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Death in Queens

You dreamed of it, Gabriel Range did it: The British director has President Bush assassinated in his new pseudo-documentary Death of a President, which he presented in a preview Tuesday night at the Museum of the Moving Image. Opening Friday in New York, the film depicts the events and the aftermath of George W.'s assassination: Dick Cheney as the 44th president of the United States; the Patriot Act 3 (nastier than the first two); and the frantic hunt for the killer and a hasty trial involving Syria and Al-Qaida.

The idea of the movie was born in Greenpoint, where Range (right) lived for a while. "I was baffled by the daily digests on the War on Terror, the balance between civil liberties and security, the sense of disillusion with the war in Iraq", he said. Range's "mockumentary" doesn't mock as much as it could, but it does provide a compelling account of the political and military disaster following the post-9/11 hysteria.

Like his previous films, Death of a President was initially produced for British television, but it did so well at last month's Toronto Fillm Festival that it sold worldwide -- except in the Middle East. The film, which conveniently comes out before the Nov. 7 midterm elections, has already sparked extreme reactions: The Regal Theaters chain has decided not to show it, and neither CNN nor National Public Radio will run ads for it.

"I knew this would upset some people, but I was shocked to hear that Hillary Clinton called the film 'disgusting' before anyone had even seen it!" said Range, who also acknowledged recently receiving death threats.

Still, he has to admit this whole idea of Bush getting shot is a little tricky, right? "I did an interview with Fox News and the guy told me I was irresponsible and manipulating images. I thought that was so funny," he said.

So how did you get funding for that in the first place?

"Well, I asked my friends in the US, and they said 'Oh, no' " Range told the audience. "Then [the British production company] Film Four said 'Absolutely!' Fortunately, they were very receptive to the project and they thought it was an interesting way to approach that matter. And that was it -- we shot in less than 18 months."

Once he had financing, Range settled on Chicago as the location of both the assassination and the film's scenes of protests and chaos. "I wanted to explore the resonances of the Chicago police forces beating up protesters in 1968 during the Vietnam war," he said. "It just shows how polarizing war can be. Actually, a lot of scenes you see in the movie were shot during a real protest, on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, on March 18, 2006."

But the filmmaker insisted that his film was not an incitation to violence; contrary to what one might expect, the tone of the movie is rather serious. "People think of it as a liberal wet dream," Range said. "But I'm not asking for the assassination of Bush ... The film is not a 'what if' kind of story. We use the assassination as a mean to look at things that have already happened."

Indeed, the film cleverly blends archive footage with plausible fiction. "A lot of the script was actually written around the archive," he said. "I went through the deceptive experience of watching hours of President Bush speeches. We finally chose Cheney's eulogy for Reagan's funeral because it seemed appropriate for Bush as well, and we tried to give it a fresh context." Range added that the rest of the film is inspired by some of stories that emerged after 9/11 and by the way the Bush administration is exploiting the politics of fear.

But Death of a President is not another JFK, nor is Range another Oliver Stone or Michael Moore -- this is a fictional documentary. "People react in a different way to the vocabulary of documentary," he said. "There is something really powerful about telling a story that way. I hope it makes it feel very real."

And it does. The film works because it is stunningly believable -- so much so that you almost feel a strange empathy for the old man.

Which reminds me: Has anyone at the White House reacted to the film yet?

"We've had no letters of congratulation," Range said. -- Clementine Gallot

Posted at October 26, 2006 9:39 AM

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