Trump — and World Politics — Loom Large at Cannes

Les Miserables
Courtesy of SRAB Films

Even at Cannes, there’s no escaping Donald Trump. The president’s entertainment diet skews towards cable news and probably doesn’t include a whole lot of Terrence Malick, so it’s unlikely that he’s spending much time thinking about who is going to capture the Palme d’Or.

And yet many of the movies being exhibited in the South of France and the filmmakers whose works are being celebrated at the two-week long festival are responding to the tide of populism that lifted Trump into the presidency and similar nationalist movements across the world. At a press conference on Tuesday, jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu summoned his inner Cassandra to sound a warning about what Trump’s policies mean for the world.

“In the United States, or in Mexico — where you isolate nationalistically, people just identify with themselves, and it is a very dangerous thing,” Iñárritu said. “Because then we don’t consider the otherness.” The Mexico-born filmmaker implied that his selection as Competition jury president was a tacit rejection of the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric that galvanizes Trump’s base, saying it “… is a statement in itself — how the real world really thinks.”

Many of the movies being screened at the Palais, the festival’s most prestigious venue, underscore the political divisions that Iñárritu articulated. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Young Ahmed” charts the radicalization of a Muslim teenager, Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables” depicts police brutality in a housing project and Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You” skewers the gig economy. Even Jim Jarmusch’s wry zombie movie “The Dead Don’t Die” features a character with a hat that reads “Keep America White Again.” Just as the cinema of the 1960s captured the era’s growing social radicalism and the movies of the 1970s reflected the disenfranchisement of the post-Watergate age, today’s filmmakers are trying to make sense of a new form of political rage.

“I see the extreme right and how they thrive on anger and discontent and alienation, and say, of course, the person to blame is the poorest person, the person maybe looks different, and maybe comes from a different country,” Loach said at a press conference this week. “If we don’t deal with [inequality] then the extreme right will thrive because people are going to get angrier and more hopeless and more afraid — the extreme right thrives on fear. That’s our danger, and my God, we’ve got to deal with it.”

Artists may believe that Trump’s election has created a new sense urgency, spurring them to make movies that challenge his political ideology, but on a business level the president’s policies — and similar nationalistic policies brewing internationally — have yet to impact the movie business.

Trump isn’t responsible for Brexit (though he did make supportive comments of the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union), but some political analysts contend that the isolationist fervor that convinced voters to embrace the withdrawal has parallels with the president’s base of support. When the U.K. finally splits from the union, experts predict the decreased economic activity could reduce the real per-capita income level in the country as well as negatively impact trade. That’s a problem for the entertainment industry, which is so globally interconnected and so dependent on attracting consumers with expendable income. For now, studios and entertainment companies are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We are doing a lot out of London and internationally,” says John McVay, CEO of PACT, the influential trade body for U.K. indies. “We are getting on with doing the business rather than obsessing about Brexit.”

But it is China where the Trump doctrine of economic protectionism and saber-rattling could have the most disastrous consequences for the movie business. The Middle Kingdom remains a vital source of box office and investment. It is easily the world’s second-largest source of theatrical revenue and could supplant the United States as the leading film market at any moment. You need only to look at “Avengers: Endgame” and its $600 million-plus gross in China to see the economic heft that the country wields.

For now, the tariff skirmish between Trump and the Chinese government has largely centered on products such as soy beans, steel and natural gas. Chinese companies have dialed back their investment in Western media companies, but that has more to do with their frustration over a perceived lack of financial return, and talks between the United States and China about increasing the number of Hollywood films that are allowed to screen in the country have come to a halt as the trade war rages. Yet, relatively speaking, the film industry has yet to be heavily affected by the the U.S.-China tussle.

Privately, however, studios and companies are concerned that Hollywood may be too splashy a target for the Chinese to resist as they look for leverage over Trump. That’s making people worried. Ian Jessel, CEO of Russell Square Prods., notes that his company has a production commitment worth $15 million from a Chinese company for a major animation project, but he’s nervous that geopolitics may derail things.

“Our China partner’s documents are all approved and officially stamped,” said Jessel. “But with all the current Trump bluster, we are very concerned that ultimately they may not be able to come through.”

Five Topical Films in the Festival

Les Miserables,” Ladj Ly

Drama shedding light on police brutality in a French housing project

“Bacurau,” Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles

Neo-Western film set in a small Brazilian village.

“Ahmed,” Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

A Belgian teenager plans to kill his teacher after getting radicalised.

“The Swallows of Kabul,”  Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec

Animated film based on international bestseller about life under Taliban control in the Afghan capital.

“Papicha,” Mounia Meddour

Set in 1987 in Algeria which is in the hands of terrorist groups

Patrick Frater contributed to this report.