Cannes wrestles with slew of hot-potato political pix

Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ may have the highest profile, but it’s only one of several incendiary documentaries that are helping to give this 12-day cinematic bacchanal a sharply political slant.

Since 1968, when the fest was canceled in the face of spreading national unrest, politics has often been an unwelcome guest at Cannes.

But the political temperature has risen this year, thanks to an official lineup rife with political films. These docs are screening in a volatile, highly politicized atmosphere.

Striking theater and hotel workers are waving banners in the streets of Cannes. The ongoing fighting in Iraq, terrorist threats and November’s U.S. presidential election have injected an added measure of politics into the usual Cannes discussions of art and commerce.

Several of the docu directors hope to capitalize on the intense media scrutiny of Moore.

Former U.S. ambassador and outspoken Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson is coming to Cannes on Tuesday for the market screening of Robert Greenwald’s feature-length documentary “Uncovered: The War on Iraq.”

There are market screenings of “Bush’s Brain,” a documentary about White House political strategist Karl Rove.

At the last minute, fest artistic director Thierry Fremaux added a second doc to the official competition, alongside “Fahrenheit.” Jonathan Nossiter’s “Mondovino” examines the globalization of the wine business, putting American business interests abroad in an intensely critical light.

Then there’s “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” a fiction feature set against a Watergate backdrop, which is screening in Certain Regard, and “Salvador Allende,” a doc about the 1973 coup in Chile, screening in an official out-of-competition slot.

These films reflect a robust documentary field at Cannes, part of a burgeoning international market for hard-hitting, topical films that received a jolt of energy from Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” which grossed more than $20 million in U.S. theaters and won an Oscar.

“For years and years, documentaries were about boring things nobody cared about,” said Cassian Elwes of William Morris Independent, which is handling North American rights to “Bush’s Brain.”

“People have figured out they can bring their own personalities to these films,” Elwes said.

Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” which opened in eight U.S. cities earlier this month, is the latest of a new crop of docs generating widespread media interest and box office dollars.

But these films also are capitalizing on a voracious appetite in the U.S. for political news. American bestseller lists are shot through with slashing political books from the political left and right.

Both sides have sought to market their agendas at the grassroots. An earlier version of “Uncovered” was distributed on DVD through the Web sites of left-wing political outlets like Moveon.org, Alternet and the Nation Institute.

Cinema Libre Studio, which is releasing “Uncovered” in U.S. theaters Aug. 27, also is handling international sales in Cannes.

Festival planners certainly have taken steps to keep politics in their place here. They’ve negotiated accords with striking workers. Jury president Quentin Tarantino is the most apolitical of filmmakers. The frenzied publicity junkets and dealmaking continue in the usual political bubble.

But the fest’s political energy is sure to come to a boil on Monday, when “Fahrenheit” screens at the Palais.

“I don’t think it’s by accident that there are a lot of political films here in Cannes this year,” said Joseph Mealey, who directed “Bush’s Brain” with Michael Paradies Shoob. “It’s not just a Michael Moore phenomenon. I don’t think without the Iraq war we would have made this film.

“One thing George Bush has done is to make people interested and active in politics again.”

(Cathy Dunkley contributed to this report.)

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