TORONTO—Proudly international yet wildly local, the world’s most all-inclusive film festival is obliged to open with a Canadian feature. None have been more echt Canadian than this year’s curtain-raiser, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, Zacharias Kunuk’s sophomore follow-up to his sensational Fast Runner. Too echt, perhaps.
Co-directed with Norman Cohn, Journals‘ leisurely immersion in the minutiae of Inuit life is far more demanding than Fast Runner—the action is largely philosophical until, in the final 40 minutes, the Inuit are starved into religious conversion. The response was polite. Was it OK to applaud, too late to apologize? Adding insult to injury, Pope Benedict the next day accused socially liberal Canada of “excluding God from the public sphere.”
A less wealthy and more openly adoring audience gathered in the elegant Elgin movie palace for the world premiere of Guy Maddin’s new silent film Brand Upon the Brain!, complete with 19-piece orchestra, lab-coat-clad Foley crew, and festival director Piers Handling’s ironic mea culpa for snubbing the Winnipeg whippersnapper’s first feature. By no means Maddin’s nuttiest film, Brain! is nevertheless a convoluted, super-Strindbergian mélange of gender confusion, oedipal conflict, and vampirism unfolding in a “mom-and-pop orphanage” that doubles as a lighthouse. The florid intertitles (“what’s a suicide attempt without a wedding?”) are matched only by the frenzied tumble of grainy, high-contrast images.
You know it’s festival time in Toronto when normally staid broadsheets lavish drooling space on the swag collected by Brad Pitt or Penélope Cruz as they traipse through the boîtes of fashionable Yorkville. Still, no visiting star received more ink than CBC radio reporter Sook-Yin Lee, who made her movie debut performing a variety of nonsimulated sex acts in John Cameron Mitchell’s hardcore, softhearted comedy Shortbus. And the biggest splash was made by a fictional character, namely Sacha Baron Cohen’s incarnation as the ersatz Kazakh TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev.
A near hysterical line ringed the downtown Ryerson University campus for the midnight premiere of the candid-camera U.S. journey Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Desperate fans jostled TV crews, offering $150 a ticket as Borat made his grand entrance escorted by a horse. Did the howling audience feel burned when, 20 minutes into the movie, shortly after friendly Borat begins kissing strange men on the New York City subway, the projector broke down?
The movie became theater: The immigrant projectionist apologized onstage as Borat materialized to praise the “minor nation” of Canada (“our countries are very similar and not only because of the projector system”), and Michael Moore erupted out of the audience to offer his services. The screening was canceled, but the next day’s makeup presentation afforded a wonderful festival coincidence: I dashed from Borat’s climactic attempt to stuff Pamela Anderson into his “wedding sack” to an in-progress showing of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema—a continuation of Borat by other means—with wild and crazy Slovenian film theorist Slavoj Zizek holding forth for two and a half hours, in richly accented English, on the unconscious desires instilled by Hollywood movies.
Borat was Toronto’s king; Gabriel Range’s Death of a President provided the lése-majesté, dramatizing the assassination of George W. Bush. Coyly listed as D.O.A.P., the British filmmaker’s faux documentary was the festival’s designated scandal—anticipation stoked by two weeks of Drudge Report hype and talk radio ranting. Considering the tension around the screening—stormed by a phalanx of ticketless distributors and national critics—Range’s technically impressive exercise in fake talking heads and digital magic proved surprisingly low-key and even dignified. (Nothing, save perhaps the spectacle of Bush clutching his gut like Lee Harvey Oswald, was nearly as transgressive as Borat’s heartfelt tribute to America’s “war of terror” delivered before a cheering rodeo audience that turned ugly once he sang “The Star Spangled Banner” as an ode to Kazakhstan.)
Newmarket quickly acquired D.O.A.P. for U.S. release—a sequel of sorts to The Passion of the Christ, the martyrdom drama that put the company on the map. Scarcely a rabble-rouser, D.O.A.P. is an essay on how a national tragedy can be exploited as the grounds for an even greater tragedy. Appropriately, the festival scheduled this historic screening for the evening of September 11. A few hours later, back at my hotel, two Swiss tourists were stabbed to death, apparently by a German tourist, who then slashed his own throat. The hotel staff was blasé. Who says nothing ever happens in Toronto?