European Directors, Telling Tough Stories in Tense Times
by Brian Brooks
Dozens showed up Monday morning at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto for the 7th annual directors' event sponsored by European Film Promotion. Straight-away, the moderator opened the discussion with the list of subjects that the six other participants would not discuss. "We're not going to talk about budgets, and we're not going to complain about the American studio system," said Ian Birnie, director of the film department at LACMA, and programmer of the Bangkok International Film Festival, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
In previous years, this panel has devolved into an anti-Hollywood bitch session, but the conversation Monday mostly dealt with the topic of storytelling and issues related to censorship. 9/11 also was a consistent theme as a few of the directors said the attacks had influenced their films. British director Sally Potter said she began writing her feature "Yes," which is screening as a special presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival, on September 12, 2001 as a response to what she described as the "demonization of the Middle East." Her film centers on an unlikely affair between an American-raised woman played by Joan Allen and a Lebanese gentleman played by Simon Abkarian.
Belgian director Erik Van Looy's "The Alzheimer Case," about an aging hit-man who is beset with Alzheimer's and refuses to carry out a hit on a thirteen year-old girl. When the hit is carried out, he seeks revenge and discovers a web of child prostitution and a political establishment that wants to ignore the crime. Looy said his film is not a "political movie," but that the tone of it was also influenced by 9/11. Child mistreatment is also a theme in German director Florian Gallenberger's "Shadows of Time." Gallenberger said he heard a radio interview with an Indian girl who had been saved from hard labor and her story struck him. "Her voice was so fragile, it moved me," said Gallenberger.
French director Catherine Breillat, speaking through an interpreter, said the discovery of sexuality was the premise of her film, "Anatomy of Hell." Birnie said Breillat's film was probably the "most challenging" of the work represented on the panel because of its explicit depictions. Breillat, however, questioned the terminology. "As an artist, why can I film a scene in a café and it can be considered art, but cannot do a close-up of someone's sexual organs. The question of censorship is something I have to deal with as an artist."
Danish director Susanne Bier's "Brothers" said her film was written prior to 9/11 and shot afterward. The film centers on two brothers, whose tepid relationship is rocked after one is sent to Afghanistan as part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission and his helicopter is shot down. "Originally, I envisioned it as a comedy," said Bier. Van Looy summed up the current crop of films at the moment saying, "It's hard to show shiny happy people in film in a post- 9/11 world. He related films in the 1970s in the United States following the Watergate scandal as an analogous period in which films like "Chinatown" depicted a cynical point-of-view with institutions and government in particular.
On a positive note, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker offered a bit of hope for international directors hoping to have U.S. theatrical distribution. Barker, sitting in the audience, said the success of films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Good Bye Lenin!" (both Sony Classics releases) and "Amelie" (Miramax) ushered in a growing acceptance of non-English language film in America, especially with the younger generation, which Barker said is much more willing to see subtitles.
"We had email from kids after seeing 'Crouching Tiger,' and they said subtitles were cool," said Barker, adding that there is "no better time to show foreign-language films in the U.S. than now."