TIFF Celebrates Star-Studded “August” Premiere While Eyeing Middle East Turmoil


Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney in Toronto Tuesday. Photo by National Post.

The big film story coming out of Toronto at the beginning of the week revolved around the World Premiere of John Wells' August: Osage County, the hotly tipped Oscar-destined title starring Academy Award-winners Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts as well as Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis and Dermot Mulroney.

Based on a Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, the family drama centers on the Weston family, whose strong-willed women clash once again when they converge in their Oklahoma home to deal with a family crisis. "I saw the play and I loved it," Julia Roberts said Tuesday morning following the film's debut Monday evening. "I thought, wow my life will never be the same again. And after taking the play [to make a film] with this incredible cast, it was just like that. My life will never be the same again."

Sam Shepard plays Beverly Weston, an Oklahoma poet battling alcoholism, while his wife Violet (Meryl Streep) suffers from cancer and a burgeoning drug dependency. After hiring a live-in caregiver for Violet, Beverly disappears, leading to a family search and, ultimately, a morbid discovery.

"We wanted wonderful actors. The material is complicated and difficult. It seems simple on the surface, but there's a lot of subtext and relationships," noted director John Wells about moving the film to the big screen. "It's a nice piece of writing, but it's not for the faint of heart. There's the 20-page dinner scene that we did around the table. I think after we did it we could have taken it down to Tulsa and performed it onstage. We were looking for wonderful actors who could do this and have the ability to deal with the language… some language looks easy on the page, but not easy to actually perform."


John Wells' August: Osage County.

Echoing Roberts' praise for August, actor Chris Cooper said the script reminded him of what motivated him to be a thespian decades ago. "I was approached by John [Wells] and I read the screenplay and it was just the type of playwriting that got me into acting in the first place. It reminded me of the great stories about human behavior that got me interested in acting and I was thrilled to be a part of it."

Added Juliette Lewis: "It's rare in this business you find material this special and complicated. It's not about superheroes; it's a great story and it was great to be a part of it.

On the early short list for a possible 18th Oscar nomination (she has won three), Streep was not at Tuesday's conversation with journalists about August: Osage County because of illness, though her presence was still felt in the room with many actors praising the woman who plays the family's dysfunctional matriarch. The group praised her energy given the demand of the role, and her encouraging of the group to give it their all.

"Here's the crux of this gig if you will," said Roberts. "We worked our asses off. I've never worked so hard in my life and I've given birth to three children. It was like a mountain to climb every single day. And the only way to climb it was to hold hands. We'd work all day and run home to take a shower and then go to Meryl's house and start practicing for the next day. You had to have that momentum 20 hours a day or it would just leave you. And it was the best acting experience of my life."

Premiere red carpet shots from August: Osage County splashed across local news coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday morning here in Canada's largest city, but another more sobering event at the festival also caught headlines. Actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley, director Atom Egoyan and documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney were among a group of panelists calling on the immediate release of filmmaker John Greyson (Fig Trees, Proteus) and compatriot Tarek Loubani who are being held in an Egyptian jail.

The duo traveled to the troubled country to film Loubani's work training staff at the Al Shifa hospital in the neighboring Gaza Strip. They delayed their trip to Gaza because of unrest and were arrested when they entered a police station seeing directions to their hotel. "They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time," Greyson's sister said, according to the Toronto Star at the event held at the festival's headquarters. TIFF Bell Lightbox also noted that they're being held in a cell with 38 people with "one tap and one toilet."


Jehane Noujaime's The Square.

"We all fiercely defend his right to speak his mind," said Egoyan about Greyson, who has a history supporting Palestinians in Gaza, which may have caused him to run afoul with authorities. "He was trying to tell a story and was stopped. We are very very worried about him."

Egypt is also at the center of a much heralded documentary here that received a standing ovation in a packed theater over the weekend. Egyptian-born filmmaker Jehane Noujaim's The Square (Al Midan), which will screen at the upcoming New York Film Festival, is a powerful portrait of revolution in Egypt. Noujaim and her filmmaking partners followed a group of people—varied in background and ideologies—who occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square during the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak, then the military government and, most recently, to protest Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi.

The audience burst into spontaneous gasps and applause throughout the film that both tells a fascinating story and is also beautifully crafted. Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons have dominated recent news coverage from the Middle East, but the film reveals untold use of brutality in squashing the Cairo uprisings with some moments of footage that are disturbing and, as yet, unseen in mainstream media. Subjects also make shocking claims about military and government tactics about an historical ally that is a big recipient of U.S. government largesse.

Noujaim screened a work in progress version of The Square at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but immediately returned to Egypt after crowds returned to the square. Morsi had given himself powers beyond what Mubarak had and she sees the current unrest as a new front in the fight for rights and freedom.

"Morsi declared dictatorial powers and all of our characters were back on the streets again and it became a much more interesting story to tell because it was about people fighting against fascism, whether it be the military, Mubarak or the Brotherhood. People are continuing to fight."

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