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Toronto Film Festival

Milos Stehlik is the Director of Facets Multimedia and Worldview's film contributor. He just returned from the Toronto Film Festival and fills us in on the festival highlights.

The Toronto Film Festival is huge and spreads out all over the city. It's hard to figure out the festival's center. Perhaps it doesn't have one, because the Toronto Film Festival represents so many different film interests to so many different people. It's a launching pad for the Hollywood fall season and the race for the Oscars. It has midnight movies and films from Latin America and experimental video installations.

This year, it was the venue for two films that will have a tough time breaking outside the film festival circuit.

Robert Connolly's Balibo is the story of the Balibo Five. They were young, ambitious Australian television journalists who came to East Timor weeks before the Indonesian government invaded in December, 1975. A book by Jill Jolliffe called Coverup and a 2007 inquest on which the film is based both contradict the official Australian government's report that the men died in crossfire.

Australian-born actor Anthony La Paglia plays Roger East, a sixth journalist tracking the fate of the previous five who had disappeared. He finds a population massacred and his five Aussie comrades executed by the Indonesian military. The film, structured as an action thriller, benefits from a terrific, visceral performance by La Paglia.

Much of the political context in the film, including the complicity of the United States and Australia, who turned a blind eye to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor under the pretense of potential Communist rule – is left in the background. Nevertheless, the butchering of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the brutal invasion, and its aftermath, coupled with the realistic brutality of the film, are a powerful shot to the wall of silence imposed by the Australian government.

Claire Denis' film, White Material, is even more visceral than Balibo. The African-born Denis situates her film in an African nation undergoing a radical shift toward Africanization. The film's perspective is archetypical of many African countries. In an indelible, energetic yet highly controlled and stunning performance, Isabelle Huppert plays a white settler who has grown coffee on the family plantation for generations. The film begins as the French military announces they're leaving the country, and that all settlers should leave immediately for they will be without protection.

Despite the market collapsing, Huppert steadfastly refuses and insists on staying to harvest the coffee. Firstly, she knows nothing but this Africa, and can't imagine living in a Europe she has never really known. Secondly, a tangled, twisted web of personal ties marry her to Africa: an ailing father-in-law, a scheming husband, a dysfunctional and a grown-up, mentally-challenged son.

White Material provides us a portrait of a fierce, determined woman, clinging to a complex colonial past that is not simple-minded exploitation: there is genuine devotion to — and deep love for— the land and its people. But in the background, the film reveals shocking corruption and the anarchy that can quickly unravel stable institutions once the colonial structures disappear.

In White Material, as before the Rwandan Genocide, agitation is fueled by a radio program stirring violence. Most devastating are scenes of child soldiers. Their small physical scale contrasts sharply with the brutal violence they unleash, as they massacre civilians in their path, their fury enhanced by drugs.

The genius of Denis' film is its sheer physicality. Denis demonstrated this visual élan once before in her film Beau Travail, the story about soldiers of the Foreign Legion. In White Material, the physicality virtually bleeds from the screen, creating a film that's primal to its core, unleashing the darkest forces of human nature. It's sheer cinematic brilliance...

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.

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