War films go guerrilla in Toronto

Topical political pictures make way for less-specific fare

TORONTO -- At this year's Toronto International Film Festival, the war movies are all wearing camouflage.

Last year, topical political pictures like "Rendition" and "In the Valley of Elah" came into the Toronto with a head of steam and left in a cloud of dust. This time around, although there is another onslaught of films with war themes coming to the fest -- which kicks off Thursday night with Canadian filmmaker Paul Gross' World War I saga "Passchendaele" -- they are being billed as everything but war movies.

Where the 2007 crop sought to mine topicality, producers and publicists are positioning their new titles as movies that could just as easily be happening in any other time or place.

"This movie is not about the Iraq war. It's an action-adventure movie that happens to be set in Iraq," producer Nic Chartier said of his film "The Hurt Locker." Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film, which focuses on an Army squad in Iraq that must defuse a dangerous bomb in a crowded city, will be seeking a U.S. distribution deal. "This could have been the British and the IRA. It could have been anywhere, really," Chartier said.

The cool Toronto reception and subsequent boxoffice bath taken by last year's movies might have stopped some from unspooling war-themed films. But given production lag time and filmmakers' belief that there are stories still untold, a group of war-inflected titles rides into the festival that begins Thursday at Roy Thompson Hall.

Another of those films, "The Lucky Ones," a Tim Robbins-Rachel McAdams tale of U.S. soldiers recently returned from the Middle East, has also sought to hit a different note. The picture's trailer and ad campaigns emphasize comedy and camaraderie and, with a Sarah McLachlan ballad, it has a softer feel that might appeal to women.

"Iraq is a dirty word in film marketing right now," said Roadside Attractions co-topper Howard Cohen, who is distributing the picture, which has been held for a Sept. 26 release in hopes that the zeitgeist might change, making the film more marketable.

"Our goal, in the two seconds you have to communicate this to people, is to show that this is not about the war in Iraq. It's about American society and how we treat people."

To some degree, the movies indeed represent a new wave.

Festival programmer Jane Schoettle noted, "(These) films are not necessarily about the war itself, but rather the war is a circumstance. Films like 'The Lucky Ones' and 'Hurt Locker' are using the contexts of the war to tell more personal stories."

More specialized fare also contains Middle Eastern themes. The somber "Stoning of Soraya M," a feature from the producers behind "The Passion of the Christ," is a visceral film about the mistreatment of women in Iran. Sony Classics' "Adoration," the Atom Egoyan drama that debuted in Cannes, addresses Islamic terrorism.

But the movies will face obstacles, at least perceptually. Even without battle scenes, attempts to make movies about how we live now could be doomed by the problem of too much relevance.

"When you make a movie, you try to be distinctive," the Film Department's Mark Gill said. "Unfortunately, what's beaten you to it is every hour, on the hour, on your radio, on television, in the paper, on the Internet, is the Iraq war."

And one person behind a Toronto war film last year said that they were "skeptical that these (new) movies will do any better."

Still, filmmakers are hoping that new elements, and another year of distance, will overcome that skepticism. But the evidence has yet to present itself. As one fest insider said, "Everyone is still waiting for the one to be embraced."