Forget about ‘Grace of Monaco’. Some of the most noteworthy films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival deal with human rights and the fight for press freedom, and they come from directors who have had to overcome financing, censorship or infrastructure difficulties to tell stories that they believe need telling.
‘Timbuktu’, by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, is one of the 18 films in competition for the top Palme d’Or prize at the festival, and this visually striking work already has people talking, not only about the movie but about intolerance and the effects of conflict on civilians.
The film is set against the backdrop of religious extremism in northern Mali after jihadists took over in 2012, forcing women to change their way of dressing and banning music, cigarettes and even soccer.
During the reign of terror, the young parents of two children were stoned to death for the “transgression” of not being married, and Sissako cites that act as the motivation for his film.
The killing was an “unspeakable crime” to which the media “largely turned a blind eye”, the director says in an introduction to ‘Timbuktu’.
“The video of their killing, which was posted online by the perpetrators, is horrid. The woman dies struck by the first stone, while the man lets out a hollow rasp of a cry,” he states.
“What I write is unbearable, I know this. I am in no way trying to use shock value to promote a film. I can’t say I didn’t know and, now that I do, I must testify in the hopes that no child will ever again have to learn their parents died because they loved each other,” he adds.
‘Timbuktu’ uses poetic techniques to decry repression and the abuse of human rights. Emphasising the humanity of his characters, Sissako shows women resisting tyranny with dignity, and these are some of the reasons the film has gained many backers at the 12-day festival, which runs until May 25 in the southern French town.
Prizes will be announced on May 24, and many expect the director’s courage in bringing this story to the screen to be rewarded.
Souleymane Cissé, a Malian director whose film ‘Yeelen’ won the Jury Prize at the 1987 festival, travelled to Cannes this year to support Sissako. He told IPS that African filmmakers have a harder time than most to get their films made and then to obtain international distribution.
“Besides the issue of conflict, financing is still a huge problem,” said Cissé, director of the Union of Creators and Entrepreneurs of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts of Western Africa (UCECAO). “Even low-budget films have to fight for funding, and up until now there hasn’t been any political will to help because in Africa one doesn’t believe that cinema is an art and an industry.”
With more than 1,700 films submitted for consideration in Cannes and only a fraction chosen for the festival’s official selection, it is a tough game, whether one has a message or not. Still, another film that highlights human rights, and specifically press freedom, is ‘Caricaturistes – Fantassins de la Democratie’ (Cartoonists – Foot Soldiers of Democracy), a documentary “starring” 12 cartoonists from around the world that is being shown in the festival’s “out-of-competition”, special-screenings category.
Directed by French filmmaker Stéphanie Valloatto, the film follows cartoonists in countries including Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, France, Israel and Venezuela, some of whom face risks as they use humour to confront injustice and hypocrisy.
It profiles Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, for instance, who in 2011 was badly beaten by armed forces who tried to destroy his hands in an attempt to prevent him from ever drawing again. He had criticised the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in some of his cartoons.
Doctors managed to save Ferzat’s fingers following a successful campaign to get him out of Syria that was launched by Cartooning for Peace, a non-profit association co-founded in 2006 by the acclaimed French cartoonist Plantu and the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The organisation, which worked closely with the filmmakers, aims to foster dialogue, promote freedom of expression and recognise the journalistic work of cartoonists. In an interview, Valloatto said the group inspired the film because movie producer Radu Mihaileanu had long admired their human-rights work and Plantu’s campaign for tolerance.
Volloatto was invited to direct because of her experience with documentaries. “Once I got to know Plantu and the work of Cartooning for Peace, I too was really impressed by what they’re doing,” she said.
She describes her real-life characters as “12 loveable lunatics, capturing the comic and tragic in all four corners of the earth.” The film says that the cartoonists “risk their lives to defend democracy, with a smile on their faces and a pencil as their only weapon.”
“The film has good humour as well as a serious message,” says Valloatto. “We hope it will be seen by a lot of people because it may give inspiration for all of us to fight for tolerance and human rights, no matter what sector we work in.”
An ironic footnote to ‘Caricaturistes’ is that a book scheduled to be released at the same time as the documentary was rejected by its French publisher because one of its cartoons was deemed offensive to the Catholic Church. Another company, Actes Sud, stepped in and will launch the book on May 28.
Other films at Cannes that focus on global, humanistic topics include the daring and deep ‘Winter Sleep’, also a contender for the Palme d’Or. This 3-hour-16-minute-long film explores relationships alongside the themes of inequality, the seemingly unbridgeable distance between rich and poor, and the role of religion in life.
By Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the film is set in central Anatolia and uses stunning imagery, subtle humour and engrossing dialogue to keep viewers enthralled. At the end, one is left with questions about what the individual can do to bring about a better world, protect the rights of others and perhaps even achieve personal redemption.
‘Winter Sleep’ has received standing ovations in Cannes, compared with the whistles for ‘Grace of Monaco’ – a misguided tale about a princess.