This year’s program featured its share of politically themed movies. In addition to starring in “The Descendants,” Clooney starred in and directed “The Ides of March,” a well-crafted but oddly dated thriller based on Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North.” Ambush artist Nick Broomfield presented “Sarah Palin — You Betcha!,” a glib, gossipy hit job that, along with the recent pro-Palin film “The Undefeated,” still leaves viewers longing for an insightful, clear-eyed assessment of the former governor’s record and character. And actress Jennifer Garner showed up in support of “Butter,” a Midwestern satire in which she plays a racist, hypocritical right-winger trying to strong-arm a young African American girl out of a butter-carving championship.
All comparisons to tea party darlings are utterly intended, according to “Butter” producer Harvey Weinstein, who asked co-star Olivia Wilde to read an e-mailed statement before Tuesday’s premiere. Inviting Minnesota congresswoman and Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann to co-host the Iowa premiere of “Butter,” Weinstein added: “I would of course be more than happy to fly in the other leading members of the Tea Party movement to make an entire day of it. We could take some math classes in the morning to help balance the budget, brush up on the Constitution in the afternoon, play some ping-pong and then maybe some verbal ping-pong on gay rights and women’s rights (especially the right to choose).”
Half-baked when they weren’t ham-handed, the politics in “Butter” were far outshone by some lovely performances, especially from Rob Corddry and newcomer Yara Shahidi, who plays the Obamaesque orphan who takes the Iowa State Fair (read: caucus) by storm with her compelling rhetoric and personal story.
Raising the stakes
Still, what was supposed to pass for high stakes in “The Ides of March,” “Sarah Palin” and “Butter” felt unsuitably trivial when compared, say, with David Hare’s “Page Eight,” a smart British intelligence thriller starring Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy that will play on PBS this fall; or “The Island President,” Jon Shenk’s documentary about Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed and his desperate fight to save his tiny nation from being completely drowned as a result of global warming.
Even more stirring was “This Is Not a Film,” made by Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi, who in 2010 was banned by the government from making movies, and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who was on his way to TIFF when he was detained by Iranian authorities.
At once a sardonic commentary on the folly of extremist repression and a deeply affecting portrait of its physical and psychic costs, “This Is Not a Film” was made on Panahi’s iPhone and a digital camera and smuggled out of Iran in a loaf of bread. It served as a sobering reminder of how high the stakes can be for filmmakers, both on-screen and off. And it exemplified precisely the kind of movie that makes a cinematic ecosystem not just healthy but crucial to the larger world.