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VIFF braces for controversy over The Birth of a Nation showing

Nate Parker plays Nat Turner in his film, The Birth of a Nation.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Filmmaker Nate Parker, who has been facing tough questions about his prosecution and acquittal on sexual-assault charges, is bringing his controversial dramatic feature film The Birth of a Nation to this year's Vancouver International Film Festival, and festival organizers are bracing for controversy.

"The film is a hot potato on a number of fronts," Alan Franey, VIFF's director of international programming, said in an interview on Thursday.

He said the film has been controversial for its subject matter – the true, violent story of a slave revolt in the United States – as well as Mr. Parker's personal history and the "context in which the film appears in the world" – notably current-day racial politics in the United States as well as the high price a U.S. studio paid to acquire it.

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Related: Nate Parker's past will complicate Oscar campaign for The Birth of a Nation

Mr. Franey said VIFF organizers are expecting Mr. Parker will attend the festival, which runs between Sept. 29 and Oct. 14. Mr Parker wrote the film, produced and directed it, and stars as Nat Turner, a slave who led a violent rebellion in 1831. He is likely to introduce the film and offer remarks before the screening.

However, the film has been shadowed by controversy involving sexual-assault charges 16 years ago that have come back into the spotlight since it made a splash at this year's Sundance Film Festival in January.

In 1999, Mr. Parker and his friend Jean Celestin, who co-wrote the film, were attending Pennsylvania State University when they were charged with sexually assaulting an 18-year-old fellow student who said she was unconscious after heavy drinking. Both men claimed the sex was consensual.

Mr. Parker was acquitted. Mr. Celestin was convicted and later granted a new trial, though the woman declined to testify again and the case never made it back to court. In 2012, the unidenfied woman took her own life.

The whole situation has raised questions about whether an artist's work can be separated from their life outside that work.

Asked if The Birth of a Nation will require special handling, Mr. Franey said: "We need to be sensitive to the opinions and controversies here so we will be doing our best to keep people in that safe zone of not prejudging or getting too upset, making sure opinions don't get treated as fact if they're just opinions."

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The VIFF executive noted that The Birth of a Nation comes in the shadow of controversy last year about the absence of diversity in Oscar nominations. Mr. Parker's film is expected to be very competitive in next year's Oscars.

He said that festival organizers have yet to actually see the movie – something they usually do – but sought it out after its reception at Sundance.

Fox Searchlight paid $17.5-million (U.S.) to acquire The Birth of a Nation, the most any studio has paid for a film at the venerable festival. But Mr. Franey emphasized VIFF was more interested in the fact that the first feature film directed by Mr. Parker won the audience award and the grand prize at Sundance.

"We do program most films in the festival based on having seen them, but there are occasions where we're not able to see the film, but it already has the need-to-see factor from winning a top prize at a major film festival," said Mr. Franey.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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