t is an old debate whether art should be used as a tool for political causes or it should reflect life as it is without any intention to overtly preach any doctrine or political message. But, the debate has gained a new currency at the ongoing Cannes Film Festival which has been turned into a new theatre of war between Russia and Ukraine. The 75th Cannes Film Festival opened last week against a backdrop of international crisis. The first question jury president Vincent Lindon had to answer to the world was whether the event should at all take place when thousands are dying in Ukraine and the brute Russian war machine, under the dictatorial President Vladimir Putin, is crushing life out of innocent people. Acknowledging the rumbling noises of war drums, the French actor said that given the “turbulent times” in the world at large, the festival’s role was more vital than ever. “Do you think the world will change if we stop Cannes (festival)?” he asked, making an impassioned plea. “No. If it would, then I am sure we would stop Cannes. But I think the opposite. At this festival we can be a mirror,” he said, arguing that culture is the most crucial piece of proof or evidence of what the world is like when we are living in it.
In a sense, this year’s Cannes is a rebirth of sorts after its last-minute cancellation in 2020 and a compromised, COVID-shadowed edition last summer. But, during the rebirth it has gone back to its old combative spirit taking up the cause of freedom of speech, art and expression. In a show of support for the conflict in Ukraine, the organisers have banned official Russian delegations while opening its doors to individual artists, many of whom are at odds with the Putin regime. The dissident Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, who was recently released from house arrest, has a film – Tchaikovsky’s Wife – screening in the main competition. But, the surprise of surprises was the selection of the guest of honour at the opening ceremony who was no other than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who addressed the audience by video link.
In his address Zelenskyy said, “We have no choice but to continue fighting for our freedom” and explained there is nothing amiss in mixing filmmaking with fighting for a cause. He cited Charlie Chaplin as a glorious and shining example of his conception of the deep connection between cinema and political fight. He spoke about Chaplin’s film, The Great Dictator, to draw parallels between fictional war and dictators and the one Ukraine now faces. “Hundreds of people are dying every day. They won’t get up again after the clapping at the end,” he told the audience. He asked filmmakers and actors present at the festival whether cinema will “keep quiet” or speak up. “If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, once again, everything depends on our unity. Can cinema stay outside of this unity?” Zelenskyy said. He referred to the power of cinema during World War II, including the 1940 Chaplin film The Great Dictator which mocked Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Chaplin’s dictator did not destroy the real dictator, but thanks to cinema, thanks to that film, cinema did not stay quiet, Zelenskyy said, underscoring the need for cinema taking up political positions. His final message was: “We need a new Chaplin to prove today that cinema is not mute.”
His speech received a standing ovation from the crowd in the southern French resort town’s Palais des Festivals.
But, there were contrary noises as well about the festival’s ban on official Russian entries. And that too from a film director from Russia itself, Serebrennikov, who has been invited to the festival for his persistent stand against Putin. For this he was kept in house arrest and released only weeks before the Cannes festival. He sparked off a controversy in a 19 May Press conference when he said, “We should not boycott language, we should not boycott Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, deprive people of music, theatre, cinema. On the contrary, this is what makes people feel alive.” In the same breath he emphasised he could fully understand the people’s anger who are so pained and hurt by what is happening in Russia. He has called the war in Ukraine a “total catastrophe” and believes that art has no frontiers.
Another film, a documentary, Mariupolis 2, selected for special screening, is on the armed conflict in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. The Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravicius was allegedly killed by Russian forces when he was making the documentary in Mariupol, which had, till recently, been facing the brunt of Russian attack. His fiancée, Hanna Bilobrova, who was with him in Mariupol, was able to bring back the footage filmed and edited it.
The festival, almost in keeping with its spirit of political activism, witnessed an unidentified woman appearing on the red carpet. Seconds later she ripped off her gown, revealing the Ukraine flag painted on her bare chest with the words “stop raping us” written on her abdomen while other parts of her body flashed red handprints. The woman kept yelling, “Don’t rape us!,” as security quickly encircled her and took her off the red carpet.
Such acts prove that politics has always been a part of human existence and the borderline between art and politics is blurred.