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CANNES – A FIRST-PERSON DOCUMENTARY ESSAY about last year’s Libyan uprising presented by the globe-trotting French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Oath of Tobruk brought a whiff of the Parisian Left Bank to the closing weekend of Cannes. A late addition to the festival program, Lévy’s film was co-produced by the French-German culture channel Arte and seems most likely to find a home on similar prestige TV networks. However, the Weinstein Company announced in Cannes that they have bought US rights, so a theatrical run seems likely, possibly backed by serious marketing muscle selling Lévy as Michael Moore’s erudite Euro cousin.
A journalist and philosopher with friends in high places, Lévy is an archetypally French figure. Both man of letters and man of action, he enjoys Truffaut-esque good looks, an elegantly sculpted swoosh of graying hair and a predictably colorful love life. But he also has a long-standing side career as a semi-freelance French government envoy to global trouble spots, from Bosnia to Afghanistan to Libya. This film tracks his six months of behind-the-scenes work in war-torn Libya last year, making deals with the emergent National Transitional Council and arm-twisting western leaders to use military force against Muammar Gaddafi.
Lévy has many critics, especially in France, who routinely dismiss him as an intellectually shallow narcissist who built his career on family money and establishment connections. The Oath of Tobruk plays right into their hands in places, with its author projecting himself center stage as a key player in Libya’s liberation struggle, striding purposefully through rubble-strewn war zones in his signature black suit like an orchestra conductor on his way to a fancy cocktail party. Before addressing one heated demonstration, he even dons the new Libyan flag as a kind of jaunty cravat. Très chic, and très French.
But for all his flashes of pomp and vanity, Lévy does not just talk the talk, he also walks the walk. However egocentric his motives may be, his courageous hands-on intervention does help swing the international consensus for UN military action in Libya. Backing up his version of events with a starry guest list of talking-head commentators including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outgoing French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Lévy delivers the goods, not just to the Libyan resistance but to filmgoers as well.
Mostly shot by photojournalist Marc Roussel, who simply switched his digital camera from stills to video mode, The Oath of Tobruk is full of striking close-up footage of battlefields and bombed-out cities. In cinematic terms, it has a fluid rhythm, a visceral beauty and a level of street-level detail missing from more conventional news footage. The otherworldly grandeur of the Libyan desert is a recurring background character.
The film’s title invokes the oath of Kufra, made when the Free French army scored their first Libyan victory in World War II and vowed to drive the Nazis out of France, a parallel which feels slightly strained. Lévy’s core argument, that “liberty always prevails over tyranny,” also sounds a little simplistic and Pollyanna-ish in places.
That said, he does concede there are darker moral complexities to this unfinished story, briefly addressing allegations that former Gaddafi loyalists have been tortured. And there are fascinating scenes when Lévy’s brings his own Jewishness into the debate, an inflammatory ethnic angle which the former regime used to try and undermine him, to draw contentious parallels between Zionism and Libya’s liberation struggle.
A highly topical story with a charismatic presenter, The Oath of Tobruk is a more engaging experience than it may sound on paper. The Weinsteins and France’s Studio 37 are unlikely to repeat the same level of commercial success they scored with The Artist, of course, but this fascinating film’s niche box office prospects could yet be boosted by ongoing events in Syria and other troubled Mideast nations.
Venue: Cannes screening, May 26
Production companies: Studio 37, Margo Cinema, Arte
Cast: Bernard-Henri Lévy, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron
Director: Bernard-Henri Lévy
Cinematographer: Marc Roussel
Writer: Director: Bernard-Henri Lévy
Sales Company: Rezo
Rating TBC, 110 minutes
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