Last night the Cannes Film Festival gave us the best of two worlds with some blistering political commentary, on and off the screen, and an epic war movie about a Japanese soldier who kept on fighting decades after his country’s surrender.
Call it the curse of Alain Resnais.
The late French director had a long and troubled history with the world’s premier film festival, which hailed him in his twilight years after having repeatedly ditched him – under duress – in his early prime.
In 1957, Resnais’ seminal Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog” was pulled out of the festival competition following complaints from the German government, which argued that it would jeopardise postwar reconciliation. The film had already been mutilated by French censors, who removed a scene exposing wartime collaboration.
Two years later, Resnais returned to Cannes with the sublime “Hiroshima mon Amour”, perhaps the greatest war –and peace – film of all time. But that too was axed after the US government bullied the festival into submission. The director tried again in 1966 with “The War is Over”, about Spaniards exiled by war, only for Franco’s government to have it removed from the competition.
Having learned the lesson, Resnais steered clear of the war altogether with his 1968 feature “Je t’aime, je t’aime”. This time it seemed no government censors would get in the way. But May ’68 did, and the entire festival was cancelled as the French director was on his way to the Riviera.
The neverending war
Fifty-five years after its aborted run for the Palme d’Or, “The War is Over” finally got a Cannes screening at the festival’s “Classics” segment on Thursday. It was followed by another war movie, this one about a diehard soldier who famously refused to believe the war was over, battling on in the Filipino jungle three decades after Japan’s capitulation in World War II.
Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was still holding out in the hills of Lubang Island, where he first landed in December 1944, when Resnais’ films were selected and promptly deselected for the Palme d’Or race. Onoda would battle it out until March 1974, when he finally accepted, upon receipt of a written order from his former commander relieving him of his duties, that the war was well and truly over.
Onoda’s extraordinary story is the subject of an eponymous film by French director Arthur Harari, which screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. A beautifully shot, three-hour-long epic of resilience, comradeship, solitude and barking madness, “Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle” ranks among the first big hits of the festival.
The film opens in 1974 with Onoda stumbling upon a Japanese traveller on the lookout for “a giant panda, Lieutenant Onoda, and the Yeti, in that order.” It then jumps back to the wartime training that moulded the young officer into a blindly loyal soldier of the emperor, with a capacity for self-delusion that outstrips the most hardened conspiracy theorist.
Onoda is a sacrificial victim of war, though not of the kamikaze type. His orders specify that he can neither take his own life nor surrender – an injunction he takes so seriously that he refuses to accept the war has ended, even when his own father shows up in the jungle with a loudspeaker to plead for his return.
‘Agent Orange’ and other ‘gangsters’
Images of jungle warfare were evoked at the start of the festival when Cannes jury head Spike Lee used one of his favourite nicknames for Donald Trump, “Agent Orange”, in a fiercely political press conference.
“This world is run by gangsters,” Lee said in response to an emotional appeal from a Georgian journalist who spoke about a recent crackdown on a Pride celebration in her country, which she blamed on continued Russian interference more than a decade after the two countries were at war. Lee proceeded to excoriate the former US president, his chum and current Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“Agent Orange, this guy in Brazil, and Putin are gangsters,” said Lee, the first Black filmmaker to head the festival’s jury. “They have no morals, no scruples. That’s the world we live in. We have to speak out against gangsters like that.”
Lee sported a cap reading “1619”, referring to the year in which the first slaves arrived in the Americas. Asked about his 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing”, on race relations in his native New York, he cited recent victims of police violence, including George Floyd, and said: “You would hope 30-some fucking years later, that black people would stop being hunted down like animals.”
One of Lee’s jurors, Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho, said cinema was under siege in parts of the world, including his home country. He accused Bolsonaro’s government of closing down Brazil’s national cinematheque and dismantling its staff.
“This is a very clear demonstration of contempt for cinema and for culture,” said Filho, whose recent Cannes entries “Aquarius” (2016) and “Bacurau” (2019) presaged the turmoil that has gripped Brazil since the ouster of its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, and the election of her gun-toting successor.
‘Censorship from within’
Rage against creeping censorship and the breakdown of politics and culture was at the heart of another compelling Cannes screening on Thursday, Nadav Lapid’s first competition entry “Ahed’s Knee”, a provocative follow-up to his 2019 Golden Bear winner “Synonyms”.
Similarly auto-fictional, Lapid’s latest work is based on a real-life event: a call the 46-year-old Israeli filmmaker received from a government official, inviting him to present a film in a remote desert village, but also asking him to sign a document in which he promises to stick to mundane, pre-approved subjects.
An introspective foray into a filmmaker’s inner turmoil, “Ahed’s Knee” is both a work of mourning for Lapid’s late mother (who had worked on his past features) and a radical statement of despair at the state of Israel. The censorship it denounces is more sinister, more ingrained than the diplomatic shenanigans that frustrated Resnais’ movies decades ago.
“The sad thing in Israel is you don’t have to put tanks in front of the Israeli Film Fund, you don’t have to arrest a director and throw him in jail like in Russia,” Lapid told AFP ahead of the screening. “It’s effective just to say ‘enough politics, guys, let’s talk about family’.”
Lapid added: “What bothers me is not the censorship of the state, but when censorship becomes part of your soul, your mind. Censorship from within. It accompanies you like a shadow.”