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This year’s Cannes Film Festival was a plea against complacency

Artistic freedom and ideological oppression took center stage at cinema’s most prestigious festival.

Golshifteh Farahani plays a Kurdish woman leading a band of women soldiers against Islamic extremists in the movie Girls of the Sun.
Golshifteh Farahani plays a Kurdish woman leading a band of women soldiers against Islamic extremists in the movie Girls of the Sun.
Maneki Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Most film festivals aren’t programmed around a theme. But sometimes one emerges anyhow, brought on by some combination of the festival programmers’ interests and what’s going on in the world.

Most of the offscreen buzz (and some of the onscreen buzz) at Cannes in 2018 was about gender equality and women in the industry. The festival was navigating its first year after the brutal industry fallout following allegations against Cannes regular Harvey Weinstein and many other figures who in years past could have been seen around the Croisette. Critics struggled to grapple with yet another Lars von Trier film depicting the brutal torture and murder of women. There was a protest of Cannes’s long history of male-dominated selections and the signing of a pledge for greater transparency around selections in the future.

But there was another (not unrelated) theme at Cannes this year, one equally reflective of the state of the world.

Cannes is famous for its over-the-top glamour and excess, and it can feel like a bubble in its own space-time continuum, more concerned with sequins and stilettos and red carpet premieres in the Mediterranean sunshine than whatever’s going on in the news. Yet early on it started to feel as if the festival had something more substantial on its mind.

In a number of ways, Cannes 2018 was about oppressive ideologies, the regimes they spawn, and the ways artists and ordinary people try — or refuse — to live through them. Movies can’t fix those problems. But they can open our eyes to experiences we hold in common, exhort us not to grow complacent, and remind us of important stories it might be easier to forget.

Films by politically dissident directors who were barred from Cannes by their governments subtly reflect their experience

Only 19 of the 21 directors with films competing for the festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or, walked the red carpet. Two others — Iran’s Jafar Panahi and Russia’s Kirill Serebrennikov — were prevented from attending. Both directors have found themselves in conflict with their governments, and while neither of their films were directly political or critical, they both harbored a rich critical subtext.

The director of Leto, Russian director and dissident Kirill Serebrennikov, wasn’t in Cannes because he’s under house arrest. His nonprofit was raided last summer by Russian law enforcement, allegedly because Serebrennikov is under suspicion of masterminding an embezzlement plot that caused harm to the state.

But artists and major Russian cultural figures have said they believe the raid and imprisonment are actually in retaliation for the film and theater director’s candid views on Vladimir Putin, LGBTQ rights, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Serebrennikov is mostly known as a subversive theater director, but his controversial film The Student, which explored indoctrination, also won an award at Cannes in 2016.

Leto, set in the days just before the dawn of Perestroika, is a movie musical about young rock musicians in Leningrad’s underground scene trying to make their own music while poring over everything from punk to folk rock from the West.

Teo Yoo, Filipp Avdeev, and Roman Bilyk in Leto
Teo Yoo, Filipp Avdeev, and Roman Bilyk in Leto.
Alexey Fokin/HYPE Film Production

That a movie about the “underground” scene contains so much highly familiar British and American music was a source of much conversation following the film’s Cannes premiere — shouldn’t a movie with characters based on real-life Leningrad rockers contain more actual Leningrad rock?

But that could also work to the film’s advantage. The characters in the film fancy themselves to be “punk,” but because the Soviet authorities don’t want to encourage subversive ideas or unruly behavior among young people, they’re stuck playing in a distinctly un-punk rock club in which everyone must politely sit and refrain from even a head-bob. More broadly, they seem hampered at every turn from acting like their counterparts in other parts of the world. Even the film’s ringleader, a talented songwriter and performer named Mike, seems to gradually wilt over the course of the film, becoming less assertive and creative in both his artistic and personal life.

It’s a quiet rebuke, but a rebuke nonetheless; the ability to express oneself freely, without having to explain the “message” of your art, isn’t often available to artists living in countries where speech is restricted. Serebrennikov was arrested in the final days of the film’s shoot, and completed postproduction from house arrest, where he will remain until at least August. Leto isn’t a blatant rejoinder to that restriction, but it’s not hard to see how it can be read with an eye toward Putin’s Russia.

Marziyeh Rezaei in 3 Faces, from Iranian Jafar Panahi, who was barred from traveling to Cannes by his government.
Marziyeh Rezaei in 3 Faces, from Iranian Jafar Panahi, who was barred from traveling to Cannes by his government.
Cannes Film Festival

Jafar Panahi’s film 3 Faces also played at Cannes, to widespread acclaim. At the premiere, a seat was left empty for the director, with his name printed on a piece of paper taped to the back. Panahi, his wife, his daughter, and 15 of his friends were arrested in 2010 and charged with creating propaganda against the Iranian government. The filmmaker — one of the most celebrated in his country, if not the world — was sentenced to a six-year jail sentence and barred for 20 years from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews to any media, or leaving the country.

Panahi remains in Iran, but he didn’t stop making films. In fact, while awaiting the results of his appeal in 2011, he made This Is Not a Film (it was), which was smuggled out of Iran inside a cake and had its premiere at Cannes. Two of his films since then have premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and won major awards.

It’s clear from 3 Faces that Panahi manages to travel inside Iran, even if he couldn’t leave to attend the Cannes premiere. He appears in the film, playing himself, as does everyone else in the film.

3 Faces is deceptively simple: Behnaz Jafari, a famous actress in Iran, receives a video from a young woman named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), who says she’s sent the actress many messages begging her to convince her family to let her attend the acting conservatory in Tehran. From the video, it appears that Marziyeh may have hung herself in a cave out of despair for not being able to follow her lifelong dream. Disturbed and confused, Jafari and Panahi travel to Marziyeh’s village to investigate.

The film unfolds as a series of low-key set pieces and conversations along the way, culminating in Jafari’s encounter with an actress who was once famous before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and now lives a quiet and secluded life in the village, away from those who disparage her for her former career.

'3 Faces (Se Rokh)' Photocall - The 71st Annual Cannes Film Festival
3 Faces actresses Marzieh Rezaei and Behnaz Jafari at the Cannes Film Festival. Director Jafar Panahi was barred from attending by the Iranian government.
Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. 3 Faces is Panahi’s exposition of and rebuke to traditionalist ideas about women’s value and dignity in his culture. Some of this comes through in the three women themselves, and in particular Marziyeh’s apoplectic brother, who is beside himself with the dishonor that his sister has brought upon the family for wanting to become an actress.

But a lot of what’s happening in the film is metaphorical. Along the way, both Jafari and Panahi have conversations that seem to slyly be about twisted notions of masculinity, whether it’s a discussion of a “stud bull” who’s blocking the road or a comically pathetic story about a son’s long-ago circumcision.

Panahi’s deep and hard-won empathy for the women is evident throughout the film, both in the storytelling and in his face onscreen. One imagines that the restrictions he’s experienced give shape to how he sees their experience, and the lives of women more broadly in Iran. Who they are and what they could be varies — Jafari’s fame has given her a level of freedom that Marziyeh can only dream of, though that fame is also what imprisons the older woman — but in the end, the critique is the same. 3 Faces could escape notice as a political statement, but its sideswipe at ideologies that keep people from reaching their full potential is there all the same.

The consequences of oppression were on display onscreen and off at Cannes

These weren’t the only two movies about the act of creating, or merely living, when people’s hardened ideas and unyielding fundamentalisms seek to restrict others’ freedom. Cold War, for instance — one of the festival’s best films by far — is a romance turned tragic by the inability of its two central characters, both musicians, to live out their lives freely. Even when they escape midcentury Soviet Poland for France, where they could openly express themselves and their love, their past doesn’t loosen its stranglehold on their ability to be their real selves.

Then there was The State Against Nelson Mandela and the Others, a fascinating documentary that shows the long-lasting effects of daring to resist apartheid. Nelson Mandela and eight others were put on trial in 1963 and 1964 for their anti-apartheid activism, but there are no images — only audio. The film recreates the trials with charcoal animations that bring some of the courtroom audio to life, intercut with interviews from some of the participants.

Significantly, the film exposes both the defendants’ courage and the lifelong consequences that they and their families faced for standing against the deep, ugly racism in their country. Fighting injustice is the right thing to do, but it can’t give you back decades of your life.

The State Against Nelson Mandela and the others
The State Against Nelson Mandela and the Others.
Cannes Film Festival

And there were plenty more. Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun dramatized young Kurdish women who, having been stripped of their families and livelihoods by extremists and forced into sexual slavery, literally fought back, escaping and taking up arms. Stéphane Brizé’s At War showed workers fighting to save their jobs from a factory owner motivated largely by profit in an economic system that couldn’t make room for them.

Jean-Luc Godard’s swirling essay film The Image Book spliced together fictional and archival images to build a rambling case against global consumerism, authoritarianism, and more. And Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman told the true story of a black police officer in the 1970s who masterminded an undercover sting against the Ku Klux Klan — and then drew a direct line from those events to white supremacist ideas and violent events in the United States today.

These films and others — at a festival as large as Cannes, it’s impossible to keep track of all of them — felt in harmony with the demonstrations and discussions about gender equality on the red carpet. It was itself a reaction to the movie industry’s long history of mistreatment of women, whether through harassment and assault, women’s struggles to receive equal pay and the same opportunities as their male counterparts, or the depiction of women onscreen.

These experience were common in the industry for a century in France, in Hollywood, and in other parts of the world. And for a long time, people got away with it because it was just “the way things are.” Powerful men like Harvey Weinstein were known predators, with the ability to ruin the careers and lives of those who didn’t submit to their demands. And they were allowed to continue working with impunity because the cultural norms of the industry said it was “normal,” and asking to be treated differently was outside cultural orthodoxy.

But it is not just about gender. For various reasons, Cannes and the global film industry tend to talk less about matters of racial equality than Hollywood has of late, but a group of French black actresses also staged a red carpet protest and held a press conference about the racist attitudes they’ve experienced in their own country’s film industry.

'Burning (Beoning)' Red Carpet Arrivals - The 71st Annual Cannes Film Festival
Before the premiere of Burning, a group of 16 French black actresses protested racism in their country’s film industry on the red carpet.
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

At times, the stories seemed almost unbelievable. At the press conference, popular French actress Nadège Beausson-Diagne spoke about being asked if she spoke “African” and being told at a casting call that “for a black, you are really very intelligent. You should have been white.” The group called for, among other things, more focus on diversity in French film funding, some of which comes from the government’s Ministry of Culture, so that the country can “start to see the real France on screen.”

All of which raises a long-running question: Can the movies change the world? In 2018, with various extremisms and fundamentalisms resurgent in Europe and America, and movies so often still being dismissed as “mere” entertainment by many, it seems like a long shot.

But images and stories are powerful, and throughout history, artists have been responsible for shifting the world. With a festival as influential as Cannes yielding some of its world stage to works, filmmakers, and movements that push back against regimes and prejudices that try to strip artists of their voices and their dignity, perhaps the big screen can help nurture the seeds of hope.

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