Why is there a lack of Palestinian representation at this year's Cannes Film Festival?

While a few movies will screen at fringe events, it is deeply disappointing that none are part of the official selection

Lebanese actress Manal Issa, from "My Favorite Fabric," right, holds a sign that reads "Stop the Attack on Gaza" at the premiere of the film "Solo: A Star Wars Story" at the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 15, 2018. Israeli soldiers shot and killed 59 Palestinians and wounded hundreds in mass protests on the Gaza border on Monday. Also with Issa are filmmakers Etienne Kallos, second left, and Gaya Jiji, second right. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)
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As the Cannes Film Festival begins on Tuesday, there is the question of how Palestinian experiences and the ongoing war in Gaza will be represented in this year’s programme. Looking at the line-up of films taking part, the prospects are not so promising.

International film festivals cannot be considered in isolation, especially as they often inadvertently become microcosms of larger global issues, with protests against injustice and sociopolitical affairs frequently at their heart.

This correlation is understandable. Events such as Cannes position themselves as platforms dedicated to shining a spotlight on a diversity of voices. Perhaps more importantly, they are where perspectives under threat come to be heard.

Film has often been a vehicle for giving a voice to the voiceless and festivals, in turn, amplify these. Sometimes they succeed in putting marginalised narratives centre frame. At others, the line-up is inadvertently or willfully curated in a way that echoes the global status quo.

As such, politics is inextricable from both film and the festival circuit.

The recent sentencing of Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof is a testament to the socio-political implications of film. Rasoulof was sentenced by Iranian courts to eight years in prison and flogging for national security crimes. Posting on X, Rasoulof’s lawyer Babak Paknia said his films and documentaries were seen as “examples of collusion with the intention of committing a crime against the security of the country". Rasoulof’s film The Seed of the Sacred Fig is due to be shown in the main competition at Cannes, and the court sentencing came as a way to pressure the director to withdraw the film from the festival. Rasoulof has since reportedly fled Iran.

Appearances at Cannes have, in recent years, been increasingly contentious for Iranian directors and actors. Last year, prominent filmmaker Saeed Roustayi was jailed after his film Leila’s Brothers was screened at the 2022 festival.

Festival organisers also actively engage in these political face-offs. In December 2022, Cannes issued a statement demanding the release of actress Taraneh Alidoosti, one of the most prominent people to have been arrested in Iran's months-long protests. At last year's Berlinale International Film Festival, Iranian film professionals, joined by jury president Kristen Stewart, protested against the brutality of Iran’s regime and demanded the release of imprisoned journalists and artists.

While festivals have long been important for calling out injustices, and they often take on this role with gusto, it is important to note that festivals themselves are curated and that curation includes what political stances they take.

Combing through the films that are part of this year's line-up, I was interested to see how the Palestinian experience would be reflected. While there are Palestinian films taking part on the sidelines of the festival, and one student short included in a global film school showcase, it is disappointing that no feature is part of the official selection.

One in the official Special Screening section revolves, at least on its face, around a facet of the Palestinian experience. La Belle de Gaza's (The Belle from Gaza) premise is intriguing. When examining what it suggests in the larger context of the war in Gaza, however, allusions are problematic, especially as there aren't any stories being told from a Palestinian artist's perspective.

The documentary, by French filmmaker Yolande Zauberman, follows a group of Palestinians “fleeing Gaza for Tel Aviv to live openly”, as the film’s premise reads on IMDb.

An argument for the film may be that it strives to shed light on an unexplored perspective. However, without other narratives included, and considering what is happening in Gaza, the suggestion that Tel Aviv can offer a sanctuary to Palestinians – from any segment of society – does not represent the broader truth of the current situation.

As such, the fact that Zauberman’s film is the sole "Palestinian" narrative in Cannes’ official selection is highly problematic.

That is not to say, however, that there aren’t any Palestinian voices at Cannes right now, though most are outside the official festival purview. To a Land Unknown by Palestinian-Danish director Mahdi Fleifel is being screened at the Directors' Fortnight, an independent section that runs parallel to the festival. The film tells the story of two Palestinian cousins who flee a camp in Lebanon and soon find themselves stranded in Athens, vying for a way to reach Germany. In the process, they are ripped off by a smuggler.

The Palestine Film Institute will present four documentaries at Cannes Docs during the Marche du Film, the film market section running from Friday to May 20. They are still in progress and will be pitched to potential partners for distribution or post-production aid, and are not part of an official public screening programme.

Each of these films presents a varied and unique facet of Palestinian identity. However, considering the landscape in Cannes, Fleifel’s To a Land Unknown is being screened in a segment that is independent of the official festival, whereas the four documentaries to be presented by the Palestine Film Institute are part of its market wing and are not given an equivalent public platform.

This leaves Zauberman’s La Belle de Gaza, a story not told from a Palestinian filmmaker's perspective, as the sole film in the official festival. The curation is reminiscent of this year’s Venice Art Biennale, where the strongest Palestinian representation took place on the sidelines of the prestigious event, with no official seal of approval.

That is a shame, because it is imperative to highlight Palestinian perspectives, especially now it is under existential threat, both politically and culturally. Art revolving around Palestine is being shunned by many major institutional spaces, and it seems films are not exempt. There need to be stories on platforms such as Cannes that highlight not just the political struggles of Palestinians, but their culture and identity that has managed to create moving and memorable art while enduring oppression and violence – from their own perspective.

Of course, it remains to be seen how the war in Gaza will be reflected during the festival. It's possible, as we've seen elsewhere, that demonstrations calling for a ceasefire will take centre stage. Filmmakers and actors may flock to the event’s ceremonies with a small token of protest, such as when celebrities wore Artists4Ceasefire pins during this year's Oscars ceremony.

However, even if they do, it will not do much to change the fact that as far as curation is concerned, there is a troubling lack of official Palestinian representation at Cannes, especially for a festival that has often prided itself on its political stances.

Published: May 14, 2024, 11:41 AM