By Mary Milliken and Julie Gordon
LOS ANGELES/TORONTO (Reuters) - As director Bill Condon was finishing up his film "The Fifth Estate" about Julian Assange and anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden started leaking U.S. security documents, reigniting the public debate over secrecy, security and whistleblowing in the Internet era.
"The same lines were being used, the same script was being recited, it was fascinating," said Condon. "And then Assange appeared and became part of the story."
"The Fifth Estate," which will open the 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, comes just months after Snowden leaked documents about spying at the U.S. National Security Agency with the support of Assange and WikiLeaks.
The film boldly leads the way on a prevalent theme throughout this year's lineup - transparency and secrets.
"It's the tension between transparency and privacy in the Internet age and how far each one goes and how those ideas butt up against each other," said Condon, who directed "Dreamgirls" and won a screenwriting Oscar for "Gods and Monsters."
"The Fifth Estate" stars English actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange and is based on the book by Assange's once trusted lieutenant Daniel Domscheit-Berg about events that led to the largest leak of official secrets in American history in 2010.
For Condon, Toronto is the best place to premiere his first foray into government and politics: not only is it "a generous movie-loving audience, it is also a well-informed one."
It is also a festival that has come to be known as the starting block in the race for Oscars six months down the road. The coveted People's Choice Award propelled the fortunes of "Slumdog Millionaire," and "The King's Speech," which both went on to win the Academy Award for best picture.
OSCAR BUZZ ABOUNDS
The Toronto winner could also emerge from a number of films that already premiered at the Venice and Telluride festivals in the last week, stealing a bit of Toronto's thunder and picking up early Oscar buzz.
"12 Years a Slave," the story of a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, by British director Steve McQueen, earned rave reviews after a surprise screening in the Colorado mountain town of Telluride. "Gravity," a space thriller by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron and a two-person cast of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, opened the Venice festival to widespread acclaim.
"Philomena," starring Judi Dench as an elderly Irish woman searching for a child she was forced to give up for adoption, is a favorite to win Venice's top award, the Golden Lion.
Some 366 films, including 146 world premieres, will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival over 11 days.
World premieres of note in Toronto include "August: Osage County" starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in a drama of a dysfunctional family, and "Dallas Buyers Club," in which Matthew McConaughey plays an AIDS activist who smuggles treatment drugs from Mexico.
The theme of transparency crops up in films like "The Armstrong Lie," a documentary about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, and "Trap Street," a Chinese film that looks at the disappearance of people and places in the rush to modernization in China.
The documentary lineup also reflects a trend of filmmakers shedding light on the big news topics of the times. "The Square" chronicles Egypt's revolution in Cairo's Tahrir Square, while Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris conducts an interview with former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in an exploration of post-9/11 American policy.
"It seems to be something that a lot of filmmakers in many parts of the world are dealing with and trying to understand: what this new world means when sometimes governments, or corporations, or different sources of power have so much control over information," said festival artistic director Cameron Bailey.
AUDIENCE IS 'SECRET SAUCE'
What sets Toronto apart from the other festivals, Bailey said, is the public audience, what he calls its "secret sauce."
"It's why filmmakers love to bring their films here, it's why people who are selling their movies for distribution like to bring their films here to see how they play in front of the Toronto audience," Bailey said.
It is also a place where a young director like Ned Benson can get a career-making bounce. Benson is premiering his feature debut "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her," starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a couple whose relationship is told from his and her perspectives. He is looking for a buyer.
"The taste and the curation of the festival make it a fantastic place," said Benson. "I remember when 'American Beauty' premiered there ... coming out of nowhere and becoming best picture (Oscar). It just has a way of being a platform into the rest of the year."
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)