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STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND

Canada, 1988 (MIFF 1989)

Director: Bob McKeown

Like Burden Of Dreams, Les Blank's documentary about the production of Werner Herzog"s epic Fitzcarraldo, Strangers In A Strange Land is a film about a film in the making. Forty years ago, scriptwriter Ted Allen (Lies My Father Told Me) began working on a script about legendary Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, who became a hero of the Chinese Communist rebels in the 1930s. The protracted production of Bethune: The Making Of A Hero finally started rolling in 1987, but fast became embroiled in a score of crippling disputes. The crew went on strike in protest of food and working conditions in the remote Chinese locations, while actor Donald Sutherland argued with Ted Allen over the depiction of Bethune. Meanwhile, the Chinese and Canadian co-producers were at loggerheads over matters that went far beyond language problems. At stake were fundamental issues of historical interpretation, and the insoluble question of which Bethune the film was to portray.

Director Bob McKeown describes Strangers In A Strange Land 'a primer on what can go wrong in making a movie.' Unlike Blank's film, which set out to draw parallels between the grandiose dreams of director Herzog and the film's namesake, McKeown's view is balanced, preferring to simply show what happened without comment, judgement or sensationalism. But, he candidly admits, 'the worse for them (the Bethune production), the better for us.' Interestingly, one half of the production money for Strangers was provided by CBC, which will broadcast the documentary the night before it airs the mini-series version of Bethune.

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