Polanski controversy clouds opening of Venice film festival

Jewish director, a fugitive from US since 1978 rape trial, to screen historical thriller about persecution of French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus

An employee works outside the Palazzo del Cinema on August 28, 2019 on the opening day of the 76th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)
An employee works outside the Palazzo del Cinema on August 28, 2019 on the opening day of the 76th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

VENICE, Italy (AFP) — The star-studded Venice film festival began Wednesday with Brad Pitt among a glittering array of A-listers arriving by boat for the 11-day celebration of cinema, which is already battling scandal over the inclusion of controversial director Roman Polanski.

The festival, which has become the launchpad for the Oscar race, has a host of Hollywood heavyweights in a stellar line-up including Johnny Depp, Kristen Stewart, Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson.

But the world’s oldest film festival is already embroiled in a second year of controversy over a lack of women up for its top prize, with two female directors out of 21 in the running this year compared to one in 2018.

The row has been further ignited by the inclusion of Polanski, as well as director Nate Parker who was embroiled in a rape trial while still at university, with campaigners saying the festival is out of touch in the era of #MeToo.

Festival director Alberto Barbera defended his decision to include Polanski, calling him “one of the last masters still active in European cinema,” at an opening press conference for the festival dominated by the issue.

In this file photo from May 27, 2017, director Roman Polanski appears at the photo call for the film, ‘Based On A True Story,’ at the 70th international film festival, Cannes, southern France. (AP/Alastair Grant)

He said that he “never had doubts” about including the Polanski film, adding “we have to distinguish between the art and the man” when judging the works of the Jewish French-Polish filmmaker, who was convicted in the US in 1978 for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old, fleeing the country to Europe, where he has lived since.

But Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, president of the judging panel for this year’s Golden Lion top award, said the inclusion of Polanski had made her “uncomfortable.”

She said she would not attend the celebration for his film, due to be held without the director, but added the work deserved a chance and raised an important debate.

Martel also indicated support for quotas, which Barbera has vociferously rejected.

“Do I like them? No. However, I don’t think I know of any other things that would force this industry to think differently.”

Policemen patrol on jet skis the canals leading to the Excelsior Hotel and the Festival Palace on August 28, 2019 during the 76th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)

Starry selection

The 76th Venice festival opens Wednesday evening with Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Truth,” starring French stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, about an actress whose decision to publish her memoirs prompts a mother-daughter reunion which turns fiery.

Binoche and Pitt were among a host of big-names whizzing across the city’s waterways on taxi boats to the glamorous Lido island.

Stars Adam Driver, Penelope Cruz and Robert De Niro are also due on the red carpet.

The festival’s blockbuster centerpiece is likely to be the new DC Comics’ “The Joker” starring Joaquin Phoenix, which traces the origins of Batman’s nemesis.

Trailers for the film have already been viewed more than 80 million times.

Among the other potential Oscar hopefuls at the festival, US director Steven Soderbergh’s take on the Panama Papers investigation, “The Laundromat,” is set to premier, while Brad Pitt plays an astronaut in James Gray’s highly anticipated sci-fi drama “Ad Astra.”

Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa al-Mansour, the maker of the acclaimed “Wadjda,” is one of the two women directors vying for the top prize.

Haifaa al-Mansour. (Wikimedia)

Her film “The Perfect Candidate” tells the story of a doctor trying to become her town’s first female candidate in elections in the conservative kingdom.

Newcomer Shannon Murphy is the other female contender, with her Australian comedy-drama “Babyteeth.”

Polanski divisions

Barbera, who is credited with revitalizing the festival — first held in 1932 — stressed that the selection panel for this year’s films was half made up of women, adding “there was no prejudice on our behalf.”

Polanski’s historical thriller about the persecution of the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus, “An Officer and a Spy,” is due to premier Friday.

The 86-year-old, who is suing the Academy of Motion Pictures for stripping him of his membership, will not appear in Venice, representatives for the film told AFP.

‘The Traitor: The Degradation of Alfred Dreyfuss,’ by Henri Meyer, portraying the stripping of the soldier’s rank. (Wikimedia commons/public domain)

Deneuve has often defended the director, saying in a recent interview with AFP that the criticisms of him were “totally excessive.”

“Time has passed,” she added.

Meanwhile, Spike Lee has said he will travel to Venice to support Parker, whose film “American Skin” tells the story of a Marine veteran whose son is killed by police.

Parker’s 2016 debut film about a slave revolt, “The Birth of a Nation,” was derailed after it emerged that he was accused of raping a fellow student, who later killed herself.

Parker was acquitted, but he later said, “I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.”

The festival opens as the accusations that sparked America’s #MeToo movement are back in the spotlight.

Harvey Weinstein, once one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, pleaded not guilty to two new charges of sexual predatory assault Monday, as a judge postponed his trial to 2020.

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