Toronto Filmfest Unreels the Real to Counter Fantasy FareSteven Frank and Hugo Miller
Ripping your screenplay from the news headlines means you have to work fast and stay nimble.
Bill Condon, director of “The Fifth Estate,” said he began work in December on the film account of WikiLeaks and would finish it only days before its world premiere tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“It’s the quickest process I’ve ever been involved with,” Condon said in an Aug. 28 telephone interview. “It feels very much like what it should be: something that’s still alive and kicking.”
The choice of “The Fifth Estate” as the festival opener is emblematic of a resurgence this year in dramatized stories about real people and events, spurred on by the rising importance of the documentary. Other films at the 38th edition of the film festival include the biopics “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and “Walesa. Man of Hope”; “The Armstrong Lie,” Alex Gibney’s documentary about fallen cycling star Lance Armstrong; and Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known,” about former U.S. defense chief Donald Rumsfeld, an architect of the Iraq war.
Condon says his editing of “The Fifth Estate” was impacted in the last few months by the U.S. government’s hunt for Edward Snowden, who released details of U.S. surveillance programs, and the trial of Bradley Manning, convicted in August of leaking thousands of classified documents to Julian Assange- led WikiLeaks.
The film, produced by DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., “plays out most of the things that are still unfolding,” Condon said.
The rise of the political agenda at TIFF, as the 11-day film and industry fest is popularly known, is in part a reaction to Hollywood producers’ growing dependence on “comic-book fantasy” for box-office returns, said Piers Handling, the festival’s chief executive officer.
“Iron Man 3,” the latest of the superhero sequels, has taken in $408.9 million, and “Man of Steel,” based on the Superman character, topped $200 million in U.S. box office receipts. Paced by such escapist fare, Hollywood had its best summer ever as ticket revenue climbed 10 percent to $4.71 billion from a year earlier, according to Hollywood.com
“Over the last 10 years, a lot of fiction filmmakers have begun to look at real-life subjects for their inspiration,” Handling said in an Aug. 29 interview at TIFF’s glass-and-steel headquarters in Toronto’s entertainment district.
Like artists in other fields, filmmakers are constantly reflecting the cultural zeitgeist, said Handling. While Assange isn’t as prominent in the news right now, Manning and Snowden are, he said.
“Filmmakers do obviously have an antenna out there,” Handling said. “It’s just interesting that a major studio in the States, DreamWorks, would choose to make a film on this subject at a point when surveillance has become such a huge issue.”
WikiLeaks, the nonprofit organization that helped leak hundreds of thousands of confidential government cables, didn’t want to be consulted in the making of “The Fifth Estate,” said Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for the organization.
“When we saw the flavor of the script, we saw immediately this was a project that would be very negative,” Hrafnsson said by phone on Aug. 27. While he said he hasn’t yet seen the completed film, he was concerned it may affect the rights of some of the people it depicts.
“There have been discussions in recent times about the distortion of history by Hollywood productions,” Hrafnsson said, mentioning “Zero Dark Thirty,” the story of the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden, as an example from the recent past. The film was seen by some as endorsing torture as an effective interrogation tool, he said.
“This is a different story because it’s basically touching upon a subject that is strongly and directly linked to the interests of individuals who are being persecuted by the administration in the U.S.,” Hrafnsson said. “It would be absolutely outrageous to try to hide behind some notion that an artistic license is justified.”
WikiLeaks said in an e-mail last week that Assange wasn’t available to comment on “The Fifth Estate.”
Condon, the director of “Kinsey,” and “Gods and Monsters,” said he feels “very strongly” that the release of the film at this time won’t jeopardize the rights of people like Manning, whose conviction is under a mandatory review by the military, or anyone at WikiLeaks who may be under investigation by the U.S. government.
Condon said Assange has over-reacted to “The Fifth Estate,” which is based in part on the book “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a WikiLeaks principal who broke from the organization in 2010.
Assange “called it the Anti-WikiLeaks movie, which I think anyone who sees it would disagree with,” Condon said. “To explore any criticism of him is seen as an attack on everything that WikiLeaks stands for.”
Assange, currently holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, is fighting extradition to Sweden where he faces sexual-assault charges. Assange has said the charges revolve around cases of consensual sex and are politically motivated.
The film’s Toronto debut is indicative of TIFF’s growing stature in showing critically acclaimed dramas such as “Crash,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and “Argo,” which all went on to Best-Picture Oscar glory.
This year’s films include: “August: Osage County,” an adaptation of Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer-winning play about a dysfunctional Midwest family that stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts; Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” based on the real story of a free U.S. black man in the 1800s abducted and sold into slavery, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt; and “Prisoners,” directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve and starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, a thriller about the disappearance of two girls.
Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director, said they chose “The Fifth Estate” out of 4,892 submissions to open the festival because it’s a great drama with a cast of stars including Benedict Cumberbatch, Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney that have red-carpet appeal. They also picked it because of the way it tackles issues about the control of information that affect us all, he said.
“Beyond just the fact that it’s a great drama, it actually has something to say,” Bailey said in an Aug. 29 interview. “I’m glad to see filmmakers addressing that because I feel like we’re all grappling, struggling with ways to understand how our lives have changed.”
(TIFF has scheduled 366 films this year from 70 countries, including 146 world premiers, to run Sept. 5-15.)
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