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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood