Social conscience in a social setting

Paradox of watching films about poverty at Cannes

CANNES -- The films shown at the Festival de Cannes have always held up a mirror to the plight of people in the territories they hail from, sometimes in stark contrast to the excesses of the Croisette.

But this year more than ever, black-tie attendees are wrestling with the paradox of watching a film about poverty before heading off to indulge in the Cannes feeding frenzy and its accompanying displays of conspicuous wealth.

It may have been the coincidence of the earthquake in China and the cyclone in Burma just ahead of the fest that has encouraged this reflection. The inclusion of the documentary "The End of Poverty?" in the Critics Week sidebar -- a sort of "An Inconvenient Truth" for global economics -- no doubt further pricked the consciences of those who saw it. The film asks one simple question: With so much wealth in the world, why is there so much poverty?

"There's something a bit wrong about sitting in a room full of people with tuxedos watching a film about social deprivation," German director Andreas Dresen, whose "Cloud 9" unspooled in Un Certain Regard, told THR.

"It can seem paradoxical," Festival de Cannes president Gilles Jacob said. "But every day terrible things happen in the world that you watch on television during your dinner. If you really looked, you'd give up eating. It's no more shocking to continue eating while people are dying than it is going on the red carpet."

However audiences are dressed, social deprivation and strife were high on the menu this year. Walter Salles took Cannes audiences to the streets of Sao Paolo, while Matteo Garrone exposes the squalid lives some live in Naples -- incredibly part of a country that begins just a 40-minute drive away from the Croisette.

Other movies spread through Cannes find characters variously eking out existence in a Romanian hovel, scraping by on the Kazakh steppes, living homeless on the streets of France, enduring the rigors of an Argentine women's prison or dodging bullets as child soldiers in Africa. Jury president Sean Penn, for his special movie selection, chose a documentary about volunteers in Sri Lanka dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami in 2004.

"There is a contrast, but it doesn't bother me," said Garrone, whose film "Gomorra" was well received In Competition. "Contrasts are interesting, and enjoying yourself here doesn't mean you can't also give the correct importance to other things."

"When the (harrowing) films are over, you need a drink," Focus CEO James Schamus said. "It's a question you have to ask yourself every day. We have a great advantage in our part of the industry in that what we want is to be greasing the wheels to get these issues out there in the mainstream."

French director and head of the Camera d'Or jury Bruno Dumont said: "I think there is a paradox. But that's the whole duplicity of ourselves: We are at once saints and bastards."

"I think principal cause of the external poverty in the world is our own poverty -- whether spiritual, political, democratic. We have a genuine poverty, and the only way to repair it is through art, through sensitivity. So Cannes is a holy place, because beautiful things are shown here," Dumont said.

Produced by California-based Cinema Libre Studio, "The End of Poverty?" unspooled Tuesday and was followed by a brief discussion of cinema and politics organized by Critics Week. The film provides some stark statistics: Around the world, 25,000 people die every day from hunger, 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day, and 1 billion live in slums. Told in a conventional documentary style mainly through interviews with economists, historians and politicians, "Poverty" sets out a powerful description of how Western policies since colonialism have subjugated Third World countries. "They are poor because we are rich," said Philippe Diaz, who wrote and directed the film.

"The most important thing for us is to raise awareness. Ten years ago no one talked about climate change. After 'An Inconvenient Truth' it's now talked about all over the place," Diaz added.

"A good movie will leave you with a feeling that you are guilty, that you are not clean," said Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad ("Paradise Now"), whose short film "Participation" was screened during the Critics Week event and who joined Tuesday's debate. "We, the middle class of Europe, are the soldiers of the system. We are living the luxury life. Are we ready to leave some of our luxury to have more equality?" Abu-Assad asked.

International catastrophes have certainly encroached on the Croisette this year. The Marche du Film opening-night party was dedicated to the victims of last week's China earthquake, and a screening of Wong Kar Wai's "Ashes of Time Redux" was preceded by a well-observed minute of silence for the same cause. On Monday, monks marched on Cannes City Hall to bemoan the plight of the cyclone-hit Burmese.

British producer Laura Hastings-Smith, whose movie "Hunger" opened Un Certain Regard and tells the story of hunger strikers in Northern Ireland, held a low-key party for the film, which was felt as more appropriate. "We didn't want to have a full blown party on the beach for our film," Hastings-Smith said. She said, however, it was important to celebrate the efforts of the filmmaking team and the achievement of getting the movie made.

Consciences have been pricked, awareness raised, but Cannes behavior is unlikely to change radically. "If you come to Cannes and you don't drink a glass of champagne, there's something wrong with you," director Spike Lee said. "If a guy happens to be here and he's made a film about poor people or tragedy or whatever, I don't think he diminishes it because of what he drinks. And if he makes a big sale here, I say, great, wonderful, drink a whole damn bottle of champagne."

Stuart Kemp, Eric J. Lyman and Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.