Death of a President

Death of a President

Just when I thought that John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus was a lock for the bad boy film of the festival, along comes D.O.A.P. (aka Death of a President) to prove me wrong. While the folks at TIFF had formerly been keeping things on the Q.T., last Friday they issued a press release addressing what has suddenly blown up into a raging controversy.

What’s all the huff about? Well, D.O.A.P’s British director Gabriel Range likes to dabble in hypothetical future history. In other words, he mixes media and hires remarkable special effects people to make chilling retrospective investigative programs about things that could happen (imagine a History TV program on something that hasn’t occurred yet). In 2003, Range made waves with a film called The Day Britain Stopped, addressing what could happen if the English power grid went down. This time around, he wanted to address media manipulation, civil liberties and terrorism. So he went out and made an eerily accurate program about the assassination of a major Western head of state. You may have heard of him. His name is George W. Bush. In the film, set in October 2007, Bush is cut down by sniper fire as he leaves Chicago’s Sheraton Hotel.

Britain’s More4 channel announced it would air the 90-minute movie on October 9th. With that, the blogosphere went crazy and politicians of all stripes expressed great distress about the state of culture and the west and all that we hold true and dear. The director’s reaction? He told reporters he would never encourage anyone to assassinate Bush. That would only “usher in [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s America.” The reps from More4 struggled valiantly to explain that knee-jerk reactions should be held in check. D.O.A.P. is “neither gratuitous in the way it portrays the assassination nor simplistic in the way it presents the consequences,” spokesman Gavin Dawson has said.

TIFF knew that the D.O.A.P. issue would blow up eventually. The only question was when. Their released synopsis of the film claimed it explored “the fallout from a horrific attack on the administration.” I remember perusing that and thinking little of it. Good work guys. You fooled us for a while. But there was never any real way of skirting disaster. Remember Zev Asher’s Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat, about Toronto art student Jesse Power’s forays into kitty evisceration? Programmers received death threats after news that it would show at TIFF in 2004. Now organizers are fretting it’ll be deja vu all over again. Expect them to play D.O.A.P. down as much as possible. As Friday’s press release suggests, TIFF stands behind their choice; they just want people to know to send the death threats to the director’s door, not theirs.

I can’t wait to see D.O.A.P. Sure, its premise is shocking (and the filmmakers are well aware of how the publicity is money in the bank), but the film employs a mode of storytelling that is interesting and worthy of discussion. As the TIFF press release points out, D.O.A.P is part of the Visions programme, one that “spotlights films which challenge our notions of mainstream cinema and explore new cinematic territory.” They would have been going against their mandate had they denied a film like this, especially if it’s as good as they say. It’s a foolish dream, I know, but wouldn’t it be great if the controversy and dialogue swirling around this year’s festival focused on storytelling techniques instead of skin? Just imagine. People at a film festival talking about films.

D.O.A.P. screens on Sunday, Sept. 10, 8:30 p.m. (Paramount 3); Tues, Sept. 12, 4:15 p.m. (Paramount 3); Friday, Sept. 15, 7:45 p.m. (Cumberland 3).