Plains speaking | Bleader

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Plains speaking

Posted By on 09.18.07 at 11:23 AM

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Finally, a movie-star president I can live with. Last week Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter arrived at the Toronto film festival for the world premiere of Jonathan Demme's Man From Plains, which documents the ex-president's U.S. book tour to promote his hackle-raising Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006). Just before the screening, the Carters appeared at Ryerson Theater for an onstage interview with TVO talk show host Allan Gregg. After a few days of watching entertainment journalists jockey for position to interview George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, I was gratified to see the Carters get a long and heartfelt standing ovation.

Demme certainly chose an opportune time to follow Carter around: the Palestine book was roundly attacked by pro-Israel partisans for daring to compare the treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with South African apartheid, though it's evident from the movie that few of the journalists who interviewed him bothered to read much more than the title. In one sequence Carter appears on Wolf Blitzer's CNN program The Situation Room and, politely but firmly, corrects Blitzer's facts time and again. Despite Carter's reputation as a wimpy chief executive, he's pretty tough when it comes to making his arguments understood and dispelling other people's distortions.

I was particularly surprised by the depth of Carter's Christianity in the movie; Demme shows him taking to the pulpit at Maranatha Baptist Church in Virginia and leading people in prayer at a Georgia picnic. Carter was just as vocal about his faith at Ryerson, declaring, "I worship a Christ who was the prince of peace, not preemptive war." He drew a thick line between his own faith and that of fundamentalists who subjugate women and feel they have a direct line to God. It was quite a contrast from the previous afternoon at Ryerson, when comedian Bill Maher and Borat director Larry Charles spent an hour and a half lampooning the very notion of religion.

Asked about the experience of being filmed for the movie, Rosalyn declared with characteristic bluntness, "I didn't like it at all." Demme was granted unlimited access to Carter during the filming and had final cut of the movie, and Rosalyn expressed some disappointment that the finished product didn't spend more time on the Carter Center, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Demme spends most of his time on the controversy over the book, with flashbacks to the 1978 peace accords Carter brokered between Israel and Egypt. Yet the movie covers a lot of ground, including not only the ex-president's upbringing in Plains but his 1980 electoral defeat to Ronald Reagan, his ultimate vindication with the Nobel peace prize, and the Carters' recent work with Habitat for Humanity building homes in New Orleans. At Ryerson, Carter recalled that their last building project was supposed to take five days, but after Brad Pitt showed up to help, they had so many volunteers that they were finished in four.

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