The stakes of representation
At the close of the 59th Cannes Film Festival, Samir Farid reflects on some disappointments and a few pleasant surprises
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From left: a still from The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and its director Ken Loach with the Palme d'Or
UK director Ken Loach, who reaped this year's Palme d'Or, Cannes' most prestigious award, said after receiving his award last Sunday at the closing of the 59th round of the festival, that while Cannes is the heart of cinema, this year's awards prove that cinema is the heart of the world.
"I don't need to spell it out, but the wars that we have seen, the occupations that we see throughout the world, people finally cannot turn away from that [...] It's very exciting to be able to deal with this in films, and not just be an accompaniment to the popcorn," Loach told reporters at the award-giving closing ceremony of Cannes. And true to Loach's words, at this year's Cannes Film Festival films with political concerns triggered by the traumatic attacks on the Twin Towers in 9/11 occupied centre stage.
In terms of sensibility albeit not age, Loach is a member of the 1968 generation. His first feature film, made when he was 32 years old, was produced in 1968 and gave voice to the anger of that generation. Throughout his career, which comprises some 20 feature films in addition to a number of documentaries, Loach remained a staunch Marxist, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. Although eight films of his had been screened at Cannes in the past, this was the first time he would win an award at the festival. While his lifetime achievement, in and of itself, eminently justifies his winning the award, the film for which he received the Palme d'Or, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, richly deserves it. The Wind That Shakes the Barley deals with British colonialism in Ireland and the struggle of the Irish people against British rule during the 1920s through the story of two brothers so polarised by the political conflict that one of them ends up murdering the other. Melodramatic as the premise may sound, the director handles with much sensitivity the political allegory in a fashion that speaks to so many conflicts the world over today.
The Grand Prix, the festival's second most prestigious award, went to the French film Flandres, directed by Bruno Dumont, which tells the story of a young man enlisted in a war similar to the ongoing war waged by the Americans against Iraq. The third most prestigious award -- Best Director Award -- went to Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for his American-produced film Babel, which takes place across three continents, showing intersecting lives of diverse peoples and cultures, with one part of the film set in Morocco. An award for best cinematic technique also went to Babel 's editor Stephen Mirrione.
In this 59th round of the Cannes Film Festival European cinema reaped the lion's share -- six of the seven top awards. Two awards were given to French cinema ( Flandres and Days of Glory or Indigenes, directed by Rachid Bouchareb), two for UK cinema ( The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Red Road, directed by Andrea Arnold, won the Jury Award) and also two others for Spanish cinema (Pedro Almodovar's Volver, which reaped the best script award and a shared best-actress prize). The seventh grand prize, as previously mentioned, went to Gonzalez Inarritu's US film Babel. Though I myself would have liked to see either Flandres or Indigenes get the Palme d'Or, I was nevertheless pleased that it went to Loach, one of the most distinguished film directors today. But I must admit I was disappointed that neither the Turkish film, Iklimler (Climates), directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, nor the Chinese one, Summer Palace, directed by Lou Ye, both exceptional works, won any of the major Cannes awards.
Tahani Rached's long documentary, El-Banat Dol (Those Girls), was the only Arab film to be shown officially in Cannes this year. The other Arab films (from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Morocco) were shown in the commercial "market" section of the festival which allows the screening of any film, provided the producer is willing to pay the exorbitant fee for its screening. Those Girls was warmly received by critics and audience alike, while other Arab films screened in the market, including the two Egyptian films Halim and The Yacoubian Building (both yet to be released in Egypt), went almost unnoticed, except for one article in Variety on Halim. The two Saudi Arabian films, Kayf Al-Hal, (How Are You Doing) and Zilal Al-Samt (Shadows of Silence), screened at the Cannes market differed greatly in quality. Whereas Kayf Al-Hal can only be compared to a third-rate TV soap opera, Zilal Al-Samt was not without artistic merit. In either film not a single shot was filmed in Saudi Arabia. Arab films, it should be added, featured in the fringe programme at Cannes this year, All the World's Cinemas, the seven days of which are dedicated each year to seven different countries. The programmer this year comprised Tunisia, represented by two Tunisian feature films and five short films.
Finally one of the most pleasant surprises which came from Egypt and the Arabs in general was the Anglo-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla who appeared in Paul Greengrass's harrowing United 93, screened out of competition. In United 93 -- a US production shot in England by a UK director -- Abdalla plays the role of Ziad Jarrah, the leader of the hijackers of Flight 93, the third airplane hijacked on 9/11 the passengers of which fought back, thus avoiding its collision with the White House. In his first appearance in an international production, Abdalla showed great talent, so much so that I don't think it would be an exaggeration to expect him to go on to become an acclaimed international star giving the Arabs their second major international star after Omar Sharif.
United 93 is a highly accomplished film, coming from a director who has many outstanding films to his name including the highly acclaimed Bloody Sunday, a film on the Irish struggle against the British, which reaped the Berlin Festival top award in 2002. In his take on the events of 11 September, Greengrass displays much level-headedness and intellectual integrity.
At a press conference with Greengrass at Cannes, in addition to some members of his cast, members of three of the families of the diseased passengers of Flight 93 were present. On this occasion, Abdalla was asked what he thought the response in the Arab world would be to the film in general and his depiction of one of the Arab hijackers in particular. He said much would depend on the political position of the viewer. He himself, he continued, "had a lot of problems taking the part. I went to the audition very reluctantly.... Paul brought me to understand that there's a story there that has so much to offer all of us. My character was really the odd man out. He had a secular upbringing, he went to a Christian school, he had a girlfriend in Germany, he tried to call off the whole operation in July of 2001, he was the only one of all the hijackers to keep in contact with his family... He doesn't fit the stereotype.... But the human story is not the same as condoning, it's not the same as excusing; on the contrary, I think the true measure of villainy is a human being committing a monstrous act.... These 19 hijackers made an atrocious claim of representation, 19 young men claimed to represent 1.2 billion Muslims across the world.... Clearly they hijacked the plane, they hijacked those passengers, they hijacked me personally and this film is my way of fighting back against that claim for representation."