OTTAWA (AFP) – North America’s largest film festival opens Thursday with a drama about real life WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, promising the “full story” behind the whistleblower website.
“The Fifth Estate” by director Bill Condon is based on a book by Assange’s once-trusted lieutenant and former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, about events leading to the largest secrets leak in American history in 2010.
Its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival comes just weeks after soldier Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for sending 700,000 documents — military war logs and U.S. diplomatic cables — to WikiLeaks, which published them.
Manning, who has asked to be recognized as a woman following his trial, was arrested in 2010 while serving as a junior intelligence analyst at a U.S. base near Baghdad.
The young soldier has been hailed by supporters as a hero for exposing what they see as U.S. abuses in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but denounced by prosecutors as a traitor who put country and comrades at risk.
Assange meanwhile remains holed up at the Ecuador embassy in London after claiming asylum from that country a year ago to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations of sexual assault against two women.
“It’s not that common for a feature film, particularly a Hollywood feature film, to deal with a story that is so current in the news,” commented festival boss Cameron Bailey. “So it’s interesting to see.”
“Film is a uniquely emotive medium,” he told AFP. “It’s got so many tools at its disposal: the power of the image, the size of the image, the communal way we watch movies, music, all of these things can combine to really make us feel something deeply or reveal a deeper truth.”
“That can be a good thing in that sometimes dry news reporting doesn’t give you the full story… Feeling sympathetic (or not) toward a central character can also influence your opinion on events or what they mean.
“I think this film is just one more way to understand Julian Assange and WikiLeaks,” Bailey said. “The film does not come down hard on one side or another but it tries to make audiences understand all of the elements that are at play.
“It doesn’t invite you to like or hate Assange. He’s neither a hero nor a villain, he’s a complex person and to its credit the film shows you that complexity. It doesn’t ever let you rest on one simple impression of him.”
The film festival, which gets underway on September 5 and runs through September 15, will showcase 366 feature films, including 146 world premieres.
Though it does not award a jury prize like at Cannes or Venice, the Toronto film festival has traditionally been a key event for Oscar-conscious studios and distributors, and attracts hundreds of filmmakers and actors to its red carpet.
This year’s lineup includes celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Aniston.
In addition to Condon’s latest title, the festival will showcase several stories ripped from the headlines, such as Justin Chadwick’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” starring British actor Idris Elba as the legendary South African freedom fighter and based on his autobiography.
“It’s far more than any news article or broadcast news could ever give you. It really gives you the feeling of transformation that this man underwent… to become a figure of inspiration for a country that he felt needed it,” said Bailey.
“I don’t think a simple recounting of the facts of Mandela’s life is enough to give you the power of the emotion that this film does,” he said. “You can only get that through fiction, whether in books or film.”
Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan will also screen his “Devil’s Knot” about Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin. The three men were tried and convicted in 1994 of the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Prosecutors alleged the children were killed as part of a satanic ritual.
But new forensic evidence presented in 2011 led them to reach a deal with prosecutors which allowed them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.
They were released after having spent 18 years in prison.
Several documentaries, including Amy Berg’s documentary “West of Memphis,” which premiered at last year’s Toronto film festival, have been made about the case. Egoyan is the first to turn it into a feature film.
Photo Credit: AFP/Leon Neal