International row erupts as Creation opens Toronto
John Hiscock reports from Toronto
12 September 2009
The Toronto Film Festival opened at the weekend with a leisurely stroll down the red carpet for Paul Bettany and his wife Jennifer Connelly at the world premiere of Creation, the British-made film about how Charles Darwin wrote his controversial The Origin of the Species in the face of staunch opposition from his devout Christian wife.
The choice of Creation, which is still looking for a U.S distributor, breaks a Toronto tradition of launching the festival with a Canadian film; but festival co-director Cameron Bailey chose it because he considered its theme of tension between faith and reason to be relevant to today’s times.
He could not have known when making the choice that a fierce controversy featuring an international war of words and battle for moral supremacy between filmmakers and stars on opposite sides of the political fence would erupt as the festival got under way.
The row broke out when Canadian director John Greyson withdrew his short documentary film, Covered, from the festival in protest at the festival’s inaugural “City to City” event which features ten films about Tel Aviv by Israeli directors.
His move was followed by the publication of a petition signed by more than 50 celebrities, including Jane Fonda, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Viggo Mortensen, musician David Byrne and British filmmaker Ken Loach, accusing the festival of being a pawn in the Israeli government’s attempts to improve its public image abroad.
The opposite camp includes filmmakers Ivan Reitman, David Cronenberg, actress Minnie Driver and Jon Voight, who starred with Fonda in the 1978 anti-Vietnam war film Coming Home, for which they both won Oscars.
In a strongly worded letter Voight accused Fonda of “backing the wrong people again” and said: “People like Jane Fonda and all the names on that letter are assisting the Palestinian propagandists against the state of Israel.”
While the row simmers, with both sides calling press conferences to press their claims and Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre flying in from Los Angeles, the festival business of movies, deal-making and parties continues unabated.
The festival, which now rivals Venice and Cannes as the most important event on filmmakers’ calendars, this year is screening 335 films from 70 different countries over ten days and has attracted almost 1,000 journalists. It involves the whole city and has spilled into the streets via a “fan zone” in one of the main squares, with free concerts and movies daily and a live satellite feed from the red carpets.
It wouldn’t be a film festival without some embarrassing moments and one occurred when John Riley, head of the company which sponsored the opening night gala party for Creation, publicly criticised Jennifer Connelly for leaving so quickly, holding up her photograph, tearing it in two and commenting: “This is my former favourite actress.”
Later, a tearful Connelly explained it was the first anniversary of her feather’s death and she was not in a party mood, and Bettany took the blame, saying it had been his idea to leave the party after only a brief appearance.
Currently the fans’ and autograph-hunters’ most sought-after stars are the ubiquitous, suave and always-charming George Clooney, who has two films premiering at the festival, Up In The Air and The Men Who Stare At Goats, and Megan Fox, the hugely popular young star of Jennifer’s Body, the teen horror movie written by Juno author Diablo Cody which kicked off the festival’s Midnight Madness programme.
Britons walking the red carpets and, in some cases, hitting the late night parties include Carey Mulligan, who is already attracting plenty of Oscar buzz for her role in An Education; Clive Owen, who is in town for The Boys Are Back, which will also screen at the London Film Festival next month; Ricky Gervais for The Invention of Lying; Ben Whishaw (Bright Star), Brenda Blethyn (London River), Ben Barnes (Dorian Gray), Michael Caine (Harry Brown) and Ewan McGregor (The Men Who Stare At Goats).
Judging by the prices being charged online for premiere-and-party tickets, the black comedy about the CIA, The Men Who Stare At Goats, starring Clooney, McGregor and Jeff Bridges, is the most popular film at the festival, with tickets going for 250 pounds each. A ticket for Heath Ledger’s last film, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, can be had for 100 pounds, as can one for the Oprah Winfrey-produced Precious.