The minute Tommy Chong was introduced to the packed house at the Toronto International Film Festival, the crowd rose to their feet in thunderous applause. Filmmaker Josh Gilbert’s 78-minute documentary, a/k/a Tommy Chong, details the absurd prosecution of the actor and comedian for peddling pot pipes online. Chong spent nine months in federal prison, the result of a $12 million US government investigation known as “Operation Pipe Dream,” in which undercover federal agents posed as “fans” and placed out-of-state orders for Chong’s waterpipes. Seeing the response to Chong and his film has been a revelation to the director, who has been a friend of Tommy’s for 15 years:
“The response has been phenomenal, the interest has been extraordinary, which says to me that the film really delivers up to Tommy’s integrity,” says Gilbert. “He’s not a cartoon character but a bad-assed motherfucker from Calgary who is one of the last living icons of the counterculture. I think this film shows he’s one of the authentic core voices of our culture.”
The Toronto launch was part love-in, part homecoming for the 67-year-old father of four, who is Canadian-born. Chong and his wife Shelby (together 35 years, the duo tied the knot just before Chong went to jail) created a major media buzz at the celeb-laden film fest, talking to eager journalists about his ordeal and about the political climate in the US.
"The United States is under martial law, it's under dictatorship,” Chong says. “It's like the weed culture. You just wait, it’ll change. Everything changes. Bush won’t be in power forever. Ashcroft is already gone. There’s going to be another cycle and it’s going to go the other way."
Hundreds of festival-goers, fans and press turned up for the late-night post-premier party, held at the aptly-named Stone’s Place in one of the city’s grittier neighborhoods. There were speeches, jokes, photo-ops, food and plenty of libations, but the highlight of the evening was the brownies: “Don’t have more than three of these if you don’t want to lose control,” warned the film’s publicist Ingrid Hamilton. Even Canada’s staunchly stiff-collared press joined the ranks of enthusiasts trumpeting the party, if not the film.
Wrote Alexandra Gill in The Globe & Mail: “The best party of the weekend was the smoky Friday night fete to celebrate a/k/a Tommy Chong... In true stoner fashion, the Toronto Hemp Company baked 200 pot brownies for the occasion.”
At the end of the night, esteemed international film critics laughed gleefully, jamming brownies into their pockets. Great party but how was the film? Seems it’s a hit. Additional screenings were being scheduled to meet public demand. Most of all, though, the documentary is worth checking out because it shows how, in seeking to create a scapegoat in the War on Drugs, Chong was unfairly punished for his stoner persona. Ironically, if the Toronto reaction to the documentary is any indication, the whole ordeal has given him unprecedented notoriety as a hemp hero.