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Toronto Film Festival: Awards, Politics and, Oh Yeah, ‘Birth of a Nation’

Eleven days will have plenty of on- and off-screen drama, but right now Nate Parker is overshadowing it all

The Toronto International Film Festival is huge and sprawling, with hundreds of movies screening and hundreds of stories playing out on screen and off.

So why does it seem like a fest that, for the moment, is all about what Nate Parker will do or say?

It seems like that because the furor over Parker, director of the acclaimed film “The Birth of a Nation,” has managed to overshadow much of the pop culture and awards conversation in recent weeks. And as Parker prepares to unveil his movie in back-to-back Toronto Film Festival screenings on Friday night and then face the press on Saturday and Sunday, all eyes and ears are on how he and his cast will address his 17-year-old trial at which he was acquitted of rape charges stemming from a college encounter.

That is clearly the biggest story as Toronto kicks off on Thursday night with gala screenings of Antoine Fuqua‘s update of “The Magnificent Seven”: Can “Birth of a Nation” come out of this festival as a viable awards contender and potential hit, or will the Toronto Film Festival be the final graveyard for its chances?

But there’s lots more going on over the next 11 days at the biggest, most important festival to kick off awards season.

After all, TIFF is so big that it includes three three movies starring Isabelle Huppert (“Things to Come,” “Elle” and “Souvenir”); two starring Amy Adams (“Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals”); two by Werner Herzog (“Salt and Fire” and “Into the Inferno”); two entirely different two-hour-and-42-minute films by female directors that were well received at Cannes (Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” and Andrea Arnold‘s “American Honey”); one movie called “The Journey” and another called “The Journey is the Destination”; documentaries about musicians (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, John Coltrane, Justin Timberlake); and a couple of full-fledged musicals, the animated “Sing” and Damien Chazelle‘s “La La Land,” with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

Many of those movies will have already played previous festivals, but TIFF will also bring 138 world premieres, including Ewan McGregor‘s directorial debut with the Philip Roth adaptation “American Pastoral,” Oliver Stone‘s “Snowden,” Peter Berg‘s true-life take “Deepwater Horizon,” Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio‘s documentary “Before the Flood,” Christopher Guest‘s “Mascots” and Terry George’s “The Promise.”

If “The Birth of a Nation” is clearly the biggest story going into the festival, there are others — including the awards race, which always gets really serious on the streets of Toronto.

Since 2006, the eventual Oscar Best Picture winner has screened at the fall festivals every year — and with the exception of “Birdman,” it has screened in Toronto each time.

So it’s reasonable to assume that sometime in the next week and a half, the Toronto Film Festival audience will see this year’s big winner.

But what will emerge with real momentum? “La La Land” won raves in Venice and Telluride, but not everyone was convinced that an original musical can go all the way. “Loving” and “American Honey” were greatly admired by some in Cannes, but the first might be too quiet and the second too loud for many voters. “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals” have avid fans, but they didn’t prompt much Best Picture talk in Venice. “American Pastoral,” “A United Kingdom,” “Snowden” and many others are simply unknown quantities.

And two of the biggest commercial shots, “The Magnificent Seven” and “Deepwater Horizon,” seem to be popcorn movies — maybe even great popcorn movies — rather than awards plays.

We’ll know more by Sunday night, by which time most of the biggest TIFF premieres will have taken place.

But by then, we could also be talking more about controversies than awards. “The Birth of a Nation” isn’t the only film that could spark heated debate. Oliver Stone‘s “Snowden” will certainly prove to be divisive, since the director is always outspoken and is often a lightning rod for controversy — something you can be sure of when he turns his sights to Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who revealed government spying.

Other political films include Ken Loach‘s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “I, Daniel Blake,” Rob Reiner‘s “LBJ” and Steve James‘ financial documentary “Abacus: Too Small to Jail.”

And Paul Verhoeven‘s “Elle” stirred up plenty of talk at Cannes, as the always transgressive director is as provocative as ever in telling the story of a woman (Isabelle Huppert) who appears to be violently raped at the beginning of the film, but then falls into a series of disturbing games with her apparent assailant that turn her from victim to willing accomplice. That is indeed a hot-button issue, and one that is probably far more immediate now than it was when Verhoeven conceived of the film.

Those are a few of the stories that will play out over the next 11 days — but only a few, because the Toronto Film Festival always ends up telling you things you weren’t expecting.