Amidst the frivolity of parties, red carpets, dinners and flashing cameras, the Toronto International Film Festival displayed its serious side today (Monday), ahead of the sixth anniversary of 9/11, with a visit from the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. The Carters were on hand to talk about Jonathan Demme’s new doc, “ Jimmy Carter Man from Plains” — a triple award-winner at the recent Venice Film Festival this weekend — that follows Carter during the period after last year’s publishing of one of his most controversial books, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”
With a mix of personal and private footage, from TV interviews to heated debates on his book tour, Carter confronts journalists and detractors while promoting his New York Times bestseller. And on Monday, the former U.S. President offered his own take on the situation.
Later, President Carter also lamented the lack of a U.S. initiative in trying to broker a peace between the two sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said that the situation, and the war in Iraq, are contributing to a free-fall in world public opinion against the U.S.
“I fervently support Israel’s security, but it’s counterproductive for them to persecute the Palestinians,” summarized Carter in Toronto. “I’ve been both surprised and nauseated by Israel’s encroachment [in the West Bank.]” The former President has weathered criticism of Palestinian favoritism and even anti-Semitism since the book was published, but Carter — who brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt — was emphatic on his support for Israel and peace, but said the country’s security wall has essentially taken Palestinian land and is a source for further conflict.
As for committing to the Demme doc in the first place, Carter agreed to support the Participant Productions project, under one condition. “I told the [producers] that if it’s possible to get the best director in the world to make the film, then I’d do it,” he quipped during Monday’s onstage interview organized by TIFF. However, his wife Rosalynn was hesitant at the concept inititally, explaining that she eventually came around, “we saw it for the first time and I liked it… I loved the film, but of course I would have liked to see more of the Carter Center in the film.”
Founded by President Carter following what he calls his “forced retirement” after being defeated for re-election by Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Atlanta-based Carter Center works to promote democracy around the world in addition to combating disease amongst the world’s poor. Carter said the center has programs in 70 countries and its work garnered the former U.S. commander-in-chief the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It’s a good life,” reflected the 82 year old Carter. “Instead of doing the lecture circuit and accumulating more money in the bank, we try to make other people’s lives better,” Carter told the large assembled crowd who gave him and Mrs. Carter a rapturous standing ovation after they arrived on stage.
“I thought we’d go back to Plains, Georgia and be bored,” said Mrs. Carter who admitted that her husband’s defeat 27 years ago was “very hard,” but their work with the Carter Center has, in her words, “allowed us to continue working on the things we care about.”
Finally, during the conversation, Carter also referred to his strong Christian beliefs but said he strongly supports a separation of church and state, which he said has been blurred in recent history, though he thinks that tide may be changing. The former President also took a shot at the right wing in America who have wrapped themselves in the flag and a sense of moral ownership. “Jesus Christ is a prince of peace, not a god of preemptive war,” he said to wild applause. [Brian Brooks]
Arthur Dong Takes on Chinese portrayals in Hollywood
Arthur Dong, director of the award-winning documentaries “Licensed To Kill” and “Family Fundamentals,” is premiering his latest, “Hollywood Chinese,” in Toronto. A wide variety of actors and directors, including Ang Lee, Joan Chen and James Hong, participate as Dong tells the overwhelming story of over a hundred years of Chinese representation in Hollywood. “We didn’t have daycare in Chinatown [in San Francisco] at that time, so I was brought up on films,” Dong told indieWIRE. “I’ve been doing this all my life.” Dong would frequent revival houses that played Hollywood classics and “was just enthralled by the idea that you could see images made decades before you were born.” “It’s living through history,” Dong said. “So on a grander scale, that is where this film started.”
“Chinese” includes the story of Marion Wong, the pioneering Chinese (and female) director of 1916’s “The Curse of Quon Gwon” and the rise of the first Chinese Hollywood starlet, Nancy Kwan. The interviewees analyze and discuss their personal experiences with the films Dong presents, though not everyone participated that Dong intended. “There were divas,” Dong laughs. “They are not in the film, put it that way… But the people I did work with were just wonderful.” Including Kwan, who will also join Dong later this week to introduce a special screening of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Flower Drum Song” (a focal point in “Hollywood Chinese.”)
Technically the project began in 1997. Dong was wrapping up “Kill” and thinking about his next project. “That’s when this project started, in terms of thinking,” said Dong. “I started writing for grants. I really had no money.” Then when Dong finished his next film, “Family Fundamentals,” in 2002, he had made three consecutive films about controversial queer issues (gays in the military, gay-bashing murder, Christian fundamental queer children). “I was really drained,” Dong said. “These were not easy issues.” Around 2003, he got his first funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the project was set in motion. Dong confessed the project ended up costing a lot less than he thought it would. With over ninety films and lots of music, he figured the rights would put him out at least a couple million dollars. But the fair use doctrine, part of copyright laws that allows filmmakers to use excerpts from copyrighted works, saved Dong a fair bit of the budget. “This has been in place for a long time but documentary filmmakers haven’t taken advantage of it because of fear of lawsuits,” Dong said. “It’s very subjective and ambiguous.” But luckily when Dong’s lawyer saw the first cut of the film he said it would be no problem.
As for the film’s eventual release, Dong is still unsure. “I’ve done my own distribution [in the past],” he said. “But I’m not sure if I want to do that with this film.” The most important thing is getting it out there. “I made this film not just for a Chinese audience but for film lovers,” he explains. “And I think there are a lot of them out there. I’m not sure what’s going to happen but theatrical distribition is something I envision.” [Peter Knegt]
indieWIRE’s coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival is available anytime in special section here at indieWIRE.com.