Leil-Zahra Mortada

making noise, and more noise

Remembering the Rebels of Cannes

The statements of architect Zaha Hadid regarding the horrific situation of migrant workers building Hadid’s design, Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022 Al-Wakrah stadium, are despicable to say the least. Hadid said “Yes, but I’m more concerned about the deaths in Iraq as well, so what do I do about that? I’m not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. But, as I said, I think there are discrepancies all over the world.” A statement that does not only undermine the grave situation resulting in the murder of hundreds of people and grave injustices to thousands more, but also whitewashes Hadid’s conscience from her responsibility as a human being and as a privileged artist. A question that has always been at the heart of art(s) and its social and political responsibilities; and the relation between certain privileged artists and corrupt regimes. In the face of injustice, silence is another form of complicity. Especially if one has the privileges she enjoys, and the responsibility that falls on her for the fact that it is her design, and she is getting paid for it by the same murderers killing the workers. 

There are countless things that Hadid could’ve said to denounce these injustices and diplomatically save face without causing herself embarrassment with those who pay her salary. And that still would’ve been considered the least she could do. It could be true that Hadid has no power in the direct decisions taken by Qatar regarding the workers, but she is a privileged artist with massive media attention that could’ve been easily employed to demand action. She rather decided, in an pathetic move, to shift the attention to Iraq. A failed attempt judging the ambiguity of her “concern” that lacked the minimum needed elaboration. What is Hadid doing about the murders in Iraq? Who is killing the Iraqi people and plundering the country? Does it take a question about Qatar for Hadid to speak about Iraq? And when she did, what information did this highly creative soul give us? Yeah, she is concerned, and? Couldn’t this celebrated architect of space find a niche to highlight more about her country of birth apart of “concern”? Do the murders in Iraq undermine the murders in Qatar? Is it an either or situation? It was all a failed attempt to fake helplessness towards both causes. A PR-maneuver that went completely wrong. She wanted to demonstrate helplessness on Iraq and thus justify her choice over the murders in Qatar, and she failed! First, individuals with less to no privilege and with precarious resources are facing up repressive regimes every day, from Qatar, to Iraq, to Palestine, to Greece, to Brazil, to Bahrain, to Syria, to India, to Chile…etc.  She can speak and act on both Iraq and Qatar, something she is not doing on neither! Second, in her words she continues to state that it is not her job and that it is the job of the government. A clear detachment from the responsibility she has as a person and an artist.

It is true that what is happening, and has been happening, in Iraq deserves international attention; the way the situation of migrant workers worldwide deserves attention. But this in no way undermines the needed noise and urgent action required to stop the atrocities on Hadid’s building site. Yet, Hadid decided to nonchalantly dismiss the call for her to take the responsibility over what is being committed, literally, in her name.  After all, the world will live to remember the Al-Wakrah stadium as Hadid’s and Qatar’s pyramid that was built on the broken lives and backs of migrant workers and their families.

In contrast to Hadid´s posture, and in the light of the current Cannes Film Festival, it is inspiring to remember Cannes 1968. What started as the usual privileged gathering was turned by the will of revolutionary artists into a platform of active solidarity with the students and workers movements sweeping the country at that time. Not only that, the committed artists used the very stages of the festival, putting their privilege into action, to also denounce the capitalist producers, the precarious situation of many in the film industry, and to generate a much-needed debate/confrontation between complicit (by choice or by their silence) artists and those who believed art (and cinema) are part of this globe, and just like everyone and everything have a responsibility towards the planet we live on and the people we live with.

1036_cannes_1968On the morning of Saturday May 18, 1968, François Truffaut took to the stage, along side directors Godard, Lelouch, Malle, and Milos Forman, in the Salle Jean Cocteau for a press conference organized by the “Committee for the Defence of the Cinémathèque Française”.  Truffaut called on the filmmakers and press to shut the festival down. Milos Forman withdrew his film The Fireman’s Ball from competition. Followed by Roman Polanski who also withdrew his film, yet he was not in favor of Godard’s fiery spirit and Truffaut’s radical reasoning.  At some point Polanski told Godard  ‘Everything you say reminds me hugely of the time I was in Poland under Stalinism’. In Variety, Polanski was reported as calling Truffaut, Lelouch and Godard ‘little kids playing at being revolutionaries’ followed by ‘I pulled out as a gesture of solidarity with the students whose actions I wholeheartedly support. I never intended it be seen as an anti-Cannes gesture.’ The debate was fueled not only between artists who wanted Cannes to continue despite what was happening on the streets and those who wanted it to stop; but also created a heated debate within those who wanted to show solidarity with the students and workers and everyone on the streets generating “reformist” and “radical” camps that clashed at times. Debates and confrontations moved back and forth between the Salle Jean Cocteau and the Grand Salle, with tense moments highlighting the differences between the group calling for the festival to be shut down. Some pushed for complete closure, while others called for a change in format. 

The directors de-centralized their actions and hit the festival on different levels. Louis Malle, a member of the Jury at the time, said: “My task was to convince the festival jury to resign. The Committee thought that if the jury resigned the Festival couldn’t continue. During a Jury meeting Terence Young announced that he’d had a phone call from the French union and as he was a member he had to follow their advice. I’d convinced Monica Vitti. Truffaut went to see Roman Polanski who said he’d withdraw but immediately regretted it.”

Though the resigning members were not a majority, the jury was rendered impotent and Malle transmitted the news to the now-occupied Grande Salle. Malle would later say that he was held responsible for the festival’s closure. ‘I became persona non grata at Cannes’, he said. ‘The businessmen were furious and the rumour went round that it was all my fault… When I went to the Café Bleu next door to the Palais they refused to serve me.’ though it is worth mentioning that the documentary he had been shooting in India earlier that year, Calcutta, would be selected to screen out of competition at the following year’s festival.

Of course talking loudly about shutting down the festival was not an easy job, let alone actually shutting it down. The filmmakers were not just causing an international scandal, embarrassing the elite of the festival and the French government, they were also slamming the very people who control the industry. Heated discussions and accusations flew back and forth, yet the directors held on to their ideals and took every needed measure to proactively express solidarity with the burning barricades.  Truffaut with his calm and articulate reasoning, Godard with his fiery spirit and rightful black-block rhetoric, alongside a group of directors and artists who didn’t hesitate to resort to physical action to bring the festival to a halt. Godard accused everyone assembled in the Grande Salle, and cinema in general, including himself and his fellow filmmakers, of having failed to represent the revolutionary moment: ‘There’s not a single film that shows the problems that workers and students are going through. Not one. Whether made by Forman, by me, by Polanski or Francois. We’ve missed the boat!’

Cannes-strikeGodard insisted, ‘It’s not a matter of continuing or not continuing to watch films. It’s a matter of cinema showing solidarity with the student movement and the only practical way of doing this is to stop all the projections immediately.’ To a booing audience, Godard in a moment of rebellious glory shouted ‘(We’re) talking about solidarity with the students and workers and you’re speaking travelling shots and close-ups! You’re assholes!’ On another incident, the public was loudly demanding the screening of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappé, starring Geraldine Chaplin, despite the fact that Saura had withdrawn the film from competition. The lights came down but the protesters of cinema had no intentions of keeping quiet. Assisted by the film’s director and the leading actress, Geraldine Chaplin, they literally hung onto the curtains thus hindering the projection. Godard was slapped in the face and lost his glasses, and Truffaut was thrown to the floor by a furious member of the audience. It is said that when Godard saw Geraldine Chaplin on stage, he thought that the actress was there to defend her film, and in the struggle he punched her, leaving Charlie Chaplin’s daughter with a missing tooth. Today, she jokes about it but at the time, she actually thought – for just a moment – about getting into a fist fight with the Swiss director! Soon after, the cancelation of the afternoon and evening screenings was announced.

Facing what could be the worst and toughest PR crisis in the history of the festival, and in the face of determined protesters who proved they were not going anywhere and are ready to take all measures to bring the festival to an end, Favre le Bret, longtime president of Cannes, found himself in a very hard position. He was informed earlier by Police Intelligence of “contingents” “having nothing to do with the film industry” intending to descend on Cannes to cause further disruption. And after he had asked the Mayor of Cannes to use his powers to clear the protestors from the Palais, and having been refused, Favre le Bret and his team realized they had no other choice. At midday on Sunday 18 May, Favre le Bret declared the Cannes Festival closed.

‘It was a great moment’ Louis Malle said of 1968. ‘Suddenly the whole country stopped, people started to think about their lives and the society they were living in and to imagine all sorts of solutions, few of them feasible. When it was all over I thought: ‘One should make it an institution. May ’68 should happen every four years. It’d be a better catharsis than the Olympic Games.’

A great moment indeed, a moment in his(her)story of cinema, and of dissidence. A lesson for artists, for celebrities, for everyone with little or much privilege. There is no person on this planet, with a little or a lot of privilege who cannot do “something” in the face of injustices. It is always a choice to face up or to be complicit. We all make these choices every day.

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