One of the plusses of the Toronto International Film Festival being one of the largest and most viewer-friendly film festivals in the world is that it draws many stars and even more stargazers. If you're into that sort of thing the list is endless and that's the beauty of the festival that provides satisfaction for almost every taste in film. Here's one example, from this year's recently concluded festival.
For progressive film fans the name of British director Ken Loach is legendary. From his beginnings back in the '60s, his social realist dramas ("Poor Cow," "Kes," "Cathy Come Home," "Looks and Smiles") set new standards for intense human dramas and realistic characters in difficult situations. Some of his later films addressed actual historical events ("Hidden Agenda," "Bread and Roses," "Wind That Shakes the Barley") and studies of men and women mistreated by the system ("Ladybird, Ladybird," "Riff Raff," "Raining Stones"). His films always defend the working person struggling for justice and a way to overcome the oppressive capitalist system.
Starting with "Carla's Song" in 1996, Loach has collaborated on almost a dozen films with Scottish screenwriter and former human rights lawyer Paul Laverty. Laverty's scripts are in sympathy with Loach's artistic and political sensibilities and the team has created masterpieces of working class cinema.
They both were invited to attend the Toronto Festival this year to promote their new collaborative work, "Route Irish," and Laverty's own film "Even the Rain." While in Toronto they participated in several political activities that kept them busy during their short stay. Following these two heroes of working class cinema around the city was a delight and a revelation. The respect the film community holds for them was apparent at each venue.
Starting off with two public screenings of their new Iraq war thriller "Route Irish" gave them an opportunity to Q&A with the massive sold out audiences. The film is an exposé of the contract armies that have replaced the formal military in Iraq. It's an angry film clothed in a dramatic story loaded with political significance. Loach, when asked about the prevailing sentiment here of "Iraq fatigue," reminded the audience that for the Iraqis who lost a million of their people, the war will never be forgotten nor lose importance. Laverty felt attention must be drawn to the issue of the 100,000 or more contracted soldiers who will remain in Iraq after the U.S. military pullout and continue to decimate the country. Their work goes unnoticed and their numbers are not even counted. The war has become privatized.
The following day they both participated in a free-flowing dialog with American filmmaker Michael Moore as moderator. Admitting that they had just met backstage for the first time, they were apparently well aware of each other's solid reputation in the field of progressive cinema. Moore, praising "Route Irish" as one of the best films he's seen this year, asked the potent question, "How are we going to get people into the theater to see this film?" Parts of this fascinating discussion are on YouTube.
After this engrossing dialog about the role of politics in cinema, Loach and Laverty were rushed off to a special meeting hosted by the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. Loach last year signed the Toronto Declaration and was also one of the first filmmakers to join the cultural boycott campaign against Israel in 2006. He has pulled his film out of festivals that are funded by Israeli money.
The talk at the University of Toronto focused on his interest and defense of the Palestinian struggle. It was filmed by Canadian alternative online news site rabble.ca and the full program can be viewed at YouTube.
To complete the evening, Laverty had to rush over to the world premiere screening of "Even The Rain" for which he supplied the screenplay. The film is directed by actress and award-winning Spanish director Iciar Bollain. Both she and Laverty appeared in Loach's "Land and Freedom." The subject of the film grabbed Laverty's attention when the peasants of Cochabamba, Bolivia, rose up against the attempted privatization of the municipal water supply back in 2000. The title refers to the reality that laws were applied to punish citizens who captured "even the rain." The script cleverly portrays these "water wars" while at the same time covering a film company that arrives in the area to shoot a film about Christopher Columbus. The film company unknowingly casts in a leading role the leader of the protest movement, who finds himself in a difficult position when he is arrested and beaten up. The fictional Columbus film and the real street protests become intertwined in a brilliantly conceived statement about colonization and the crimes of globalization. The film contains stellar performances especially from Gael Garcia Bernal ("Motorcycle Diaries") that likely will guarantee mass exposure for this compelling and deserving film. And Spain is likely submitting it for an Oscar nomination.
For years it was difficult to get copies of Loach's early films. Most of them are now available to view in full online, along with several interviews and documentaries about Loach. You can see Laverty's work in Loach's later films, most available on DVD: "Carla's Song," "My Name Is Joe," "Bread and Roses," "Sweet Sixteen," "Just a Kiss," "Tickets," "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," "It's a Free World," and "Looking for Eric."
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqtAwJs0uAw&feature=channel ("Route Irish")
www.youtube.com/kenloachfilms (Ken Loach films)
Photo: A scene from "Route Irish." (Cinemagia)