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Arts Stolen art, stonewalling politicians, and one feisty octogenarian

At a time when the national conversation about art seems to have contracted to griping about federal funding for a proposed international award, several documentaries in the sixth annual Reel Artists Film Festival remind us that arts and politics intersect in more meaningful, violent and controversial ways.

Nowhere is this nexus more definitively explored than in Terrence Turner's compelling Adele's Wish, which will receive its Toronto premiere on March 1. The Vancouver-based filmmaker reconstructs the legal battles of Maria Altmann, then in her 80s, against the Austrian government to reclaim five Gustav Klimt paintings that had once belonged to her family and were appropriated by the Nazis in 1938. Two of the artworks were iconic portraits of Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, who expressed a "wish" in a much-contested will that the paintings be donated to a state gallery.

The case of California resident Maria Altmann, now 93, drew worldwide attention at the beginning of this decade. It revealed how some European governments are stonewalling claims by Holocaust survivors or victims' families to regain ownership of expropriated art. The Austrian government, U.S. Supreme Court judges, lawyers, diplomats, and art historians became key players in the art-restitution drama of the new millennium.

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Turner's initial motive for telling this story, however, was more personal than political. His wife, Lisa, happens to be Altmann's great-niece. In documenting the legal case, the director wanted to leave a record of this remarkable family member to his two sons.

"I had to interview her at least for the purpose of getting the story down," says Turner, who began filming in 2005. "Nobody in the family interviewed her for anything."

Adele's Wish draws on another personal aspect of Turner's life - his former training as a lawyer. While other documentaries that reference Altmann's case in depth or in passing gloss over the legal challenges that she and her "pit-bull" lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg faced, Adele's Wish fashions a compelling narrative around them.

"I don't have any reluctance to look at the legal issues," Turner says. "At the same time, I was trying to give them the weight they're due in the story without diminishing them or making them boring."

If the lawyer in Turner came in handy, so did his inner (art) historian who could place the family history in the context of Vienna in the early 20th century, a time when Klimt was most active and controversial. The same Vienna by 1938 had become part of Hitler's "one people, one state, one leader" campaign. As compelling and as controversial as that later chapter of Austrian history is, Turner resisted the temptation to make a documentary about Nazi crimes.

"It's very difficult to not go down that road when you're working with that material because there's so much out there that deals with the atrocities," Turner says. "But those stories have been told by wonderful filmmakers, and are still being told. The thing was to keep it in the realm of what was happening to [Altmann] her trials and tribulations. What was she after?"

Turner's own goals are less complicated but just as important. Adele's Wish is his contribution to a still-raging debate about the ethical and legal responsibilities of galleries and museums whose collections include stolen art from long-term colonization or short-lived military occupation. As the looting of museums in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 proves, national treasures continue to be vulnerable to political machination.

If, as Turner puts it, his documentary "makes people sympathetic to individuals or countries maintaining their property or regaining it," then Adele's true wish, as well as his own, will be granted.

The Reel Artists Film Festival opens in Toronto next Thursday and runs through March 1. For more information, please visit www.canadianart.ca/reelartists

Special to The Globe and Mail

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