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Trial and errors 

Reese Witherspoon’s film Rendition is the latest to explore the repercussions of the War on Terror.

Reese Witherspoon disrupts her glam presentation—short-sleeved black dress, artfully wavy hair—by coughing onto her bare forearm. "I have a terrible cold," she'll say later, apologetically. Stars, they're just like us.

Witherspoon, seated two conspicuous chairs away from co-star and alleged boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal, has gathered with a sliver of her new film's international ensemble at the Toronto film festival to talk about Rendition, the latest in an ever-increasing number of cinematic reactions to the War on Terror. Directed by Gavin Hood, the film tells the story of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally, Munich), an Egpytian-born businessman who is detained on a flight home to Chicago from Africa.

A suicide bombing there has killed a CIA agent, and a tenuous connection is made between that act and El-Ibrahimi, so he's considered a national threat and is shipped off under the US's policy of "extraordinary rendition," which allows terror suspects to be tortured in other countries without legal consequence. Gyllenhaal plays the neophyte CIA analyst on the case, and his boss is Meryl Streep, who puts the hammer down on El-Ibrahimi.

Hood, who won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for 2005's Tsotsi, was looking for a follow-up to that film when Kelley Sane's script for Rendition found its way onto his desk.

"I started reading it and it was just a page-turner," says Hood. "I wanted to know what happened. And at the same time it was triggering all kinds of differing arguments in my head. And I got to the end of the script and I wanted to talk to somebody, I wanted to debate. And there's no one, because reading is a solitary experience.

"So I thought OK, this is the movie I want to make, because it does two things: it was thrilling and exciting and entertaining and emotionally engaging, and it also left me with something I wanted to talk about."

Witherspoon is Anwar's wife, Isabella. She's very pregnant, but that doesn't stop her from heading to Washington to try and find her husband with the aid of an old boyfriend who now works for a senator (Peter Sarsgaard).

"He gave me a lot of direction about not playing with the vulnerability of it, playing the strength of it," says Witherspoon of Hood. "I think naturally as a nine-and-a-half month pregnant woman there's an innate vulnerability, but to play against it was really Gavin's direction and it was really wise. To have a character come at it without any self-pity, just knowing what she was up against, was very real."

Hood and Sane had plenty of real-life cases to consider when putting the film together, including those involving Canadians Omar Khadr and Maher Arar.

"There's a frightening and brilliantly played moment between Omar and Yigal Noar"—who plays Anwar's torturer—"where he says, "My name is El-Ibrahimi with an i, and some people call me El-Ibrahim,' and Peter's character calls him Mr. Ibrahim, and we have this strange use of the name, which you find when you talk to people, they get these names wrong," says Hood.

"Well, Khalid El-Masri was mistaken for Al-Masri, with an a, not an e, and for this mistake, the man disappeared for five months."

Hood, a South African, was able to connect to the difficult material via his experiences in his country, and how his views of the US at that time conflict with his views today.

"I come from a country where the rules were thrown out," he says. "And what drew me to this material was having had first-hand experience in the military for two years and losing friends in a war that we then regretted; having been detained; having had a friend disappear for three months. The notion of living in a society where indefinite detention without trial exists—where the rules go—is very real to me.

"We used to look, as young South African law students, at the US constitution as something we wanted, very badly. So it does resonate very powerfully with me to see what I believe to be an extraordinary document—created during a time of great reason and something that is designed to protect us when we're afraid—being thrown out because we're afraid."

Rendition opens Friday, October 19.

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