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Dust-Up in Toronto

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I've always thought of Toronto as the mellowest film festival, where the staff is unfailingly pleasant and everyone pronounces "about" "aboat." It's the Cannes and Berlin festivals that are roiled by political passions, skewed left of left. After the Cannes screening of Michael Moore's Sicko we shot to our feet as one and cheered ourselves hoarse.

Now, as if waking from its cinematic cocoon, Toronto, even before its September 10 opening, has been riven by controversy. The dustup concerns the festival's "City to City" sidebar devoted to Tel Aviv. Over fifty filmmakers and artists -- including Jane Fonda, David Byrne, Danny Glover, Alice Walker, Canadian writer Naomi Klein, and U.K. filmmaker Ken Loach -- have blasted the festival in a letter for celebrating the films of Tel Aviv and Israeli culture.

Toronto has become complicit, the protesters maintain, in the Israeli propaganda machine "Brand Israel," a media campaign Israel's Foreign Ministry is launching in Toronto this month. The campaign aims to focus attention from Israel's conflict over the Palestinian territories toward the country's achievements in science and culture.

"Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering ... the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid," the letter states. Predictably, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies and the UJA have pushed back, coming out in strong support of the "City to City" program.

Meanwhile, word is out about what else to expect in Toronto. Despite some dour comments in the trades, high on my list will be Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, which skewers the banking industry. Apparently Moore lays out an Ec 101 for Dummies, which is what folks unversed in economics need, frankly. One reason there's not even more rage at the bankers is that even they themselves can't explain derivatives. Obfuscation works in their favor. I can't wait for the trademark Moore moment when he argues with security guards in a glassy office foyer about getting face time with the company's CEO.

Good vibes are coming off fest opener, Creation, which focuses on the personal trauma Charles Darwin faced in the period leading up to the the publication of "On the Origin of Species." Director Jon Amiel aims to sidestep the usual hide-bound biopic, describing his feature as "part ghost story, part psychological thriller and part heart-wrenching love story." In a break with tradition, fest director Piers Handling decided to open with this non-Canadian feature because he believes Creation is special enough to take the pressure and it's the bicentenary of Darwin's birth.

I'll also be checking out A Prophet, Jacques Audiard's thriller that touches on sensitive subjects like immigration and race relations in France. Winner of the Jury Grand Prix in Cannes, it arrives stateside courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. And, of course, Palme d'Or winner The White Ribbon from Michael Haneke, a chilling indictment of small town Germans as Europe hurtles toward war. These two films, among others, have inspired the motto from Telluride: "bleak is the new black." From Telluride also comes word that Up in the Air by Jason Reitman (Juno) is gonna be big and delivers a spot-on pairing of Vera Farmiga and George Clooney as lovers in the Mile High Club.