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toronto film festival 2013

Sarah Polley Fights Her Fear of the Press to Rally Support for Canadians Jailed in Egypt

Actress and director Sarah Polley attends a Film Independent At LACMA special screening of "Stories We Tell" at Bing Theatre At LACMA on May 2, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Sarah Polley

Last night, the Toronto Film Festival celebrated the fall of print journalism by opening its 2013 edition with the Julian Assange–deifying WikiLeaks drama The Fifth Estate. Wednesday night, though, was the provenance of the fourth estate, the bloggers and journalists stumbling off planes in rumpled khakis and fortifying themselves for the week ahead with free guacamole and margaritas at media welcome parties. The only star to be seen was great daughter of Canada, actress-director Sarah Polley, who was, curiously, not just mingling with the schlubby ink-stained masses at a Toronto Film Critics Association shindig, but also handing out homemade buttons.

The buttons read #FreeTarekAndJohn and refer to two Canadians, award-winning filmmaker John Greyson and ER doctor and professor Tarek Loubani, who’ve been imprisoned in Egypt since August 16. They had stopped in Cairo on their way to the Gaza Strip, where Loubani (who’s of Palestinian origin and has been a pro-Palestine activist) trains physicians at a hospital. Greyson, best known for Lilies, a magical realist murder mystery involving two homosexual men that won the 1996 Genie award for best picture, was documenting the trip to explore doing a film there. Somehow, they got lost on the way back to their hotel and, according to what their families and lawyers have pieced together, got stopped at a checkpoint following a demonstration, and were arrested for being out after the 7pm curfew. The Times reports that Egyptian authorities have since accused them in a public statement of armed assault on a police station and being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, “the conservative Islamist group backing the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi.” They haven’t been officially charged with any crimes, but a spokesman for the family, Justin Podur, who was at the party, says the Egyptian prosecutor has the authority to hold them for up to 45 days without charges. Today is day 21.

“John Greyson is in my mind the best living Canadian filmmaker,” said Polley. “He’s just an incredible mentor and one of the most respected filmmakers in Canada, so this is, for our commuity, really devastating.” She’d had a triumph at TIFF last year with her autobiographical documentary, Stories We Tell, but this year has no film in the festival and no reason to be on the scene except for this. “I’m here on a political campaign,” she said. “And it’s funny, I’m actually trying to bust my way into all the places I’m usually trying to get out of. So I’m like, ‘How do I get to the press corps at the Intercontinental?’ Usually I’m like, ‘How do I get out of here?!’”

The idea is to get as many prominent actors and filmmakers as possible to wear the button and sign the petition for release. Polley, the families, and other supporters are hosting a big press conference on Tuesday in the hope that the attention and show of solidarity will provide added pressure to the Egyptian prosecutor, who’s scheduled to have his second meeting with Greyson and Loubani on Wednesday. Until that happens, Polley said, “I’m doing everything I can in the context of having a young baby. [Her daughter Eve is 19 months old.] So not as much as I want to be doing but as much as I can. It’s a huge group of people. Nobody’s going to sleep until John and Tarek are home. It’s just hugely upsetting. All we know is that two innocent people have been in jail for nineteen days, and it’s a very turbulent place so we need to get them home.”

Polley was reluctant to reveal the names of the celebrities they’ve enlisted for support, lest it blunt the impact of Tuesday’s press conference, but did joke that they’d really appreciate the help of one star in particular. “As long as Ben Affleck shows up in a Batman costume to save them, I think we’re all good,” she said. After all, Affleck owes Canada one for Argo, which caused quite the kerfuffle at last year’s TIFF for downplaying the contributions of the Canadian ambassador and national hero Ken Taylor (as played by Victor Garber), who harbored six stranded U.S. diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis. And if Affleck’s not practiced enough with his Batman moves yet, Polley suggested that he could repay his debts to her nation by just reenacting the Argo rescue plan for real. “You won the Oscar doing it, we’ve seen you do it, so go do it,” she said.

Photo: Amanda Edwards/WireImage