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TIFF 2016: Birth of a Nation controversy follows Nate Parker to TIFF

Nate Parker, the writer, director and star of Birth of a Nation was tried in the U.S. for rape nearly two decades ago and it's that criminal charge that's followed him to TIFF on the night of his movie screening.
Nate Parker, seen here arriving at the Sundance NIGHT BEFORE NEXT Benefit in Los Angeles last month, has been facing questions about a rape charge against him in 2001. (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/Associated Press)

A criminal charge that Nate Parker faced 17 years ago has followed him to the Toronto International Film Festival.

On Festival Street, film fan Duane Farley shakes his head, disappointed that allegations of rape continue to dog the filmmaker who brought his latest project, The Birth of a Nation, to the festival for a screening Friday night. 

"He should have probably disclosed it. But it's a very sensitive issue, too," Farley said.

The writer, director and lead actor in the biopic — adapted from William Styron's Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Confessions of Nat Turner —  was tried for rape as a teen and was acquitted in 2001.

He has always maintained his innocence and expressed sorrow last month when he learned the woman he was accused of assaulting committed suicide four years ago. 

But after the release of the film this year, a controversy erupted, in part over whether Parker had a responsibility to talk publicly about the case.

TIFF's artistic director, Cameron Bailey says there are 296 films screening at the festival and he doesn't know the personal stories of most of the filmmakers. In this case, he says it's complicated.

I do think we should be able to assess the art separately from the artist.- Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director

"I do think we should be able to assess the art separately from the artist," Bailey said.

In an op-ed column for the Los Angeles Times, actress Gabrielle Union wrote she was raped at gunpoint decades ago.
In the film her character is sexually assaulted. She writes she "took this part to talk about sexual violence" and says it "opens up the conversation."

This image provided by the Sundance Institute shows Armie Hammer, left, and Nate Parker in a scene from the film The Birth of a Nation, directed by Nate Parker. The movie won two top awards at the Sundance Film Festival. (Elliot Davis/Sundance Institute via Associated Press)

Bailey said Parker has had to learn to listen and to understand what that means to women like Union who've experienced sexual violence "to work on a film that they're proud of but then to also have that experience and then to read what they're reading about him."

The head of the Montreal Black Film Festival, Fabienne Colas says the controversy is overshadowing the achievements of the filmmaker, saying people went back and dug "into his past almost 20 years ago when he was underage.".

She listed Parker's recent successes: the making of The Birth of a Nation and selling it to Fox Searchlight for more than $17 million. 

"He had not been found guilty of anything. He has been acquitted. And then this is the story? I mean, seriously? I'm very disappointed," Colas added. "This guy is trying to make his people proud."

He has been acquitted. And then this is the story? I mean seriously? I'm very disappointed.- Fabienne Colas, Montreal Black Film Festival

The film was scheduled to screen Friday at 8 p.m. but the cast did not take part in media interviews either before, or — as is often the tradition — on the way into the theatre on the red carpet.

For 11 years, film buff Sarah Twomey has faithfully attended the festival, making sure to take vacation days to coincide with it. She says it's often the questions the movie makers answer after films that are the most memorable, and this might be a case in point if Parker gets grilled about his past.

"If they do a Q&A, if questions from the audience are pointed, if there are victims in the audience who accuse them ... That's what's makes this such a special festival because those seminal moments that will never be repeated again are happening right here in our city and history can be made," Twomey said.

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