Cannes and the world we live in

Annual festival showcases films that help us understand the political turmoil and violence gripping the world.

General Delegate of the Cannes Film Festival Thierry Fremaux greets Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako arriving for the screening of their film 'Timbuktu' at Cannes [AFP]

The Cannes film festival’s organisers had warned us. This year, the 2,500 film critics flocking to the French Riviera to see the year’s best crop of films, would see fewer movies about intimacy and many more about politics. Indeed, it seems that many film directors this year have chosen to reflect and show political and religious violence on the big screen.

Perhaps the most subtle and graceful film we have seen on the subject of religious fundamentalism and how it can destroy the lives of ordinary people, is Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. Only the second film to be screened in the competition, many film critics, on seeing it, such as Pierre Vavasseur from Le Parisien newspaper, wrote half-jokingly: “I have seen the Palme d’Or, I can now leave Cannes, good-bye!”

Set in Northern Mali, and more precisely in Timbuktu, a world heritage treasure of a city, partly destroyed by radical “Islamists” a few years ago, Sissako’s film focuses on the life of ordinary citizens divided by language and culture (Arabic, French and Tuareg), forbidden to enjoy innocent pleasures such as music and football, and stoned to death if found guilty of adultery. There is a very poetic and heart-breaking scene at the heart of the film, showing teenagers playing or rather miming football in a field with an invisible ball – the sport is indeed banned by the new rulers.

Violence and politics are not only geopolitical; they can live, festering, within families too. The Turkish film director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has probably showed one of the strongest films in competition this week with a family drama set in the spectacular landscape of Cappadocia.

During the press conference, Sissako, the only African film director in the competition, suddenly broke into tears.

“I cry for all the others,” he explained with a sigh, for the others back in Timbuktu whose lives were shattered – and for a pair of lovers who were stoned to death and prompted him to make the film in the first place.

Horrors of civil war

Another timely entry was a documentary by Ossama Mohammed, a Syrian refugee in Paris since 2011. His film, called Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, weaves together extracts from a thousand youtube films taken by Syrians throughout the three years of conflict. It is a reflection on war and what it feels like to be a Syrian refugee, far away from one’s home country and yet obsessed by it.

Daily atrocities suffered by innocent civilians are showed in pixelated form, so distorted sometimes that it feels almost abstract. However deformed the image, you never fail to see the horror, the torture, the humiliation and the small children lying dead in their little baskets. The horrors of civil war are displayed for everyone to see and would prompt any government to action, or at least to shame.

Ossama Mohammed added footage filmed by a young Kurdish film director living in Homs, Wiam Simav Bedirxan. Screened the same day as the revelation of the ordeal suffered by Anthony Loyd, The Times’ foreign correspondent in Syria, Silvered Water provides the viewer with insight and a subtle understanding of an issue which has remained for most Westerners a long series of newspapers’ headlines. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait proves harrowing and uncompromising, but essential viewing.

Screened in one of Cannes’ sidebars, The Directors Fortnight section, the first film by British director Daniel Wolfe, Catch Me Daddy, didn’t leave anyone indifferent. His film deals with the subject of “honour killings” in British-Pakistani families in Britain. Like most film critics who saw the film, Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian raved about it: “At its best, it is a fierce and boldly questioning drama about tribal politics and gender politics in contemporary Britain.”

Shot in cinemascope by veteran cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the Yorkshire Moors suddenly shed a sinister light on characters lost in a hostile, often alien world.

Violence and politics are not only geopolitical; they can live, festering, within families too. The Turkish film director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has probably showed one of the strongest films in competition this week with a family drama set in the spectacular landscape of Cappadocia.

Bergmanian in style, Winter Sleep shows a formerly wealthy actor, a kind of Turkish Omar Sharif, ruling over a world and a family who have come to detest him. Bruising and intense exchanges ensue between the actor and his sister and younger wife, while the Cappadocia falls silent, buried under the winter’s first heavy snow.

The only Italian film in competition, Alice Rohrwacher’s Le Meraviglie (“The Wonders”) also deals with politics and family. Former German anarchists have chosen northern Italy to settle down with their four daughters and to live the hard life of farmers, and reject capitalism. Barely making ends meet by producing honey, the family’s eldest daughter, Gelsomina, a young teenager, dreams of a better life in the city, while her father keeps shouting at the way of the world.

Cannes’ second week will hopefully continue feeding us what we’re craving for: Keys to understand the world we live in.

Agnes Poirier is a London-based French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, US, France and Italy. She is also a film critic and an independent adviser to the Cannes film festival on British films.

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