Fighting for the Palme d’Or, and the Right to Fly to Cannes

CANNES, France — The Cannes Film Festival opened on Tuesday on the French Riviera, with movies by 21 directors contending for the top award, the Palme d’Or. Two of them look certain to miss their red-carpet premieres, and not out of choice: Russia’s Kirill S. Serebrennikov is under house arrest, and Iran’s Jafar Panahi is banned from making films or leaving his country.

Mr. Serebrennikov has been confined to a Moscow studio apartment since August. In a case that has raised concerns about artistic censorship in Russia, he is accused of embezzling $2.3 million in Russian government funds via a theater company he runs. Mr. Panahi was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2010 and banned from filmmaking after he tried to to shoot a documentary about the country’s disputed 2009 presidential elections.

That hasn’t stopped either director from getting their films shot and dispatched to France in time to be selected for the festival. The winner of the competition is announced on May 19.

Mr. Panahi’s “Three Faces” (which premieres on Saturday) is the fourth movie he has directed in defiance of the filmmaking ban. His previous title, “Taxi Tehran,” won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015.

“Three Faces” is the story of a famous Iranian actress who receives a disturbing video from a young girl appealing for help to escape her conservative family. The actress asks her director friend, Mr. Panahi, to help her find out whether the video is genuine. The two of them drive off to a village in a mountainous part of northwestern Iran, where the girl lives.

“It’s one of those intriguing peculiarities of Iranian cinema: that it’s at once very restricted, but also very creative and inquisitive,” said Hamid Naficy, a professor of film and media studies at Northwestern University. He said that, when it came to culture, the political system in Iran left “a lot of wiggle room and lot of room for interpretation and contestation,” which “encouraged a certain kind of creativity.”

Because filmmakers have to submit screenplays to the government for approval before shooting, some went underground and made movies in their homes or cars, Mr. Naficy said. The Berlin winner, “Taxi Tehran,” saw Mr. Panahi play a cabdriver picking up a variety of passengers in the Iranian capital, and was filmed almost entirely in a taxi. His documentary “This is Not a Film” (2011) was shot at home and smuggled to Cannes on a USB stick hidden in a cake, Mr. Naficy said. It is unknown how “Three Faces” made it from Iran to Cannes; the movie’s French distributor declined requests to comment.

At this year’s festival, Mr. Panahi received support from his fellow Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose latest film, “Everybody Knows,” opened the festival on Tuesday. Mr. Farhadi told Agence France-Presse that while it was unlikely that his colleague would make it to Cannes, it was important to note that despite the restrictions he had faced “for years,” the director had not “let himself feel down” and carried on making films that interested him and were “recognized.”

Mr. Serebrennikov had nearly finished shooting “Summer” (which premieres Wednesday evening) by the time of his August house arrest in Moscow. Up until that point, the stage and film director had led the avant-garde Gogol Center in Moscow. He was unable to attend the December premiere of “Nureyev,” a Bolshoi Ballet production on the life of the dancer Rudolf Nureyev, which he directed.

“Summer” is set in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) and is the story of a love triangle between a young couple and the real-life rock singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoi, who died in 1990, said the movie’s producer, Ilya Stewart, in a recent interview.

Mr. Stewart said the atmosphere on the set was “tense,” as an investigation into Mr. Serebrennikov was already underway, and the director had to interrupt the shooting twice to go to Moscow for questioning by authorities.

But the director’s arrest had come as a surprise, he added. One night, after the team had watched the rushes from that day’s shoot and had dinner, everyone returned to their hotel in St. Petersburg. In the morning, said the producer, Mr. Serebrennikov was “not there anymore”: he had been arrested and driven to Moscow by night.

The film’s production team paused for a few days, then decided to shoot the few scenes that were left, based on Mr. Serebrennikov’s extensive notes and rehearsals. Otherwise, said Mr. Stewart, “there was no way we could have hired another director or shot it ourselves, finished it ourselves.”

Mr. Serebrennikov then edited the film himself, while under house arrest, on his computer, said the producer. The finished movie was subsequently sent digitally to France and submitted to the Cannes festival.

The two filmmakers have received consistent support from the Cannes festival’s artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, who has urged authorities in Russia and Iran to let them travel to the festival and attend their premieres.

He first made the plea on April 12, announcing the Cannes lineup this year. Six days later, a Russian judge extended Mr. Serebrennikov’s house arrest until July 19.

In Tehran, the Iranian culture minister, Abbas Salehi, was asked by Euronews on April 22 about the case of Mr. Panahi at the Fajr International Film Festival. He said: “Mr. Panahi’s work can be seen at different festivals in various countries, which makes it possible for him to win different prizes.”

Asked if it might be possible for Mr. Panahi to attend the festival in Cannes, Mr. Salehi said that a “final decision about this special question has not been made yet,” according to Euronews. “There is still time to see what will happen.”

Iran’s Culture Ministry did not reply to a request for comment.

The Cannes Film Festival has a history of presenting, and rewarding, the work of dissident filmmakers. In 1981, eight years before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the Palme d’Or went to Andrzej Wajda’s “Man of Iron,” inspired by shipyard strikes led by the Solidarity labor union in Poland. For the next four years, Mr. Wajda, a supporter of Solidarity and of dissident Polish organizations, was banned from making movies in his homeland.

The Greek director Costa-Gavras’s movie “Z,” inspired by the assassination of a Greek politician, won the Cannes jury prize in 1969; it was banned in Greece until the collapse of the military-led government in 1974. The Kurdish director Yilmaz Guney, an advocate of Kurdish and leftist causes, won the Palme d’Or in 1982 for “Yol,” a film which he had directed from his prison cell in Turkey, and which he edited after escaping to France.

As Mr. Frémaux noted in the news conference last month to announce the festival’s lineup, “Cannes has always been a place of freedom, of creative freedom, and of the freedom of artists to be present.”

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