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Palms, Pomp and Politics in Cannes

When the curtain rises in Cannes, the usual star-studded list of actors and directors will parade their creations across center stage. But this year the less glamorous issue of politics will also compete for attention.


Cannes is all about big names and star appeal - something Woody Allen definitely has.

It’s the same thing every year. The world’s biggest and brightest cinema stars converge on the French Riviera for 11 days of pomp and circumstance. The big names and the little-knowns, the old-timers and the upstarters – they’re all present at the Cannes Film Festival. They’re all parading their cinematic creations and their glamour.

And here the spotlight is definitely on the glamour. Although it’s not the official focus of the event, it’s what people want to see.

Weeks before the curtain goes up and the first stars arrive, rumors circulate about who’s actually going to stride across Cannes’ red carpets. Is James Bond – alias Pierce Brosnan – really coming? Will Woody Allen give the opening speech? Is Sharon Stone on the judges committee? (Yes to all three)

And of course, which films are among the 22 selected to compete for the coveted Golden Palm award for best film?

Best of the best

It’s the last question, though, that’s the main point of the festival. Every year several international films are chosen by the festival’s jury to compete for the title of best film. According to Cannes’ rules and regulations, the competing films must have been produced within the last 12 months and must not have been shown outside of their country of origin.

This year 15 different countries have submitted films for the Golden Palm competition. As in years past, France, England and the United States are represented by quite a few entries. This year Finland, Portugal and Russia are also represented by one film each as is Poland with a film by Roman Polanski.

Germany’s cinema culture will not be represented at Cannes this year. But that’s no real surprise, considering Germany’s absence has now become routine. For nine years in a row, the country has failed to send a film to the competition.

Political film presence

In one sense at least, this year’s Cannes competition is slightly different from those in previous years. In addition to the focus on glamour and big names, the festival has turned its spotlight on politics. Several films feature current political topics, and the entire organization of the festival was set against the backdrop of anti-Semitic accusations.

The most prominent political topic is the Middle East. Two films up for the Golden Palm draw attention to the growing violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Yadon Ilaheyya" by the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman relates several stories from the town of Nazareth, where the citizens have grown insane after experiencing the daily tensions that have become part of "normal" life. "Kedma" by the Israeli director Amos Giati looks back at the founding of the Israeli state in 1948 and the controversy that has surrounded it.

Even Roman Polanski’s entry "The Pianist" touches on the current religious tensions and anti-Semitism by presenting the story of a talented Jewish pianist who flees the Nazis by hiding in the ruins of Warsaw.

Accusations of anti-Semitism

The whole organization of the Cannes Festival was thrown into the political spotlight a few days before the opening when the American Jewish Congress (AJC) called for its members to boycott the event. The AJC had asked people in the entertainment business to think carefully about going to Cannes, and if they did go, to raise the issue of anti-Semitism whenever they could.

The Jewish lobby’s president Jack Rosen, insisted that his organization was not calling for a general boycott of France, but rather wanted to increase awareness for what he sees as growing anti-Semitism in the country. He referred to the increasing number of attacks on Jewish people and their property following the tensions in the Middle East as well as the anti-Semitic statements of presidential contender Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Leading figures in the French Jewish community have spoken out against the AJC’s call for a boycott. In the French newspaper "Le Monde" they criticized the references to Le Pen, saying the French people had overwhelmingly shown their disapproval for the far-right leader on May 5. They also said the French government had publicly condemned the anti-Semitic violence.

So far there has been no confirmation of whether or not prominent film figures have actually heeded the AJC’s call. Woody Allen, himself a Jewish-American, will be opening the festival with his new film "Hollywood Ending".

But regardless of what comes out of the American Jewish Congress’ accusations, they at least serves one purpose: drawing attention away from the glitz and glamour and re-focusing it on issues that effect the lives of every day people. For cinema is more than just big names and stars, it’s about the people whose stories it tells.

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