Breeze of Arab Spring felt on Cannes red carpet

Movies from Egypt and Syria, and Bernard-Henri Levy’s film on Libya uprising screened; ‘Arab cinema is trying to liberate itself,’ says Egyptian director

Director Bernard-Henry Levy, centre, flanked by two unidentified persons wearing Syrian flags pose during a photo call for The Oath of Tobruk at the 65th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday. (photo credit: AP)
Director Bernard-Henry Levy, centre, flanked by two unidentified persons wearing Syrian flags pose during a photo call for The Oath of Tobruk at the 65th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday. (photo credit: AP)

CANNES, France (AP) — The ripples of the Arab Spring are being felt in summery Cannes, where films from Egypt and Syria, as well as a passionate documentary about the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, are being screened alongside the latest features from the world’s heavyweight directors.

On Friday the festival lineup included “The Oath of Tobruk,” a highly personal insiders’ account of the uprising by Jewish writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who was accompanied to a photo call by masked Libyan fighters.

In the film, made with photographer Marc Roussel, Levy gives a robust defense of Western military intervention in Libya — and calls for the world to do the same in Syria, where the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has been fighting an uprising for more than a year. Levy — often known simply as BHL — is a leading public intellectual in France, where he is known for his impassioned political interventions, dapper dress and mane of salt-and-pepper hair.

The movie is revealing about the background to the Libyan conflict, as Levy’s bulging contact book delivers interviews with Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as with members of Libya’s new political and military leadership.

Levy was pivotal in persuading Sarkozy, then France’s president, to back air strikes to aid the Libyan rebels, a decision taken up by Cameron, the British leader, and later by President Barack Obama.

Dismissed by critics as an egotist, Levy is not shy about extolling his place in history, explaining in the film’s voiceover his personal desire to overthrow a dictator and right a wrong that has been gnawing at him for 20 years — “the bleeding wound of Bosnia,” where he says intervention could have saved thousands of lives.

“I’ve borne the sorrow and the mourning of Bosnia for 20 years,” Levy told The Associated Press. “And this is what Sarkozy, Cameron and Clinton say (in the film)— we did this because of Bosnia. Nevermore Bosnia. Nevermore Srebrenica.”

The film, which has been picked up by the Weinstein Co. for distribution in the United States, is open to the criticism of self-centeredness. Some may prefer to see the Libyan story told by Libyans.

“I am sure the Libyans will themselves tell the story of their liberation and their revolution,” Levy said. “This is my version. It’s personal, subjective. I tell things I was part of and only this. I don’t pretend to any exhaustiveness. It is my part of truth.”

Levy used the platform of Cannes to urge the international community to take direct military action in support of the rebels in Syria — something for which there is, as yet, little appetite among governments.

“Syria is a scandal,” Levy said. “Syria is a shame. All those who say that situations are difficult are just trying to find excuses for their cowardice. If I had a wish today, it would be to make people understand that what was doable in Benghazi is doable in Homs, Aleppo and Deraa.”

Elsewhere at the festival, Arab filmmakers are telling stories — often against considerable odds.

Bassam Chekhes is the first Syrian director ever to be in competition at Cannes, with his short film “Waiting for P.O. Box.”

The director said coming to Cannes was “a dream” — and a vital link to other filmmakers around the world.

“The festival, when you are around you can fell the similarity of our humanity and the feeling that we are 30 year old men who have the same problem all round the world,” he said.

One of the 22 films competing for the Palme d’Or is “After the Battle,” by Egypt’s Yousry Nasrallah.

The story of the relationship between a wealthy Tahrir Square revolutionary and a poor horseman from the Pyramids who has been involved in an attack on protesters, it was filmed in the chaotic interval between the overthrow of Mubarak and this week’s presidential election in Egypt.

Nasrallah said the film crew members were worried about intimidation from supporters of the former regime or Islamists who condemn cinema as a sin. They filmed using a code name to make the movie sound like a romantic comedy.

The director said movie makers have a duty to be bold, despite political uncertainty and the rising influence of religious fundamentalists.

“Arab cinema is trying to liberate itself,” he told reporters. “It is trying to break censorship taboos and social taboos. Because this is the only way you can make movies.

“You don’t want to go watch a film where you feel the film itself is a prison. You want to feel the filmmaker is liberated and thus liberating you too.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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