With Yoko Ono on hand, perhaps the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival had little choice but to give peace a chance.
The iconic New Yorker visited Canada last week on behalf of The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which chronicles the nightmare she and her late husband endured as a result of their outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War almost four decades ago.
This documentary was among at least eight selections at the cinematic event - which ran September 7-16 - that are likely to resonate with anyone concerned about America's current armed conflict in the Middle East. The topical fare, much of it opening soon nationwide, included Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing; Mon Colonel; The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair; Bobby and D.O.A.P.
Vastly different in content and style, these message movies from various countries reflect the changing zeitgeist in a world now thoroughly polarized by American foreign policy. Despite being a mere drop in the 352-film Toronto bucket, they engendered an inordinate amount of buzz, and ratcheted up the volatile debate about patriotism versus dissent.
Just ask the Dixie Chicks, who appeared at a festival press conference. Do they see a parallel between the former Beatle's difficulties and their own recent experiences after making negative comments about the Iraq invasion?
"We felt more censored and more afraid than what happened to people in the 1960s," replied Martie Maguire, the trio's fiddler.
"John Lennon had the hope, but we also have the Internet," lead singer Natalie Maines said of the opportunity to network with fellow peaceniks.
Cyberspace activism can cut both ways, however. When Maines acknowledged feeling ashamed that George W. Bush hails from the band's home state of Texas in March 2003, a right-wing website started a boycott of the band's music. Even more frightening reactions soon followed. When the Dixie Chicks arrived for a June 2003 performance in Dallas, Maines received an anonymous death threat. In the city of the JFK assassination, it carried a particularly awful subtext.
Barbara Kopple, who co-directed the doc with Cecilia Peck, suggested, "There was really a sense of belonging to a community in the '60s."
By contrast, the contemporary female recording artists initially had little support. "But no longer will the Chicks stand alone," Kopple proclaimed.
A young military man stands very much alone in Mon Colonel, co-written by venerable auteur Costa Gavras. This naïve lieutenant volunteers to fight Muslim insurgents in mid-1950s Algeria, then a French-occupied quagmire. But he's repulsed by the torture his commanding officer justifies with an argument that sounds chillingly familiar to 21st-century ears: "We are engaged in a world war against terror."
Tortured for a trifle during Saddam Hussein's reign, freelance photojournalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas is the subject of The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair. He describes his arrest by U.S. troops and nine subsequent months of incarceration at Abu Ghraib. The Iraqi native's bleak story is not likely to win the Bush regime any kudos. It's told by German filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, whose Gunner Palace depicted the invasion's early days.
The idea of assassination, apparently trumped up as an excuse to detain Abbas, becomes horribly real in Bobby. Writer-director Emilio Estevez crafts a fictitious scenario leading up to the 1968 murder of Robert F. Kennedy, who was then campaigning for a presidential nomination in Los Angeles. RFK had been calling for an end to the Vietnam War, which many of the movie's characters also seek.
D.O.A.P. is a faux documentary that imagines what might happen if George W. Bush were shot in Chicago. This highly controversial BBC television production, directed by Gabriel Range, is set in 2007. The film depicts massive protests in the streets sparked by the continuing occupation of Iraq, making it clear why the American commander-in-chief has been targeted.
In The U.S. vs. John Lennon, by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, antiwar forces go up against Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon. The latter president maintained an infamous enemies list, which put the rock icon in some good company. After demonstrators by the hundreds of thousands took to singing, "All we are saying is give peace a chance," federal officials spent years trying to deport the Liverpool lad who had composed that catchy anthem.
All that the Dixie Chicks seem to be saying is, in the words of Martie Maguire: "Can't we start a dialogue instead of creating fear?"
EMAIL THE AUTHOR // LETTER TO THE EDITOR