Why aren't more celebrities showing Palestine solidarity at Cannes?

Social media buzz surrounding Cate Blanchett's subtle gown underscores the festival's deafening silence about the Israel-Gaza war

While Cate Blanchett hasn't confirmed or denied if her dress on the Cannes red carpet was a pro-Palestine gesture, many fans online believe it was. Reuters
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In the politically quiet landscape of the Cannes Film Festival, Cate Blanchett’s dress was embraced by many as an abstract symbol of solidarity for Palestine. But the lack of public support for peace at the storied event is notable, particularly as the current silence contrasts with years past.

Even this particular example is oblique, if it is one at all. At this point, it isn’t definite whether the Jean Paul Gaultier gown was actually the Australian actress's way of gesturing support. The black front, pink back and green lining of the dress allude to the flag of Palestine, but Blanchett has not said if political expression was the subtext of her fashion statement.

The social media buzz surrounding the dress, however, underscores the reigning silence at Cannes surrounding the Israel-Gaza war.

Celebrities showing some sign of solidarity are scarce. Lupin star Omar Sy, who is also one of the jurors of the film festival, recently posted on Instagram: “There is nothing that justifies the killing of children in Gaza. or anywhere”. French-Algerian actress Leila Bekhti, meanwhile, donned a heart-shaped pin designed with the seeded pattern of a watermelon, which is a symbol of Palestinian resistance.

Solidarity with Israel, meanwhile, has been more pronounced by those on the other side of the spectrum. French-Israeli Laura Blajman-Kadar, who survived the Hamas massacre at the Nova festival on October 7, wore a yellow dress to an event last week that bore the faces of hostages who are being held. Her sash, meanwhile, read "Bring Them Home".

Aside from a few isolated examples, you’d be hard-pressed to find political statements related to Israel-Gaza at Cannes, whether in Palestinian solidarity or otherwise. It is unlike some other recent film events, such as the Academy Awards, where several actors and filmmakers took to the red carpet wearing a red Artists4Ceasefire pin.

While Cannes guests rarely make public political statements, celebrities have come together to show support for Palestine at the festival before. In 2018, Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir led a rally to show solidarity with the 60 people killed in a Gaza protest.

The Stand In Solidarity rally included several of Jacir's fellow jury members, including Hollywood actor Benicio Del Toro, Russian director Kantemir Balagov, French actress Virginie Ledoyan and Telluride Film Festival artistic director Julie Huntsinger.

The group were joined by a 200-strong crowd, including Arab filmmakers, Lena Boukhari, head of the cinema department of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, and Mohanad Yaqubi, curator of public programme at the Palestine Film Institute. The group held each other's hands and marked a minute of silence to honour the dead.

That same year at Cannes, Lebanese actress Manal Issa attended the premiere of Solo: A Star Wars Story, hoisting up a sign that read "Stop the Attack on Gaza". Issa was joined by filmmakers Etienne Kallos and Gaya Jiji.

But there is little, if nothing, of the sort this year. The dearth of political statements at Cannes looms large and uncomfortably so, and there are a few reasons for this silence.

For some, not speaking out may be an act of self-censorship. Cannes is not just a platform for film appreciation, it is also a showcase for potential sales for the many independent projects screening. If a star speaks out about a hot-button issue, some believe it could jeopardise a project's financial success, or derail the conversation away from the art itself. This is particularly front of mind in the wake of the backlash British director Jonathan Glazer faced after criticising Israel’s attacks on Gaza during his Oscars acceptance speech.

Larger protests have legal implications as well. For at least the last two editions of the festival, French authorities have also forbidden demonstrations in the coastal area where the festival’s core events are held.

And festival organisers have urged against their platform being used for political ends. In a pre-festival conference, Cannes general delegate Thierry Fremaux insisted that he wanted the festival this year to be “without polemics".

“The main interest for us all to be here is cinema, so if there are other polemics it doesn’t concern us,” Fremaux said. He was not only referring to the Israel-Gaza war, but to increasing reports about abuses taking place in French cinema as well as the planned protests over pay by workers at Cannes and other French festivals.

The festival also ramped up its security, with its general secretary Francois Desrousseaux quoted by Variety as saying: “This year, we’ve had 15 security briefings compared with only four or five last year, so I can tell you it’s a very serious matter.”

According to the same article, the festival was “initially amenable to a plan for Arab filmmakers to wear pins showing support for the Palestinians under siege in Gaza”. However, the festival has since backtracked “and will not take part in the distribution of [the pins].”

But the festival’s history shows how this apolitical sentiment is a highly selective one, perhaps only implementing a political stance can be seen to have minimal consequences.

In 2022, for instance, Cannes organisers banned Russian delegates from attending after the invasion of Ukraine. That year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise appearance at the opening ceremony, streaming from Kyiv via satellite.

“On February 24, Russia began a war of huge proportion against Ukraine with the intention of going further into Europe,” Zelensky said. “Will cinema stay silent or will it talk about it? If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, again, it all depends on our unity. Can cinema stay out of this unity? We need a new Chaplin who will prove that, in our time, cinema is not silent.”

It was a powerful and stirring speech that gave a sense of purpose to a ceremony that is otherwise all pomp and glitz. That being said, the festival seemed less than accommodating to Ukrainian solidarity last year. According to various reports, Zelensky aimed to give another statement at the festival but was barred from doing so. Ukrainian influencer Ilona Chernobai, dressed in a blue and yellow gown reflecting her country’s flag, was also escorted out of the festival after she covered herself in fake blood protesting Russia’s invasion.

The festival has also taken an evident stance against the Iranian government. 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. More recently, director Mohammad Rasoulof escaped Iran days after being sentenced to eight years in prison on national security charges. Rasoulof’s Seed of the Sacred Fig is in competition at Cannes.

After reports surfaced that he would attend the film’s screening at the festival, Cannes issued a statement. “We are particularly touched to welcome [Rasoulof] here as a filmmaker,” Fremaux told AFP. “Our joy will be that of all festival-goers and all freedom-loving Iranians. We would like to reaffirm the support of the Cannes Film Festival for all artists around the world who suffer violence and reprisals in the expression of their art.”

Fremaux’s comments seem contradictory and appear to reaffirm that Cannes's apolitical stance depends on the situation in question. And the silence reigning in Cannes is still a statement in of itself.

When taking the evident lack of Palestinian representation in the festival’s programming, this head-in-the-sand tactic is disappointing for many.

Film is a reflection of life. These festivals and other cultural events can’t really celebrate an art form without acknowledging global issues in real time.

As people around the world desperately protest for peace in the wake of tens of thousands of deaths, now is not the time to wait for the movie.

Published: May 22, 2024, 2:12 PM