Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Cannes 2007: Political cinema

My cartoonist friend, E.P. Unny, who works out of New Delhi, always reminds me that some of the greatest films ever made wove politics into their scripts. Look at “Gone with the Wind” or “Dr Zhivago”. There is so much of politics in them that there are points in these two movies when one begins to wonder whether the love and romance were merely incidental, created as a peg for the larger political picture to emerge. Even a purely romantic escapade like “Roman Holiday” has its not-to-be-missed political angle, that of a young, bored Princess running away from the punishing schedule of the British monarchy that leaves her with little time to savour life’s simple pleasures and joys.

Often, major film festivals take special care to include a liberal number of political works. The 60th edition of the Cannes Film Festival (May 16-27 2007) was no exception. But then Cannes always gave a cocktail of cinema whose political ingredient could not be ignored.

Michael Moore, who won the Festival’s Golden Palm three years ago with his “Fahrenheit 9/11”, and Hollywood heart-throb Leonardo DiCaprio, led the political brigade on the French Riviera this summer.

Moore was back at his old business, of taking pot shots at his most favoured rival, American President George W. Bush. Moore’s documentary, “Sicko” (what a title!), criticised and ridiculed the country’s health system. "This is an administration that flaunts the law, flaunts the Constitution," Moore said, as he blasted a US Government probe into a trip he made to Cuba for his latest movie.
"The point was not to go to Cuba, it was to go to American soil, to Guantanamo Bay and to take 9/11 rescue workers there to receive the same medical care given to the al-Qaeda detainees," he railed.
“Sicko” tells us how big business cartels have bought American politicians, including Bush. The U.S. has rejected the “socialist’ model, which has successfully provided State health care in other Western countries, such as Canada and France.

However, one French Reuter critic, Wilfrid Exbrayat, told me in private that Moore was a painting a rather rosy picture of France’s medical system. “France may be good, but to say it is great is a bit of an exaggeration”, he opined.

DiCaprio showed his “The 11th Hour”, which many critics felt was not in the same league as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, presented at Cannes last year.

What disturbed The Titanic star even more was the criticism that his jet-setting style ran contrary to what his film had to say. Cannes’ critics reminded him that his 2000 work “The Beach” damaged a part of a Thai national park during the shooting.

The star lost his cool when reporters asked him whether he had taken a fuel-guzzling flight on his way to the Festival. "No, I took a train across the Atlantic," he fumed, adding: "We're all trying the best we can, truly, we really are."

Moore and DiCaprio were not competing for the Golden Palm. There were others who were, and with equally strong political messages.

Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” – which clinched the top Golden Palm – showed the distress and dilemma of a college girl who could not have an abortion under the horrific rule of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In a nation where abortion was not permitted, the movie painted a dark picture of Communist repression and how it inflicted the life of this young girl and her room-mate. Mungiu said the message was simple: "Fear cancels out freedom". The legalisation of abortion after the fall of the Iron Curtain was seen as the "ultimate freedom", she said.

In “Tehilim”, a family drama set in Jerusalem and made by French director Raphael Nadjari, politics is gradually introduced to a world that is torn between spirituality and pragmatism, between tradition and modernity. A father suddenly goes missing, and his family sees in his absence a “missing representation of god and political head”.

(Webposted June 17 2007)