Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Café Cannes

Samir Farid celebrates highlights of the Cannes Film Festival not reflected in the awards

Café Cannes
Café Cannes
Al-Ahram Weekly

On Friday at the Cannes Film Festival I saw two of the year’s most important long documentaries: Pheshmerga by Bernard-Henri Lévy, which was scheduled to be screened outside the competition but in a rare move was added to the official festival programme in the course of the event; and Risk by Laura Poitras, which was screened in the Director’s Fortnight programme.

Over 10 years since 2006 Poitras has directed three films: My Country, My Country (2006), about the American war in Iraq; The Oath (2010), about Bin Laden’s chauffeur; and Citizenfour (2014), about Edward Snowden. Together they might be seen as a trilogy on 11 September, the event with which the new century really started. Poitras is one of those filmmakers who bear witness to their times, but her achievement is not in the issues she deals with so much as her ability to generate true cinematic beauty and make for a remarkable viewing experience.

In Risk she reconfirms her place among those great documentary filmmakers – Michael Moore, Gianfranco Rosi and Joshua Oppenheimer – who managed at the start of the 21st century to place documentary films in the market about they remained marginal throughout the 20th century, winning major awards at Cannes, Berlin and Venice.

Risk (92 mins) deals with the issue of the Australian computer programmer and journalist Julian Assange, the founding editor of WikiLeaks, who since 2010 has lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he sought refuge to avoid extradition to Sweden for an alleged rape trial (whence, it is believed, to the US). The film opens with Poitras’s voice stating that she started filming in 2010 just before the Arab Spring, which would give many WikiLeaks documents added – urgent – relevance.

Risk focuses on Assange but also deals with the two journalists who work with him: Sarah Harrison and Jacob Appelbaum. It is made up of numbered sections analysing the story from the beginning to arriving at the Ecuadorian Embassy. In the first part of the film Assange is seen listening to a phone conversation between Harrison and the office of the then foreign secretary Hillary Clinton in which Harrison is trying to arrange for a phone conversation between Clinton and Assange without much success.

In the second part Appelbaum is in Cairo participating in the communications fair following the January Revolution; he is discussing the blocking of the internet during the revolution, holding TE Data responsible and stating that it and all other communications companies in Egypt collaborated with the Mubarak regime before the will of the people asserted itself. In response, the Ministry of Communications’ justifications do not sound convincing. The discussion ends when, to resounding applause, Appelbaum urges officials to respect the Egyptian constitution.

Speaking to a Swedish journalist in London, at the same time, Assange explains how hundreds of brilliant young people, children of the technological revolution who have jobs with intelligence and other officials agencies, have cooperated with him and located sensitive documents. He also explains how he refused to sell the information he has. The issue, he says, is the search for the truth; we will all die, but how do you live? In the last shot Assange is seen opening the window and taking a deep breath.

Bernard-Henri Lévy aka BHL is France’s philosopher superstar, whose instantly recognisable look involves black suits and open white shirts with high collars. But aside from his theatricality Lévy is a figure who refuses to let philosophy be isolated from political realities, and tries to be today’s Sartre. He was among those international characters who were present in Tahrir Square during the January, and he played a role in persuading France to intervene in Libya to protect the revolution there from Gaddafi. He had directed a film on the Libyan revolution and another on the Bosnian war.

Once the hall was nearly full, Lévy himself stood at the entrance inspecting press cards and deciding who should be allowed in; he refused to let in the Al Jazeera correspondent. And for the first time in the history of Cannes, the festival director Thierry Fremaux went up on stage to point out a number of Peshmerga generals, one of whom eventually introduced the film, as well as “the Kurdish Om Kalthoum” present among the audience. 

“Peshmerga” being the Kurdish name of the armed forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, Lévy’s film is about the war between them and ISIS. At the start of the film Lévy says it took him six months and 1,000 kilometres on the borders in the car to complete it. 

He himself appears in the film to interview the generals as well as President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani, who says he is more proud of being a Peshmerga soldier than a president. In addition to live footage of the fighting, captured by three photographers – one of whom is hit by a landmine and transported to France for treatment in the course of the film – there are also extracts of Kurdish documentaries on Peshmerga history in black and white and on Mustafa Barzani, Masoud’s father and one of the Kurdish people’s historical leader, in colour.

The film clarifies how the West refused to let a Kurdish state emerge, and by the Sykes–Picot Agreement distributed the Kurds over four countries (Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran). It also sheds light on the Kurdish people, who include Muslims, Christians and Jews, showing how Kurdish women fight alongside men and how the Kurds apply rules of engagement ignored by their enemy ISIS. The film ends with the liberation of Sinjar, but the last shot makes it clear that the war is ongoing still. It is a propaganda film, but it is propaganda for an oppressed people with a just cause.

***

Hail, Caesar! by Ethan and Joel Coen – about the old, inter-war Hollywood of the 1930s – opened the Berlin Film Festival in February, while Woody Allen’s Cafe Society – about the exact same subject – opened the Cannes Film Festival this month. This is the 47th full-length feature by Allen, who was born in New York in 1935 and directed his first film Annie Hall in 1977. 

Allen is among the greatest auteurs in the world, and like Bergman and Godard a particularly prolific one. Combining European with American culture, he has a great following in Europe. Cafe Society is the 12th of his films to be screened in Cannes and the third to open the festival. Like Kubrick and a handful of other world directors, Allen refuses to enter festival competitions, preferring to have his films screened on the fringe, although he did earn an honorary Palme d’Or for his lifetime’s achievement in 2002. Until then he had also refused to attend his out of competition screenings, never leaving New York, but after 11 September he decided to start travelling to affirm his love of New York.

Having reached his 80th year last year, Allen has as much creative vitality as ever. He uses a digital camera for the first time in Cafe Society, even though he doesn’t use a computer and doesn’t have an email address. Nor is he working with a figure lesser than the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. 

It may be said that there are two main schools of American cinema: the Hollywood school, which is mainstream and conservative at every level and tries to please audiences of every level inside and outside America; and the New York school to which Allen belongs, which has produced all the innovative and independent trends, supporting auteurs like Allen, whose world – informed by Jewish culture and neurosis – combines comedy, satire and philosophical meditation. He writes his own films and often acts in them.

Cafe Society (96 mins) is a new image of the artist’s world. In it he speaks of his preferred art form as Hollywood presented it to the world. For many, of course, the cinema means Hollywood and Hollywood means the cinema – so much so that Egyptian critic Medhat Mahfouz feels nothing justifies producing films outside Hollywood. 

Phil (Steve Carell) is the agent of a number of respected Hollywood stars. He leads a luxurious, extravagant life, as the party at his house – with which the film opens – testifies. Suddenly he receives a phone call from his New York-based sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin) asking him to help her young son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) to work in Hollywood. Bobby will be arriving in Los Angeles tomorrow. Other members of the New Yorker Jewish family, as it turns out, include the mother and father, the gangster elder brother Ben (Corey Stoll) and a sister married to a fanatical communist. 

To help him settle down in Hollywood, Phil introduces Bobby to one of his agency employees, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who takes him on a tour of the houses of stars like Spenser Tracy and Robert Taylor. A love story begins to develop between them, and Vonnie tells Bobby that she is in a relationship with another man, which she is not sure she wants to resume. 

But as soon as he finds out that other man is his uncle Bobby returns to New York where his other uncle Ben welcomes him back, putting him in charge of one of the night clubs he owns, the Cafe Society, where the wealthy – be they artists, politicians or mobsters – gather. Bobby marries and has children, and one day he sees his uncle Phil and his now wife Vonnie at the Cafe Society. Vonnie tries to approach him again, but he pushes her away.

It is a melodramatic story mimicking Hollywood films of that time, and though it is filmed in colour the film includes two scenes in black and white, one with Barbara Stanwyck and another with Spencer Tracy. Allen, who tells the story in his voice, is as ironic as ever, but he does not make fun of this story. He says, rather, that life itself is a melodramatic story. And as much as Bobby is a pure and innocent young man, Ben – who kills a policeman and dumps the body in a pile of concrete just because he happens to be his sister’s neighbour who refuses to turn down the radio – is a caricature of the ruthless criminal. He too is eventually exposed and arrested, however, in line with the melodramatic mould. Cafe Society is a beautiful film, a pleasure to the heart, mind and eyes.


Cannes Film Festival awards 2016

Feature films 

I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach (Palme d’Or)

-Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World) by Xavier Dolan (Grand Prix)

-Award for Best Director (Ex-Aequo)

Cristian Mungiu for the film Bacakaureat (Graduation)

-Olivier Assayas for the film Personal Shopper

-Award for Best Screenplay for Asghar Farhadi for the film Forushande (The Salesman)

-The Jury Prize for the film American Honey by Andrea Arnold

-Best Actress Award for Jaclyn Jose for the film Ma’rosa (Brilliante Mendoza)

-Best Actor Award for Shahab Hosseini for the film Forushande (The Salesman) by Asghar Farhadi

 

-Vulcain Prize for an Artistic Technician, Awarded by the C.S.T. for Seong-Hie Ryu for the film Mademoiselle (The Handmaiden) by Park Chan-Wook

Short Films 

Palme d’Or for the film Timecode by Juanjo Gimenez 

-Short Film Special Distinction award for the film A Moça que Dançou com o Diabo (The Girl Who Danced with the Devil) by Joāo Paulo Miranda Maria. 

-Prize of Un Certain Regard for the film Hymyilevä Mies (The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki) by Juho Kuosmanen. 

-Jury Prize of Un Certain Regard for the film Fuchi ni Tatsu (Harmonium) by Kôji Fukada.

-Directing Prize of Un Certain Regard for director Matt Ross for his film Captain Fantastic.

-Prize for Best Screenplay of Un Certain Regard for Delphine Coulin and Muriel Coulin for the film Voir Du Pays (The Stopover). 

-Un Certain Regard Special Prize for the film La Tortue Rouge (The Red Turtle) by Michael Dudok De Wit

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