Progressive Cinema

Although the all-encompassing Toronto International Film Festival, with 265 feature films, has its share of Hollywood blockbusters and a seemingly endless array of celebrities, it’s the stunning collection of socially conscious films that attracts most progressive viewers.

Among the non-mainstream, non-documentary features shown this year, the following stand out for their power to move, entertain, educate, and leave an indelible impression.

11’09”01 was one of the most daring and compelling films shown. This French-produced collection of short films by 11 of the world’s most powerful filmmakers addresses the world reaction to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. Each director was given complete freedom within the timeframe of 11 minutes, 9 seconds and 1 frame to create an artistic statement relevant to 9/11.

British director Ken Loach offers a comparison to the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, also on Sept. 11, revealing the U.S. complicity in the coup and Kissinger’s shadowy role. Depicting the passion and history of the Chilean people, with music by Victor Jara, Loach shows that the loss of life, whether in a terrorist attack in the U.S or a U.S.-sponsored coup in a foreign country, is always a tragedy.

Sean Penn directs an emotional segment showing a widower (Ernest Borgnine) in a small dark flat in lower Manhattan weeping over his deceased wife’s dress. As the camera moves outside the window we realize that it is early morning on Sept. 11 and the shadows from the World Trade Center are blocking the sun from entering his apartment. As the shadows on the aged brick exterior wall slowly descend, light floods into the apartment.

Other directors in the collection include Egypt’s Youssef Chahine, who philosophically confronts anti-Americanism in the Middle East; India’s Mira Nair, who addresses discrimination against U.S. minorities after the terrorist attack; Iran’s Samira Makhmalbaf, who depicts a village school near the edge of civilization, where a young schoolteacher attempts to explain to her pupils what tragic world event just took place and how it might affect them; and Israel’s Amos Gitai, who recreates an actual bus bombing that took place at the same time, and shows how the Israeli media dealt with notifying the public about both events. Each episode is like a mini-feature film, creative and thought-provoking.

Another Festival treat was Ken Loach’s new feature, Sweet Sixteen. I’ve often suggested that Loach’s entire filmography should be required viewing for progressives. No one has the ability to capture working-class reality in such an effective and artistic manner. Sweet Sixteen is about a young Scottish lad caught in a tragic social and economic trap. His self-defeating but earnest attempts to rescue his mother from her abusive drug-dealing boyfriend land him deep in the local drug world, with serious consequences. Loach’s understanding of class, compassion for victims of capitalism, and skill at telling meaningful stories through film make Sweet Sixteen (sort of a sequel to My Name is Joe) outstanding.

French director Robert Guediguian was selected as Festival Spotlight director and eight of his working-class films were screened. A founder of the French Young Communist League, Guediguian shoots only in his hometown, Marseilles, using the same actors in different roles, and has created a wealth of working-class films, each highly recommended, addressing issues such as unemployment, racism, and the class struggle and filled with life, love and revolution. Very popular in France, but rare in the West, you might find some of his films on cable TV, such as Marius and Jeanette, Marie-Jo and Her Two Loves and The Town is Quiet.

Racism is dealt with in two engrossing well-produced films. Le Neg takes place in Quebec, in a small town you would think far removed from such a poisonous issue. One night an offensive black-faced lawn ornament is destroyed by a young Black teenager. The kindly homeowner and her mentally retarded son come out to investigate. Neighbors and others join them. The young man is captured after fleeing the scene, and tragic events ensue. The movie is about how each person saw the events differently. A powerful examination of truth and deception, hatred and racism, in a unique blend of animation, musical comedy and documentary styles, this is a fascinating, creative and must-see film.

A powerful Australian film, Black and White, is based on a true story about an aboriginal man accused of raping and killing a young white girl in the 1950s. The courtroom drama stars Robert Carlyle as an attorney assigned to defend the man. Like Le Neg, various witnesses tell different stories. The drama unfolds as the attorney, convinced of the man’s innocence and driven to prove it, confronts a racist society and judicial system.

In A World of Love, director Aurelio Grimaldi portrays the early days of the great Italian Communist filmmaker, poet and author Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was also a homosexual. The movie is a study of one of the most controversial, progressive and talented artists of the 20th century.

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