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‘American Fugitive’ is docu hot potato

Director says pic is attempt to understand fugitive

MONTREAL — Seasoned Canuck docu helmer Jean-Daniel Lafond’s pic “American Fugitive: The Truth About Hassan,” which just began its commercial run in Quebec cinemas Oct. 29, is causing no small amount of controversy. Lafond has been accused of making a film that is an apology for a terrorist; the charge has made headlines because Lafond is married to one of Canada’s highest-profile public figures. His wife, Michaelle Jean, is the Governor General, a prestigious post which entails acting as the representative of the British Queen in Canada and opening each session of the Parliament in Ottawa.

“American Fugitive” tells the story of David Belfield, the African-American man who assassinated Ali Akbar Tabatabai, the former press attache of the Shah of Iran, in Washington, D.C. in 1980. Belfield immediately fled the U.S., first to Montreal, then to Tehran, and he has lived in Iran ever since, under the name Hassan Abdulrahman. Though still on the FBI’s most-wanted list, Belfield was a largely forgotten figure. But when he turned up as an actor in Iranian helmer Mohsen Makmalbaf’s 2001 pic “Kandahar,” U.S. media outlets discovered the actor was in fact a fugitive.

But the French-born Lafond, who has lived in Montreal for the past three decades, denies his film is in any way an apology for Belfield’s act — nor does Lafond see it as an anti-American film, as some critics have claimed.

“It’s not sympathetic, nor is it hostile,” Lafond says. “It’s simply an attempt to understand this guy, not to judge him. I was never sympathetic to Hassan’s action, and he knew that. I’ve always said it’s impossible to believe it’s right to kill someone no matter what the motive. You can’t kill someone just because they’re a symbol.”

There is however much that is controversial in “American Fugitive,” produced by Montreal-based InformAction Films. The pic airs the theory that Belfield’s murder was part of a covert deal the Reagan administration made with the Khomeini regime in Iran — to allow the killing in order to try to facilitate the release of the American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In the film, Belfield also asserts the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were state-sanctioned murders.

The press notes describe Belfield as “a sharp-eyed observer and first-hand witness to several of the events that have shaped relations between Islamic Iran and his native America.” But he actually comes across as a sad figure, living in isolation far from his family and homeland, and he is now as disenchanted with Iran’s Islamic revolution as he was with the America he so hated.

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