Cannes sure to be politically charged

Controversy surrounds 'Outside of the Law,' other films

CANNES -- While Cannes and controversy are often synonymous, this year's fest promises to be a politically charged event, ripe for scandal as both festival and global politics come to a head on those famous Riviera red carpets.

Titles that screen at the Festival de Cannes typically get the world talking, but this time they're screaming, even before the films have been screened for the general public or most critics.

France's government is up in arms over an allegedly false version of history in Rachid Bouchareb's Competition title "Outside of the Law." The film focuses on a 1945 Algerian uprising against occupying French soldiers the day after the end of World War II and the French government's response, which led to the massacre of thousands.

French deputy Lionnel Luca, citing a review from the French defense ministry's Hubert Falco, who read the script months earlier, accused Bouchareb's story of containing "errors and anachronisms so numerous and obvious that they could be seized on by any historian." The film is heading to Cannes as an Algerian entry, not a French one. Luca told French newspaper Le Figaro: "Mr. Bouchareb has the right to tell the story of what he thinks is true, but I didn't want the film to be categorized as French. His truth is not France's truth."

Bouchareb's last film, however, "Days of Glory," about North African soldiers who fought for France during World War II, did change history. After seeing the film, French President Jacques Chirac passed a law allotting due payment to the Algerian veterans in question.

Luca called Bouchareb's film "anti-French" and contested the fact that the film received 7% of its budget from French state aid. "I don't dispute the fact that the French committed a reprehensible act," Luca said. "But the night before, they'd been shot at like rabbits."

The director released a statement through the festival on Thursday.

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Luca isn't the only one enraged. An extreme right-wing website has threatened to protest the film during the festival and has adopted the motto "Crusade on the Croisette." The website, self-titled "the media of patriots," calls Festival de Cannes organizers "irresponsible" and next to a photo of Bouchareb it reads: "They've dared. Now we demand truth and justice."

Falco has allegedly employed France's Defense Ministry's Historical Service the SHD to "analyze the historical content of the script," he told Luca in a letter. France's Cultural Minister Frederic Mitterand has remained mum on the topic, but requested to see the film before expressing his approval or discontent. He told French press: "Debates about the drama of the Algerian War are healthy; they allow us to weave together our recent past."

Xavier Beauvois' Competition entry "Of Gods and Men" will also reopen Franco-Algerian wounds. The film details the 1996 massacre of French monks in Algeria. While the film's subject hasn't sparked protest yet, Franco-Algerian relations have always been a touchy subject for the French.

Few films have depicted the Algerian war and those that have tried have either failed or gotten mixed responses. Gillo Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers" was banned in France for years before it finally screened and became a movie reference across the globe. Florent Emilio Siri's 2007 title "Intimate Enemies," which focuses on the war, didn't get the box office response it hoped, though 2006 title "Mon Colonel" from director Laurent Herbier and screenwriter Costa Gavras raised eyebrows and received mostly good reviews when it was released.

Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov also is at the heart of a Cannes-related brouhaha. He's the subject of a petition that has been passed around since April titled "We don't like him!" signed by several of his Russian filmmaking colleagues and critics. The petition accuses the director of "totalitarian management."

Mikhalkov has been outspoken about his political beliefs and has openly broadcast his close ties with Vladimir Putin. Mikhalkov, however, is a Cannes veteran - he competed in 1987 with "Dark Eyes," then again in 1994 when he won the Jury Prize for "Burnt by the Sun," the first installment. Thierry Fremaux and his selection committee don't seem to be concerned about the fallout, having announced their selection after the anti-Mikhalkov campaign had already begun. However, his presence on the Croisette is bound to stir up controversy. Mikhalkov's film is also set during World War II and promises to be politically volatile.

Other politically charged Competition entries include Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's "A Screaming Man" from Chad, which takes place against the backdrop of the political turmoil in that country since its independence in 1960. Daniele Luchetti's "Our Life" is a socio-political glimpse into life in contemporary Italy. And while Doug Liman has said he chose to focus more on story and character than on politics, his "Fair Game" is based on undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame and is sure to push some conservative hot buttons as well. Then there's Jean-Luc Godard's "Socialism," screening in the Un Certain Regard category.

Olivier Assayas' "Carlos" also was subject to Gallic political turmoil, even before the film was selected to screen. The film will screen out of competition, but almost didn't make it into the lineup due to festival politics. Thierry Fremaux was keen on the film from the start, but just before the lineup was announced in April, Gilles Jacob and some members of the selection committee including UGC's president, deemed the made-for-TV miniseries and film unworthy of Festival de Cannes status. The fest's rescinding of the film caused uproar among Canal Plus reps and the films producers, with the French press crying foul over the decision. Days later, the film finally made it into the lineup.

Even though producers have a 2 1/2-hour feature film version of "Carlos" already cut, Fremaux opted to screen all 5 1/2 hours of the TV version for festgoers. The fact that a French made-for-TV minseries is screening in the official selection is unprecedented, and quite scandalous for traditionalists who feel that the "7th art" and "television" are mutually exclusive. "I really have to compliment Thierry Fremaux for doing that - it's extremely courageous," "Carlos" producer Daniel Leconte said, adding: "By screening 'Carlos,' he's showing a work of art, of course, but he's also opening audiences up to new perspectives."

"Carlos" also will bring to the surface a tumultuous time in Gallic history. The film focuses on Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, who was arrested by French police after leading a terrorist raid on OPEC headquarters in 1975.

Leconte is no stranger to controversy. His film, "It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks," which screened here in 2008, followed the trial of the editor of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Philippe Val, who published the Danish cartoons that triggered the wrath of Muslims worldwide.

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"I'm used to scandal," he said. "Every time I go to Cannes, there's a problem. Two years ago it was Ben Laden who bugged me. This year it's Carlos. My presence in Cannes is always very political."

The Festival de Cannes itself is no stranger to scandal and politically explosive films. Palme d'Or winners in recent years have reflected the Cannes juries' affinity for films with political and social messages.

Last year's winner, "The White Ribbon," was about the history of German fascism. Two years ago, "The Class" looked at inner city suburban life in France; 2007 was illegal abortion in Romania; 2006, Ireland's fight for independence; and 2004 saw Michael Moore's controversial "Fahrenheit 9/11" take home the prize.

Cannes has been courting scandal since the festival began. In fact, the fest's first edition was supposed to start in September 1939. Instead, Germany invaded Poland and kicked off World War II, putting the fest on hold. In 1953, Brigitte Bardot shocked the world by lying on the Cannes beach in her famous bikini. In 1958, Francois Truffaut caused a stir when he showed up at the festival after being banned from it. In the 1970s, Marco Ferreri's "La Grande Bouffe" and Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" shocked audiences with their sexually outrageous stories.

Lars von Trier also manages to create a sensation when he visits the Riviera. After failing to win the Palme d'Or for "Europa," he accepted his jury prize by thanking jury president Roman Polanski, who he referred to as "the midget." Last year's "Antichrist" also caused quite a stir thanks to provocative images of genital mutilation.

This year's festival was surrounded by scandal before its politically charged lineup was even announced. In early April, news agencies Reuters, AFP, Getty TV and the Associated Press joined forces to protest severe restrictions on their access to red carpets and news conferences due to media exclusivity contracts with Gallic pay TV providers Canal Plus and Orange. All of the agencies then boycotted the Fest's annual press conference to announce the lineup in mid-April, threatening to withdraw all coverage from the festival if organizers didn't give them more access.

And when they're not seeing red, Cannes festgoers may be seeing blue thanks to the Nature Rights group's Yasuni-ITT initiative. The group will protest oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon by putting blue "Avatar"-like makeup on people's faces all over the festival. The group is planning makeup attacks on the streets, at parties and at movie screenings. Just another day on the Croisette.
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