Politics de rigueur at fest

Franco-American tensions unimportant at Cannes

PARIS — Any film festival worth its salt is political in that it dares to screen pics that may not otherwise find a ready forum.

Like many European cultural events, Cannes was long a crossroads for artistic exchange from both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1968, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut were clinging to a far more tangible curtain — the one across the Palais des Festivals stage — in an effort to keep it from parting to reveal the screen.

The 1968 festival was shut down but nothing — including terrorist threats in the late ’80s — has diminished the growth or inherent glamour of Cannes since then.

At a time when world events have polarized French and American political debate, some Stateside industryites have wondered whether the chill would transfer to this year’s fest. While it’s pure speculation to suggest that U.S. studios may have held back films from Cannes for political reasons, Gallic observers also dismiss the idea that Franco-American tensions could influence programming choices from their side — in this or any other year.

“A festival like Cannes is so far above mere political considerations it’s not even worth mentioning,” says Jean Roy, senior film critic at the Communist daily L’Humanite. “Venice, on the other hand, has been far more subject to political winds — particularly in terms of its programming directors — and Berlin has played a strong political role by sheer virtue of geography. But Cannes is a model of diplomacy and equilibrium.”

Philippe Rouyer of venerable film monthly “Positif” says: “There may have been some anti-Americanism in the 1970s but those days are long over. Now the choices in every section of Cannes are made by people who love cinema and not by politicians and diplomats.”

Over the years, however, the fest has been interrupted due to outside forces. Politics were chillingly decisive at the very first Cannes fest in 1939: The event was called off after just two days when Germany invaded Poland. And the fest ground to a halt in May 1968 as the student revolution in Paris mushroomed into a national strike. Even had the festival wished to continue, the constant power blackouts would have made screenings problematic.

But, for at least the past 25 years, overt politicking has been mostly the stuff of rumor. Which is not to say that pressure isn’t brought to bear from mysterious quarters.

Francoise Sagan, the 1979 jury president, dared mumble aloud that her jury had received strong signals that it would be an excellent thing if “Apocalypse Now” (shown as a work in progress) won the Palme d’Or. True or not, it shared the top prize with “The Tin Drum.”

A member of the 1981 jury remembers that on purely cinematic grounds, he and others favored Hugh Hudson’s “Chariots of Fire” but were pressured into crowning Andrzej Wajda’s “Man of Iron” “because certain jurors felt we needed to use our clout to show our solidarity with Poland’s Solidarity movement.”

Nobody could have predicted that Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” would share the 1997 Palme d’Or (with Shohei Imamura’s “The Eel”) for the simple reason that the film wasn’t even listed in the official catalog. The Iranian government did not wish to see the film shown abroad — it deals with the taboo subject of suicide. Fest officials had pretty much given up on being able to host the filmmaker or his film until a diplomatic breakthrough was made mere days before the fest wrapped.

In many a year, Chinese filmmakers have been muzzled back home for daring to screen their work at Cannes. As recently as 2000, thesp-turned-director Jiang Wen (a fest juror this year) was censored at home after competition entry “Devils on the Doorstep” was perceived to show sympathy to Japanese occupying forces.

One experienced Sino-hand says this also works in reverse: “Cannes refused to accept Zhang Yimou’s ‘The Road Home’ because they reckoned the ending was Commie propaganda. It was shown the following year at Berlin, to much success, and launched Zhang Ziyi’s career.”

And this year, if a National Enquirer story is to be taken seriously, there could be terrorist threats made on Cannes. An April 9 piece headlined “Al Qaeda Target Cannes! Bin Laden’s evil goons take aim at world famous film fest,” suggests that “fanatical terrorists” are intent on attacking this year’s fest.

But threats are nothing new to the Riviera gathering. Film professor Edwin Jahiel recalls the year the French press got plenty of mileage out of the irony of an action star such as Sylvester Stallone canceling his Cannes trip due to terrorist threats. An American TV crew approached Jahiel on the terrace of the Carlton and asked “Aren’t you afraid?”

“No,” said, Jahiel, scoffing at the idea.

“Aren’t you afraid of anything?” they persisted.

“Yes,” Jahiel admitted. “Bad movies.”

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