Egoyan’s Ararat to Open Toronto Film Festival

TORONTO (Canadian Press)–"Ararat," the controversial new film by Atom Egoyan–has the choice slot of opening night gala at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival.

"Ararat" will be Egoyan’s third festival opener–following his earlier features "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Felicia’s Journey."

David Cronenberg’s film "Spider," a Canada-UK co-production–will also have its North American premiere and a gala presentation at the festival–which runs from Sept. 5-14. The lineup was announced Tuesday–July 2–at a news conference.

"After exposing the opening night audiences to tales of schoolbus crashes and mild-mannered psychopathic killers–’Ararat’ might seem to be a grim choice," said the absent Egoyan in a statement read by one of his stars–David Alpay.

"I am convinced–however–that the film will provide the opening-night audience with an emotionally loaded event."

Egoyan went on to say that his film is a meditation on the new reality that the world has faced since the last festival–a reference to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Festival Director Piers Handling conceded that choosing the opening night film was a very difficult decision but that he felt the hoopla surrounding it was not suitable to Cronenberg’s "Spider."

"Spider is a very–very intimate film and I wanted to protect that intimacy and I’m not sure that opening night would have been the best place to have actually shown this film."

For his part–Cronenberg said he was just happy to have been given one of the galas.

"The dynamics of a film festival are not my forte. To know what works best–this is really for Piers Handling and his people to figure out. I’m just a passenger and a spectator at that point."

Ararat is a deeply personal project for Egoyan–who is of Armenian heritage. For years he had wanted to mount a production based on the 1915-17 mass killings of 1.5 million Armenia’s during the time of the Ottoman Empire.

The cast is star-studded – at least by Egoyan/Canadian standards: Charles Aznavour–Eric Bogosian–Brent Carver–Bruce Greenwood–Elias Koteas–Christopher Plummer–Marie-Josee Cruze and Arsinee Khanjian.

Egoyan screened "Ararat" at the Cannes film festival in May but deliberately did not enter it in competition.

"I may never make another film that comes with so much baggage attached to it," Egoyan said at the time. "The film doesn’t need more controversy. It already has a strong agenda–I didn’t need it to have the political agenda of a jury."

But such a historical drama was considered nearly impossible without a blockbuster budget–something no Canadian film has ever enjoyed. Egoyan’s eventual way around that obstacle was to shoot a film within a film–the story of a film crew that comes to Toronto and Alberta to make a movie about the Armenian holocaust. The script was written by Egoyan who co-produced along with Robert Lantos.

Alliance Atlantis has domestic and international releasing rights–except in the US where Miramax Films is said to consider it Oscar-worthy.

The film has been the subject of criticism and even threats of protests from Turkish groups that insist an Armenian Genocide never happened or at least has been exaggerated.

Handling doesn’t know if the gala will draw protesters but says he’s not afraid.

"We certainly don’t shy away from anything controversial. I think it’s one of the jobs of a festival to raise awareness–to be provocative at times."

Handling–meanwhile–reports that there will be some acknowledgment of Sept. 11 during the festival. He says films will still be screened on that date.

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