If you’ve been following the news lately, you may have noticed that the world’s been going to hell at a slightly faster clip than usual these last few weeks (presumably making up for time lost while all the planes in Europe were grounded) — so much so that one of the weird things about this year’s Cannes isn’t that it’s generated a few controversies, but not nearly as many as you’d expect.
The big news — still, and heartbreakingly — is the ongoing imprisonment of Iranian master Jafar Panahi. There was once a time I hoped Panahi would be recognized first and foremost as a master of urban filmmaking, a producer of films that were masterful immersions into crackling environments first and polemics second; this, alas, is becoming increasingly unlikely. He’s announced a hunger strike that concludes with “My final wish is that my remains be returned to my family, so that they may bury me in the place they choose.” This is very grim territory: J. Hoberman reports on an “unconfirmed announcement” that Panahi may be released in time to arrive for a public screening of Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy.” The reasons are shaky: Kiarostami, having publicly criticized Bahman Ghobadi and basically kept his mouth shut until recently calling for Panahi’s release, could be the only Iranian director still even vaguely on negotiating terms with the government. It takes guts to decide to return to Iran at this moment for his next film.
All the (much-deserved) attention shone on Panahi may, however, taken the spotlight slightly off the strange case of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” remains the last great hope of highbrow cinephiles for this year’s competition. Known to his followers as “Joe,” it’s taken Weerasethakul four contentious years to follow up 2006’s “Syndromes And A Century,” whose Thai release was censored, leading Weerasethakul to spearhead the Free Thai Cinema Movement. With Thailand in turmoil, it’s unclear whether Weerasethakul will be able to attend, though an unknown Twitter is now claiming he will. The stakes are lower, but still high.
Weerasethakul doesn’t make overtly political protest films (unlike Panahi), and he’s unlikely to see jail time. But the absence of both filmmakers, even potentially (Panahi was invited to be on the jury — his empty chair is a pointed reproof) adds to a sense of looming political menace and gloom — along with Godard’s cryptic absence due to “problems of a Greek type”. Not to mention “Draquila: Italy Trembles” — an anti-Berlusconi film that led Italy’s culture minister to boycott the fest — and Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law,” a film about post-war Algerian refugees in Paris denounced by government ministers as “an insult to France.” It’s punchy and grim out there. Who says Cannes has nothing to do with the real world?
[Photos: “Certified Copy,” MK2 Productions, 2010; “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives,” Kick The Machine, 2010.]