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- Trailer: Death of a President
Benito Di Fonzo
Sydney Morning Herald, March 1, 2007
"Fortunately when you apply for a White House press pass they don't ask you if you're making a film about killing President Bush," says English filmmaker Gabriel Range.
His new faux-documentary, Death of a President, has been called a "snuff movie" and "a new low in Bush hatred" by some critics. Others have chastised him for painting too nice a picture of George Dubya.
"I think it was very important that you got a sense of George Bush as a human being," Range says.
"It's a film that is absolutely critical of the Bush Administration's handling of the war on terror. It's critical of the very cynical way it sought to exploit the climate of fear following 9/11 and the very cynical way it sought to lead the country to war and connect Saddam Hussein to 9/11, but it is not a Bush-hating movie."
You could argue Death of a President is the best insurance policy Bush has had.
"I think if you ever needed a better deterrent than the prospect of President Cheney then I can't think what it might be," Range says.
The neo-con vice-president, who Range considers the driving force behind the invasion of Iraq, takes over the presidency after Bush is assassinated outside a Chicago hotel. Cheney immediately pushes Patriot Act III through Congress, further curtailing civil liberties.
Meanwhile, FBI agents go through names of employees in the building from which the bullets were fired. Focusing on people with Arab-sounding names, they find Zahra Abi Zikri (Hend Ayoub) unaccounted for. Within a year Zikri is convicted despite doubts from FBI forensic examiner James Pearn (James Urbaniak) and agent Robert Maguire (Michael Reilly Burke), both of whom resign in protest.
Much of the movie is made up of archival footage, including presidential appearances and anti-war protests, supplemented by footage Range's crew filmed in Chicago. Some of it is digitally manipulated, such as when Bush's face is pasted onto an actor's or when President Cheney's Reagan eulogy becomes one for Bush. As such, the film is as much a comment on media manipulation of images as it is on erosion of civil liberties.
"It is in some senses a very extreme version of the kind of media manipulation that happens on a daily basis," Range says. "A lot of it is simple editing and I think that you forget the power that has."
Zikri's trial also examines jurors' television-inspired faith in forensics.
"There's a sense among lawyers in the States of what they call the 'CSI Effect' in which juries expect forensic evidence to be incontrovertible," Range says.
Range and the director of the Toronto Film Festival were sent death threats before the film's launch. Cinema chains across the US have refused to screen it. The White House has wisely refused to comment, but presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has said that "anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick".
Range brushes off the death threats as "just a few poorly spelt emails from suspiciously Southern-looking addresses. [However] every time I go through US immigration I have this suspicion that I'm going to be detained for a few extra hours."
He is fascinated by political assassinations and their accompanying conspiracy theories. He saw his scenario as a chance to make an entertaining film that also commented on an administration "riding roughshod" over the constitution.
"Presidential assassinations are very much part of popular culture in the States. They're fascinating in the way they play out. The film plays with the hunger for conspiracy theories. I hope it makes us think about the way those conspiracy theories emerge out of any major event.
"It's a murder-mystery which I hope is intriguing. You don't have to be American to feel the effects of the war on terror or what the Bush administration is doing."
With luck, then, it will still be playing when Hicks gets home.