s “Private” (adding that they are in final negotiations to partner with Netflix‘s Red Envelope Entertainment on a deal that includes North American rights and multiple other territories). Meanwhile, early this morning, McCarthy’s film scored a North American pact with new distribution outfit, Overture Films.
“The tenor of the work coming particularly from the U.S. is fiercely political, aesthetically challenging, and will probably go down as a real beginning of a real golden age for American cinema in a time of war and strife,” predicted TIFF co-director Noah Cowan when he chatted with indieWIRE prior to this year’s festival. Citing Ball’s “Private” and McCarthy’s “Visitor,” Cowan anticipated, “a lot of soul-searching and a lot of extremely gifted, overwhelmingly passionate cinema in the festival this year.” Cowan also noted, “These are filmmakers who are out to transform the way we see the world, they are out to make a difference.”
“Nothing Is Private”: Race, Ethnicity and Coming-of-Age
Introduced by Noah Cowan as “a playful provocateur,” “Nothing is Private” director Alan Ball has created a new film that has prodded audiences in Toronto. The main characters are Jasira, a young Arab-American teenaged girl (Summer Bishil) and her strict, uptight Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi) living in suburban Texas at the time of the first U.S. invasion of Iraq. Based on Alicia Erian‘s novel “Towelhead,” the film is a coming-of-age story that follows young Jasira’s sexual awakening in the arms of an African-American kid at school and at the hands of racist military reservist neighbor who sexually assaults her.
Noting that he was struck by the complexity, heart, and humanity of Erian’s book, Alan Ball said Tuesday during a festival Q & A that he viewed the character of Jasira as heroic, rather than being in a player in a story about the “fetishization of victimhood.” (And, he added, any similarities to his script for Sam Mendes‘ 1999 film “American Beauty” were purely unintentional.)
For many months after the movie was announced by producer Ted Hope and sales company Celluloid Dreams, it was known vaguely as the “Untitled Alan Ball Project” (it was also produced by Steven Rales and Ball). In adapting Erian’s “Towelhead” for the big screen, Ball said that he decided to change the film’s title not only because the term is an offensive slur against those of Middle Eastern descent, but also because using that title makes the story more specifically about race and ethnicity. “I feel like this movis is about a lot more than that,” Ball explained, adding, “Its about a universal coming-of-age moment in a young person’s life,” Ball emphasized.
Pressed about whether Jasira would have been violated by the racist neighbor had it not been for her ethnicity, Ball responded, “I don’t mean the movie is not about her ethnicity, I mean its not just about her ethnicity.” He continued, “I certainly think that her exotic beauty and the easy way it is for all the characters to characterize her as other…I think it was probably a litte bit easier for him to do what he did and had it been a young blond, blue-eyed American girl I think he never would have seen himself going there…”
Expressing excitement over working with Ball on his feature directorial debut in a statement tonight, WIP president Polly Cohen called “Nothing Is Private” a film that is, “provocative, warm-hearted and is sure to create a lot of discussion as his past work on ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Six Feet Under’ has.”
“The Visitor”: Creating Characters, Exploring Immigration
Richard Jenkins shines in Tom McCarthy’s story of a solitary Connecticut college professor drawn into an immigration drama facing a trio of undocumented Americans in New York City. While primarily an examination of the four distinct individuals, McCarthy’s film is also a striking examination of post 9/11 immigration issues. Backed by Participant Productions and Michael London‘s Groundswell Productions, McCarthy told indieWIRE that he took a journalistic approach when developing the movie, visiting American detention centers, including one just minutes outside the city in Elizabeth, NJ. A self-described “political and social wonk.” he admitted, “With everything going on in the world, it was hard for me to detach and just go make a character movie.”
In the film, Jenkin’s middle-aged widower develops a brighter outlook on life after he connects with a Syrian musician. Once the Middle Eastern man is profiled and detained by undercover officials, he is sent to a mysterious Queens detention center where the two people he is closest to, his mother and his girlfriend — both immigrants — can’t visit him. The college professor is the only link back to his family.
“I never wanted it to be an issue movie,” noted McCarthy during Monday’s conversation with indieWIRE, who explained that he worked on mutiple revisions to his script so that the story would not be too obvious or one-sided. “I wanted to stand back and not look at this as an issue or legislation, but instead with a humanistic approach.” Continuing, McCarthy said, “Its a character story first, thats what I do best.”
Citing the film’s “powerful characters, timely subject matter, and intelligent direction,” Overture CEO Chris McGurk and COO Danny Rosett praised McCarthy and producers Michael London and Mary Jane Skalski, adding in the statement, “We look forward to bringing this film to the public with the care and attention it merits.” The company has yet to set a release date for the movie.
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