Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Bold and beautiful

Cannes has provoked a debate by standing up for Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi

By Gautaman Bhaskaran

Cannes and controversy are inseparable. They have been, always. When the 63rd edition of the festival opened in the bright and sunny environs of the French Riviera with wine, wit and glamour adding to the merriment, Jafar Panahi was not forgotten. The renowned Iranian director who gave us such priceless gems as The Friend, The White Balloon and The Circle, has been shut away in the notorious Evin Prison.

At the festival’s inauguration, an empty chair stood symbolically on the dais to mark the absence of Panahi, who was to have been on the Palm d’Or jury. The jury president, American helmer Tim Burton (whose Alice in Wonderland opened recently in India), appealed for the director’s freedom, and the festival screened a short clip a day later that showed Panahi talking about a police interrogation he underwent before his arrest. “I am innocent. I have not made any film against the Iranian regime,” he said. The helmer has been accused of making a movie about the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election.

Iranian cinema has blossomed in recent decades, thanks to Panahi and several other auteurs such as Abbas Kiarostami, but state censorship under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes it hard for them to work in their own country. Kiarostami’s film, Certified Copy, in this year’s competition was shot in Italy—the first movie he has made outside Iran, forced to do so.

Smothering cinema is not the privilege of Iran alone. China has done it with impunity. Lou Ye’s Summer Palace, narrating a love story against the backdrop of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was banned there, but a print was smuggled out of China and screened as part of the Cannes competition in 2006. A furious Beijing banned him from making films for five years, but Lou was undaunted. He made his next, Spring Fever, surreptitiously in Nanjing, and Cannes boldly screened it in the 2009 competition. Much as we would like to imagine that such tyranny occurs only in countries like Iran and China with totalitarian regimes, the truth is very different. It is happening in France, though in a more subdued manner.

The French government is peeved over the fact that a supposedly inaccurate version of history has found its way into Rachid Bouchareb’s competition entry, Outside the Law. He is Algerian, but with a French nationality.

The film focuses on the 1945 Algerian revolt against occupying French soldiers a day after World War II ended. The French government’s handling of the uprising led to the massacre of thousands of people. Incidentally, the movie has been marked as an Algerian entry, not French. A French government official, Lionnel Luca, said Bouchareb had the right to say what he wanted to, but his truth is not France’s.

That may or may not be so, but Bouchareb’s last film, Days of Glory, about North African soldiers fighting on the side of France during World War II, did get French politicians thinking, and evoked a public debate. Former French president Jacques Chirac watched Days of Glory and passed a law granting recognition and fair payments for the Algerian war veterans.

Xavier Beauvois’ competition entry, Of Gods and Men, also leads to unpleasantness. The movie elaborates on the 1996 massacre of French monks in Algeria. Franco-Algerian ties have always been touchy, and cinema has merely increased the friction. It elaborates with compelling poignancy how Muslim terrorists murdered many French monks living in a remote monastery in Algeria, tending to the local people—curing their sick, pacifying their young lovesick girls and boys and bringing peace upon the dying.

Cannes loves to be noticed, but in the bargain, it manages to provoke a debate. Look at the way the festival ended—with the Panahi clip which shows the Iranian interrogator telling the auteur after grilling him for hours that he loved The Circle!

This is Cannes. It dares.

(Published June 6 2010 in The Week)