Cannes : Cinema is back, but different voices still struggle to flourish

Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti (left) and Iranian film director Saeed Roustayi arrive for the screening of the film “Leila’s Brothers” during the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 25, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
Cannes is back, baby! For the first time since the pandemic sent us into a global hibernation, the world’s most glamorous film festival took place without social distancing and mask-wearing. اضافة اعلان

First, the good news, Cannes had a great atmosphere. Only the Oscars garner more public attention, but it happens over one night, whereas Cannes is 10 days of stories surprises, and, glam.

The biggest superstar in the world turned up. Tom Cruise gave a masterclass and signed autographs on the red carpet while fighter jets flew over the Palais de Cinema to mark the “Top Gun: Maverick” premiere.

This is how Cannes is supposed to be. The biggest megastar on the planet in a film that everyone loved. Cruise does not need to play a superhero to get the world to watch, not with that million-dollar smile and a face that never ages.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been many opining about the death of cinema. We are in the age of streaming, they say. Not on this evidence, cinema is alive, and, I wish I could say, well.

The other big Hollywood blockbuster on the Croisette was “Elvis,” a biopic on the King of Rock ’n’ Roll by “Moulin Rouge” director Baz Luhrmann. It’s an entertaining watch that furnishes the legend from the perspective of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. The film had the most exclusive party with all the excess and celebrity performances of Cannes legends. But before Elvis is allowed to leave the building, the movie, and Cannes itself, must face questions about appropriation.

 The movie makes the bold claim that Elvis was an ally of the civil rights movement because of his use of Black music. Many think that Elvis was the king of appropriation, taking the best of Black music and repackaging it for white America. Today, the legend is that Elvis created rock ’n’ roll, not his Black counterparts like BB King and Little Richard.

Last year, at the socially-distanced Cannes Film Festival, Black Director Spike Lee was head of the jury, the first Black person to be so. It seemed the festival was moving positively when it came to incorporating and celebrating Black voices. This year, they rolled back the years, but not in a sporting way.

There were way too many films made by white directors telling stories with Black characters, and not very well. It would not have been an issue if there was a counterbalance of Black directors at the festival. Unfortunately, Black directors were almost non-existent.

So, I sat through “Tori and Lokita,” the Dardenne brothers’ tale of child immigrant woe, Leonor Serraille’s multi-generational yarn “Mother and Son,” and Mathieu Vadepied’s take on the forgotten Senegalese heroes of World War I. Even “The Dam,” a magical realist tale about a Sudanese bricklayer, was by Lebanese director Ali Cherri. The problem goes beyond the festival programmers to a European film industry wanting to prove its diversity by telling a more wide-ranging selection of stories but still not comfortable letting those outside their comfort zones make the films and spend their money. 

There was a mixed bag of offerings of films dealing with the Islamic world. On paper, there was reason to celebrate with three films by directors appearing for the first time in competition with names such as Tarik Saleh, Ali Abbasi, and Saeed Roustayi. They all won prizes.

Saleh was born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and Egyptian father. His new film, “Boy from Heaven,” about the succession of an Imam at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, deservedly won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes. It uses a spy story to discuss corruption in religious institutions and the state as they jockey for power and influence. It has the air of a John Le Carre novel, telling the story of Egyptian skullduggery in one of French cinema’s favorite genres.

With “Holy Spider,” Abbasi brings the serial killer story to Iran. It’s based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, who killed 16 women in 2000 and 2001. Zar Amir Ebrahimi won the Best Actress Prize for playing a female journalist investigating the killings. It hits the right note for fans of the genre, but I found the claims by some that this was a feminist take quite hard to stomach in the face of so much on-screen violence against women.

“Leila’s Brothers” is a family drama told in the style of Asghar Farhadi, who was on the jury and probably didn’t have to take too long to persuade his fellow jurors that this film was a pale imitation of his own work. It was awarded the Fipresci prize, endowed by a jury of international critics.

In my eyes, the most interesting and explosive film was the one tucked away as a midnight movie right at the end of the festival when many had gone home, Adil El-Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s “Rebel.” Often the story of the war in Syria is depicted in way too simplistic terms, and I include the BAFTA-winning documentary “For Sama” in that box.

Here, the directors show that Syria was a place where fighting for the “good guys” could soon become supporting the “bad boys.” It’s all done as an action movie by the directors of “Bad Boys for Life” and showed that when Cannes delves deeper, it does have the ability to showcase voices that offer different perspectives to the pervading European tide. It just didn’t do this often enough.

Kaleem Aftab is a film critic, author of the biography “Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It,” and Director of International Programming for the Red Sea International Film Festival.

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