TORONTO (Reuters) - “Rendition,” which takes a critical look at the U.S. practice of detaining suspected terrorists in foreign jails, brought a dose of torture and political timeliness to the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday.
Directed by Gavin Hood and starring Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, the film had its gala premiere on Friday night amid a flurry of festival movies that have delved heavily into issues surrounding war and national security.
However, the film’s stars told Reuters they are not out to bolster Hollywood’s liberal label by launching a popular culture attack on U.S. security measures.
Gyllenhaal said the key question in “Rendition” is whether sacrificing one person’s rights is worth potentially saving thousands of lives, a question the movie leaves somewhat open.
“Is one life more important than 5,000? That’s the issue at play,” he said. “I think it’s the job of everybody to be honest and truthful, and I don’t think many people want to do that.”
Following an Egyptian-American seized by U.S. Customs agents and tossed into a North African prison, the film shines a light on a controversial practice that has raised questions about the balance between national security and human rights.
Gyllenhaal tackles the role of a North Africa-based CIA analyst reluctantly assigned to supervise the torture of Egyptian-born American Anwar El-Ibrahim, played by Omar Metwally, at the hands of a brutal local interrogator.
While the film’s plot is ripped from recent headlines, it plays like pure Hollywood political drama, as the story jumps back and forth between Washington and an unnamed North African country with a clever chronological twist in the storytelling.
Witherspoon, who plays Anwar’s pregnant wife, relished the chance to portray a woman who blends vulnerability with strength as she battles in U.S. to free her husband.
For Witherspoon, the film’s message was secondary to the appeal of the character, she said.
“I think I come from a very conservative family background,” she said. “I feel like I wouldn’t be part of a film I felt was weighed to one side necessarily.”
South African director Hood, whose “Tsotsi” won the top Toronto Film Festival award in 2005 and went on to take the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, said his interest came in part from his own reverence for the U.S. Constitution.
Hood said he believes its principles have been increasingly trampled upon in the rush to placate security fears.
“If we stand for these principles, how dare we let an enemy — which is real, and dangerous and believes in extremism and absolutely zero tolerance — how dare we let them shake our faith in who we are,” he said. “I hope that our little film is just a part of that debate.”
War has taken a spotlight at the festival with several films including “In the Valley of Elah,” “Battle for Haditha” and “Redacted.”