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Controversial Films Premiere at The London Film Festival

The London Film Festival is not necessarily against the idea of premiering controversial fact, they generate good press and audience interest. But two such films had their premieres just hours apart on Friday, making it a red-hot day for the press and opinionmakers. Locally, it was BRICK LANE, the adaption of the best selling novel by local author Monica Ali, that generated the most media buzz. The film had its world premiere last evening and was the subject of much discussion in the local press and on local media outlets.

That the film has been completed at all is a cause for some celebration. The productions was dogged from its very start by protest groups who felt that the books portrayed the Bahgladeshi community community in a negative light. The novel tells the story of Nazneen, a young woman who is sent from rural Bangladesh to London for an arranged marriage. Once arrived, she finds a new sort of independence by cultivating some new friends, having an affair with a younger man and ignoring her husband's demands to return with the family to Bangladesh.

When director Sarah Gavron attempted to shoot the film in the actual neighborhood surrounding London's famed Brick Lane in the east end, protest groups from the local Bangladesh community dogged her every move. An organization was set up with the title of Campaign Against Monica Ali's Film Brick Lane, which stated its purpose front and center. The group threatened to burn the book at mass rallies and promised to disrupt filming by means that could become violent. The group's head, Abdus Salique, was quoted as saying "If Ali has the right to freeedom of speech, we have the right to protect our community's dignity and respect." The anti-BRICK LANE hysteria made for some strange political allies and bedfellows. Feminist pioneer Germaine Greer spoke up against the book and the film, by saying that "the community has the moral right to keep the filmmakers out of their neighborhoods."

Although Salman Rushdie, the award-winning novelist who has had his own share of problems from protesting Muslims, declared the protests "sanctimonious, philisitine and disgraceful", the film's producer, Film Four, took the advice of the police and decided to film crucial scenes in other locations in the city. The political correctness even reached Buckingham Palace, with the Prince of Wales pulling out of a planned royal charity screening of the film next week. Despite the controversy surrounding both the book and its film adaptation, the London Film Festival decided to include the film as one of its prime Galas, although police presence was quite thick in Leicester Square in case there were any protests or violent outbursts (there were neither). The film is scheduled to open in the UK on November 16 and has been sold internationally, including to Sony Pictures Classics in the US, which also has a late November release date.

Not quite the hot potato that BRICK LANE has been, the Festival also premiered the scathing American film GRACE IS GONE, written and directed by James C. Strouse, and starring John Cusack in a performance that is already being hailed as one of the best of the year. The film, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, follows the emotional journey of a father of two who soldier wife is killed in Iraq. The father knows that he must break the news to his two daughters but delays giving them the information, instead suggesting a road trip to their favorite theme park. The film won both the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenplay prize at Sundance, and won the FIPRESCI Critics Prize at the Deauville Film Festival.

GRACE IS GONE is one of the first to look at the effect on the "home front" of the Iraq War, likening to such post-Vietnam War films as Hal Ashby's COMING HOME. The Weinstein Company, which picked up the rights to the film at Sundance for a substantial sum, is positioning the film as a "must see" event as debate over the future of America's involvement in the War rages. While Cusack's character is a patriot who wants to believe that his wife's death was not in vain, his leftist brother (played by Alessandro Nivola) rages against the "lying government" who has sacrificed the family's integrity for a dubious cause. The tensions currently existing in the United States between those who believe that this War is justified as a response to the transgressions of 9/11, and those who understand it as a misguided, mismanaged mess without clear goals or strategies, are played out against the tragedy of loss and suffering. Cusack goes beyond his usual mild-mannered performing style to portray a quiet man who is torn apart by guilt, outrage and self-doubt, in a performance that literally transforms his physical appearance. He will be remembered come Oscar season.

Sandy Mandelberger, London FF Dailies on Editor


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