Resistance on the red carpet at Cannes Film Festival
The Cannes Film Festival came to a close on May 28, and while the event was as glamorous as usual, the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was reflected throughout the 12-day celebration of all things filmic.
This much was clear from the opening ceremony on May 17, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared on-screen. During a speech, Zelenskyy referred to Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 release “The Great Dictator,” a satire sending up Adolf Hitler that was released during World War Two.
“Again, back then as now, a dictator has arisen. Again, back then as now, a fight for freedom is on. Again, back then as now, cinema must not be silent.”
“We need a new Chaplin to prove today that cinema is not mute.”
The Cannes Film Festival has a tradition of confronting political and social issues head-on.
This dates back to its origins in 1938. That year, under pressure from Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the Venice International Film Festival in Italy replaced its original award-winning film with a documentary considered to be Nazi propaganda just before the award was announced. This led to the creation of the Cannes Film Festival in an attempt to create an event free from outside pressure.
In more recent years, the Palme d’Or for best film was awarded in 2004 to Michael Moore’s controversial documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which bitterly criticized the US response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, organizers this year did not allow Russian authorities or officials to participate in the festival. Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s general director, explained why. “This is the position of the festival – showing absolute and non-negotiable support for the Ukrainian people and their representatives.”
Telling the world
Just before the festival opened, a new movie was added to the lineup: the documentary “Mariupolis 2,” which was filmed in March in eastern Ukraine.
Its Lithuanian director, Mantas Kvedaravicius, made it as a sequel to his 2016 work about Mariupolis after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Kvedaravicius entered the city to catch up with the people he had met years ago. While in the besieged city of Mariupol, he was reportedly killed by Russian soldiers.
His fiancée, Hanna Bilobrova, had been accompanying him and completed the film with the rest of the crew. She gave a speech before the screening at Cannes. “It is an honor to present Mantas’s recent work at this great festival and honor his legacy.” she said. “Thank you (to) our team that helped us make it happen.”
Listening to the victims
The festival features outstanding films from around the world in different categories. “Butterfly Vision” was nominated in the “Un Certain Regard” category, which features particularly innovative pieces. It depicts a female soldier fighting pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who is sexually assaulted as a prisoner of war.
The film was directed by Ukrainian director Maksym Nakonechnyi. Currently, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are basically not allowed to leave the country in case they are required to fight. But despite being just 31, Nakonechnyi was able to obtain special permission to attend Cannes. We asked him why he decided to make this film.
Director Maksym Nakonechnyi
“I was actually editing a documentary about women soldiers and veterans. It’s just their stories and their words that impressed me so deeply that I made another fictional story about one female soldier affected and traumatized by the war.” “We’re assuming that it is (set) in 2017. The plot of the film echoes what is happening today because what’s happening today didn’t start all of a sudden.” “Our captives were tortured, were raped, were humiliated.” “It was obvious that the enemy would use this tool also to humiliate our dignity in their attempt to erase our identity.”
Nakonechnyi took to the stage before the official screening of his film and urged the audience to listen to the voices of those who are suffering.
Director Maksym Nakonechnyi
“Awareness and global unity may become a shield for the art and the people.” “People that have gone through something harsh definitely have a bigger vision of themselves and of reality. So let’s listen to the people that seem to have a broader vision. Take action, be united and let the light win. Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine).”
While Russian authorities and officials were not allowed to participate in the festival, one film by a Russian director was nominated, which drew attention.
“Tchaikovsky’s Wife” tells the story of Antonina, who married the 19th century composer amid rumors about his sexuality. It explores her mental health as their marriage breaks down.
Director Kirill Serebrennikov is known for his satires of Russian society and criticism of the Putin regime. He was under house arrest for supposedly embezzling state funds and was unable to attend the festival in both 2018 and last year, despite being nominated both times. In March of this year, he left Russia and relocated to the German capital of Berlin to continue his work.
While “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” is not directly critical of the state of contemporary Russia, some viewers drew their own conclusions. “Although the film is set in the 19th century, when the rights of women and gay people were not recognized, I felt that it was critical of Russian society, which is still conservative and intolerant.”
Other reactions to the film were mixed.
(Audience member in favor)
“The director had the courage to come to Cannes while Russian authorities are being excluded from the festival.”
(Audience member in favor)
“I feel that art knows no borders when it brings together artists and their work.”
(Polish filmmaker, opposed)
“I don’t see a reason why to give a platform to Russian cinema right now, when our Ukrainian friends are unable to make the cinema because of Russia’s aggression.”
Caught in the middle
How does Serebrennikov himself feel about this? We asked him at the official press conference.
Today we are seeing boycotts of Russia and Russian culture such as Tchaikovsky’s music, which is normally highly appreciated. May I ask your opinion about this movement?
Director Kirill Serebrennikov
“I can understand the movement to boycott Russia when I see the tragic situation in Ukraine.” “Culture is air, water, clouds and independence, so one cannot call for the elimination of culture altogether. We must avoid eliminating Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, or denying theater, music and film.” “Russian culture has always emphasized human values, transience, compassion for the soul and compassion for the disadvantaged. Since war destroys such values, Russian culture has always been anti-military.”
The main competition also featured the much-talked-about “Broker,” directed by Koreeda Hirokazu and produced in South Korea. This is the sixth time that Koreeda is competing for the Palme d’Or. In 2018, his “Shoplifters” won the Palme d’Or. This year, “Broker” star Song Kang-ho won Best Actor.
Koreeda commented on the significance of participating in the festival. “It is a place where I can realize the beauty and expansion of the films I am involved in, which is even more valuable than receiving an award.” he said.
When asked about the festival accepting a film by a Russian director, he immediately replied, “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Koreeda also paid tribute to the fact that the festival’s red carpet is open not only to invited filmmakers and actors, but also to the general public.
Director Koreeda Hirokazu
“The red carpet is not only a glamorous place for filmmakers to be in the spotlight, but also a place where various things can be done, such as resistance, or opening up to those who have a small voice. I think Cannes has a very clear attitude of making the festival such a place. This freedom is guaranteed here. For example, it is a place where audience members who do not accept the screening of an invited director may leave the venue once the screening starts. The festival allows them to express that kind of attitude.”
While some people do not even want to hear the word Russia these days, others believe Russian films that have no links to the government should not be hidden from the public. The festival is a place where all are allowed to call for solidarity with Ukraine, to accept Russian films, or to leave screenings in opposition to them.
While firmly opposing military aggression, the festival is open to differing opinions and values.
This was the attitude shown during this Cannes Film Festival in times of war.