Gilbey on Film: No Cannes do

Don’t pay too much attention to the pictures that wow the festival crowds; we may only recognise a c

So, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. But how much do you really care about Cannes?

I've only attended the festival once. That was 1999. A good year, I reckon: the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta and Bruno Dumont's L'humanité scooped the big prizes from David Cronenberg's jury, while All About My Mother, Kadosh, The Straight Story, Pola X and Wonderland were memorable competitors.

I also spotted Jeff Goldblum rolling his eyes as we both left the cinema after Peter Greenaway's 8½ Women, wearing an expression that would now be described as: "WTF?"

While I harbour no burning desire to return to Cannes, it became a habit to peruse the festival despatches by other journalists and critics. This year, I broke that habit. It was all down to the sense of overkill after 2009's festival; by the time films such as The White Ribbon, A Prophet, Fish Tank and Antichrist landed a release here, I felt strongly that I had already watched them several times over. I didn't want that to happen again with this year's selection, so I adopted a policy of No Cannes Do.

Seeing a film fresh, with no prior knowledge of its flaws, virtues and twists as perceived by other eyes, is one of the rarest pleasures in cinemagoing. (I get quite unreasonably annoyed just thinking about the critics who revealed the identity of the casting surprise in Zombieland.) Add to that the unavoidable hothouse hysteria of many of those reviews filed straight from the steps of the Grand Palais, and you've got a recipe for some seriously warped judgements.

There are times when it can seem the festival isn't about the films at all, but rather the reaction to them. That is why the miserable ritual of booing has such a hallowed place at Cannes.

The most notorious example remains Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura, which is now regarded as a masterpiece, but was greeted with a chorus of catcalls on the Croisette in 1960.

Antonioni reportedly believed his career was over, until a band of critics and film-makers, including Roberto Rossellini, released a statement unequivocally supporting the film. It went on to win the jury prize. Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and Vincent Gallo's unfairly maligned The Brown Bunny, along with the aforementioned Dumont film, are among recent competition entries that were subjected to a severe Cannes-ing.

Who knows how many of today's judgements will stand? As Steven Soderbergh said in 2007: "Twenty years from now we'll figure out which ones are great and which ones aren't." I was reminded of this comment, and of the unfairness of what is politely called "the common consensus", by the news that Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil has just been released on Region 1 DVD in a director's cut, with 13 minutes of missing footage restored.

In his look back at this masterful 1999 film, set during the US civil war, Graham Fuller of Sight and Sound strikes some familiar, plangent notes, reminding us that the picture was "poorly distributed and publicised on release . . . sank without trace . . . [was] not an easy sell . . ." And ain't that always the way?

Fuller rightly argues for the picture's unorthodox brilliance, calling it "the most mature film made about the effect the war had on shaping American society". Bravo. You can read a report here on a recent Q&A with James Schamus, the picture's articulate writer/producer (and regular Ang Lee collaborator), in which he reveals that his screenwriting dictum is not "Write what you know" so much as "Write anything but what you know".

Also heartening is news of another restoration. The new version of Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis is a case not of a disparaged or overlooked film being rehabilitated, like Ride With the Devil, but of a confirmed classic being shown at last in its correct form.

Chris Fujiwara writes: "For years now the false Metropolis has been running amok, courting charges of proto-Nazism, furnishing video backdrops for nightclubs, and fuelling predictable academic studies . . . The Lang film had been mutilated in so many ways that its creator insisted that it had ceased to exist." Metropolis will be released in the UK on 10 September.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism