Politics rears its head at Venice Film Fest

Palestinian story 'Miral' catches buzz, Italian politician booed

VENICE -- Politics reared its head on the opening days of the Venice Film Festival, with a buzz surrounding Thursday's in-competition screening of Julian Schabel's "Miral," which examines the Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a girl raised in an orphanage, and the news that Iranian director Jafar Panahi was denied the right to exit his country for the screening of his short film "The Accordion."

Earlier, on Wednesday, Italian politicals played a cameo role when the Secretary to the Italian government's Council of Ministers, Gianni Letta, was reportedly booed loudly by the crowd as he entered the opening ceremony of the 67th edition of the festival. Letta is a key figure in the ruling government coalition in Italy currently embroiled in controversy.

Letta later presented a special medal to Italian composer Armando Trovajoli, who turned 93 Thursday. That move was greeted with applause.

Panahi, who was jailed in Iran earlier this year for supporting rival political leader Mirhossein Mousavi, was released in May after a weeklong hunger strike but he has not been able to leave the country since his release.

In May, Panahi was a member of the Cannes Film Festival jury but was unable to attend the event because he was incarcerated, and a month later, after his release, the Taormina Film Festival chose Panahi to receive the Taromina Arte Award, but he was denied permission to make the trip. Panahi's problems have sparked widespread support from the film community.

In Venice, Panahi, who won the Venice Golden Lion award in 2000 for "The Circle," was expected to appear in connection with the screening of "The Accordion." But he was forced to abandon plans when his request to leave the country was not honored. In a statement Panahi said he values the support from the film industry.

"In the most desperate moments of my imprisonment, during the hunger strike, I drew courage from thinking of myself as a proud member of this community," he said. "I think of all the support I received from individuals and from organizations that believe in cinema and n filmmakers' freedom of expression. Let's hope that one day all governments will come to share this idea."

"Miral," meanwhile, is being hailed as the first political statement film in a festival that usually features several of them. The film, which is based on an autobiographical novel of the same name by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, explores the social impact of the 1967 Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In his press briefing, Schnabel -- who took home the top prize in Cannes three years ago for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- said the source of the story in his film is important to its message.

"Obviously, this is a Palestinian story, but it is very important that an American Jewish filmmaker tell this Palestinian story," Schnabel said. "It's important for Muslims to hear this message, for Jewish people to hear this, and for Israel and for people everywhere."

Thursday was the first full day of the festival, and it also included the screenings of two other in-competition films: "La Pecora Nera" ("The Black Sheep"), one of four Italian films in the main competition, and the French drama "Happy Few."

"La Pecora Nera," from Ascanio Celestini, is set in a psychiatric hospital, while Antony Cordier's "Happy Few" explores the sex lives of couples in their 30s.

The festival concludes Sept. 11.
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