In what appeared to be a sign of the times, a large-scale terror attack exercise involving 200 people was held a few days before the red carpet fitters on the Croisette for the forthcoming 69th edition of the Cannes Film Festival.
A month before the start of the Euro 2016, in a country where the State of Emergency has been in place for six months, police and rescue services had better be as fully prepared as film stars and film critics to face the world’s most important film festival and market.
With the arrival of 125,000 festival-goers, of whom 32,000 are accredited professionals, Cannes almost triples its population and becomes – for 10 days – a beacon of high art, intense glamour, brisk business and, this year, a centre of heightened security.
No doubt this year’s selection of films will reflect, one way or another, the times we live in. Cannes has always been a mirror to the world, and a springboard for filmmakers with the most acute vision.
It has also become an even more scrutinised event than before. As soon as the official selection is announced mid-April, observers do their maths: how many women, how many nationalities represented, how ethnically diverse, etc.
However, the festival’s artistic director Thierry Fremaux has managed through his 15-year tenure the feat of not only being attentive to these issues but has also resisted pressures that the aesthetic and artistic choice be reduced to a quota exercise.
As for the internet-fuelled social media attacks with its revengeful hashtags, Cannes has always been impervious, in a very French way.
The reason there won’t be the hashtag #CannesSoWhite for instance, unlike for the Oscars, or #CannesNotDiverseEnough, is also because the festival is the Olympic Games of cinema with more than 110 countries represented in the international village with their own little pavilion, each promoting their national cinematography.
This year, observers were of course quick to notice that only three female directors (Andrea Arnold, Nicole Garcia, Maren Ade) out of 22 would be competing for the Palme d’Or, while Italians lamented the absence of a compatriot in the competition line-up.
Others, however, pointed to the fact that there were reasons to rejoice such as the presence of four first-time directors in competition (Maren Ade, Kleber Mendonca Filho, Alain Guiraudie and Cristi Puiu), a rare occurrence, and the strong showing of Romanian and South Korean cineastes with three films each.
What struck many film critics most this year, was the strong presence of the Middle East in the official selection...
Yet what struck many film critics most this year was the strong presence of the Middle East in the official selection (Competition and Un Certain Regard) and sidebar sections (namely, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week).
Israel has three films with One Week and A Day by Asaph Polonsky, Beyond the Mountains and Hills by Eran Kolirin and Personal Affairs by Maha Haj; Iran has two films with The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi (in competition) and Inversion by Behnam Behzadi; Egypt has Clash by Mohamed Diab; Turkey has Album by Mehmet Can Mertoglu and Lebanon, Tramontane by Vatche Boulghourjian.
Intimate portraits of people
All these films focus on intimate portraits of people, of couples (The Salesman), siblings (Inversion), grieving parents (One Week and A Day), on family dynamics (Personal Affairs), on neighbourhood stories and gossip (Inversion), on the quest for one’s origins (Tramontane), to illuminate the current political climate in the region.
Among them, only Clash by Mohamed Diab directly confronts the fall of Mohamed Morsi, but it does so in comic ways.
For 97 minutes, Clash takes place in a police van where pro and anti-Muslim brotherhood militants have been rounded up in July 2013 and are forced to coexist.
As Diab himself put it: “This prisoners transport vehicle is carrying detainees from all walks of life – activists, Islamists and military supporters. In the course of a hellish day, they are forced to see one another beyond the stereotypes and discover each other’s humanity.”
Mohamed Diab likes confined spaces. His first feature film, Cairo 678, dealt with the sexual harassment Egyptian women endure daily in public transport and triggered a nationwide debate on the subject.
A shared humanity but also a seething violence ready to explode at all times are indeed what the other films from the Middle East are all about.
In the much-awaited The Salesman by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, social, moral and political themes weave through the life of the main character who, kind at first, slowly mutates into a cruel and ruthless man, wrecking his marriage.
In 2007, Eran Kolirin’s first feature film, The Band’s Visit, had successfully highlighted the absurdities of the Arab-Israeli conflict with a bittersweet comedy about an Egyptian military band that gets lost in a remote Israeli town.
This year, in Beyond the Mountains and Hills, he concentrates on the life of an ex-Israeli army officer who feels inadequate in plain clothes and finds getting back to civil life very difficult.
Intimacy meets politics, with a sense of humour: this might prove to be this year’s overriding theme at Cannes.
Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.