Iraq absent from Cannes lineup

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CANNES -- There's something missing from this year's Cannes lineup: Iraq.

The Iraqi occupation is lurching through its fourth year with bombings and sectarian violence a daily occurrence.

But you wouldn't know it here on the Croisette. None of the films in the main festival sections addresses the situation in Iraq, and many think the war is conspicuous in its absence.

Scratch the surface of any of the films about conflict anywhere in the world, however, and Iraqi-style issues keep popping up.

Alexander Sokurov's In Competition "Alexandra," about Russia's ongoing occupation of Chechnya, gives Americans a bleak view of how an unpopular war frays at the lives of the soldiers fighting it.

Lee Isaac Chung's "Liberation Day" (Munyurangabo) in Un Certain Regard, about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, shows the scars sectarian violence leave behind on the civilian population.

And in Ken Burns' 14-hour documentary "The War," screening Out of Competition, the parallels between the experience of foot soldiers in World War II and in Baghdad -- from insufficient body armor to resentment from the civilian population -- is striking.

"My film, and probably all films about war made now, will be seen through the filter of Iraq, that's normal," Burns says. "Current events are the filter we use to understand the events of the past. History is a conversation with the present."

When Ken Loach won the Palme d'Or for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" last year, he made it clear that while his setting was Ireland in the 1920s, his subject was Iraq.

"Maybe if we tell the truth about the past, we can tell the truth about the present. ... The wars that we have seen, the occupations that we see throughout the world -- people finally cannot turn away from that," Loach said as he accepted his prize.

Jens Meurer, one of the producers on Michael Verhoeven's new WWII drama "Black Book," believes "the distance of history" allows filmmakers the necessary perspective to take on the issues of current conflicts.

"If you tried to make a film about Iraq right now, where would you start?" Meurer asks. "The situation is changing, and worsening, every day. If you'd made a film two years ago showing the situation in Iraq as it is today, no one would have believed you."

European directors like Loach and Verhoeven have few problems drawing parallels between their films and the Iraqi occupation. But in the U.S., where the war is still a sharply divisive issue, filmmakers are often careful to avoid direct comparisons.

MGM is meticulously avoiding the 'I' word as it promotes Christian Bale starrer "Rescue Dawn," about a Vietnam POW and his struggle for survival.

"We were very careful to make sure everyone knows this is a Vietnam movie," MGM chief operating officer Rick Sands said. "With the situation as it is at the moment, we don't think the U.S. audience wants an Iraq movie right now."

The situation in Iraq also makes shooting in the country a life-threatening proposition. Mohamed Al Daradji's "Ahlaam" (2005), which is selling at the Cannes market, was the last feature to shoot in Iraq and only the second film made there post-Saddam. According to the film's U.K. producers Human Film, the "Ahlaam" crew came under attack from both Iraqi insurgents and U.S. forces.

Filmmakers that wear their Iraq credentials proudly, however, hope their movies, even if set in another conflict long ago, can influence the current debate.

"The story of 'Black Book' doesn't really have anything to do with Iraq, but you can't help thinking of Iraq when you see the movie," Meurer said. "It shows a more subtle picture of wars and occupation, how no one side is just good and the other evil, black and white, but that there is a universal grey."

"When my documentary 'The Civil War' was aired on PBS in late September 1990 shortly before the first Gulf War," Ken Burns recalled, "at the time war rhetoric had reached a fever pitch, there was a real beating of breasts. (It was) similar to what happened during the Civil War when people took picnic baskets to watch the first 'glorious battles' ... and then, of course, fled in horror at what they saw. Right after our series aired, popular support for the war dropped by a quarter. That's the best review I can think of."
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