Friday, May 14, 2010

A tale of two dungeons

The Cannes festival kicked off Wednesday and unlike the Oscars where the organizers frown upon anything to do with activism, this international gathering of film talent welcomes political controversy and strong opinions.

So it came as no surprise that French philosopher and celebrity intellectual figure Bernard-Henri Lévy decided to use the festival opening as a springboard for a petition denouncing the 'denial of the legal rights' of a filmmaker who has been kept in 'Kafkaesque isolation' and 'forbidden to see his comrades, his colleagues and, sometimes, his friends.'

Lévy managed to make a splash by getting a dozen directors whose films have been selected to compete at this year's Cannes festival -- including Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, Olivier Assayas... -- to sign a petition in support of the long-suffering director.

I refer of course to... Roman Polanski.

What!? Not Jafar Panahi?

Shortly after the Islamic regime arrested world-renowned director Jafar Panahi in early March because he was preparing to make a movie about the post-election unrest, Cannes festival president Gilles Jacob announced that he would invite Panahi to the festival as a special guest. Then on April 15, after unveiling his film selection, Jacob declared that Panahi had been chosen as a member of the festival jury presided by Tim Burton.

On Tuesday, festival director Thierry Frémaux had piqued the attention of the media by saying that a special gesture would be made to Panahi during the opening ceremony the next day. It was also announced that a short film showing the Iranian filmmaker describing a previous arrest and interrogation would be screened on Thursday afternoon, during the official opening of the 'Un Certain Regard' section of the festival. By then Panahi would have been in prison for over 70 days.

It was the eve of the festival's opening day and everything was in place to focus media attention on the plight of one Iranian filmmaker who would represent all the victims of human rights violations in the Islamic Republic.

And that's when Bernard-Henri Lévy decided to bring his petition on behalf of Polanski to the attention of the world. His act was all the more perplexing because he has been a friend of the democracy movement in Iran and has participated in protest marches against the Islamic Republic.

Roman Polanski has been under house arrest in his chalet in the skiing resort of Gstaad, awaiting the Swiss judiciary's decision on an American extradition request. This is the Kafkaesque isolation to which Lévy refers.

Polanski fled the US in 1978 just before being sentenced in a case involving sexual assault on a 13-year-old girl. His defenders proclaim that Polanski has been unfairly singled out and that he should not be extradited because, among various reasons, a statute of limitations should apply, the victim no longer wants Polanski to be prosecuted, and the filmmaker has already served his sentence because he spent 42 days confined to Chino state prison for psychiatric evaluation.

I do not want to argue whether the case put forward by Polanski's advocates has any merit. I am not a lawyer and I do not know the details of the case.

But I do know that Lévy is an adroit manipulator of the media, in a good way I should add, since he has often highlighted legitimate human rights abuses around the globe. He knew exactly what he was doing with his latest effort. His goal was to have people mention Panahi and Polanski as victims in the same breath.

Tim Burton and the festival organizers' decision to include an empty chair bearing Panahi's name on the stage next to the other jury members at the opening ceremony was a fantastic coup which has been reported around the world:

However, it was also noteworthy that a journalist at the jury's press conference asked Burton about his thoughts on Panahi AND Polanski. 'All of us are for freedom of expression. We fight for that every day and in our lives,' responded the jury president, as vaguely as he could.

This didn't sit well with Lévy, who griped to a radio station Friday morning, 'When you're the president [sic] of the Cannes festival, when you have the opportunity to tell a comrade, whom you know very well is not a pedophile, when you have the opportunity to express your support to him and you just say, "I'm for freedom of expression," it's pathetic.' Lévy went on to describe Burton as an 'immense filmmaker and a mediocre individual.'

Maybe Burton wasn't playing along, but others were. In a piece published by Le Monde and entitled 'Free Panahi and Polanski,' columnist Franck Nouchi wrote, 'In Iran and the United States, for reasons which are certainly different, cinema is gagged in this manner.' Nouchi then went on to stretch his intellectual gymnastic act to breaking point by stating, 'If the liberation of Panahi and Polanski is blocked to this extent today, it is because they are victims of who they are: huge artists.'

However much the facts are stretched, there is no equivalence between the case of a filmmaker who may or may not have committed statutory rape over 30 years ago and the case of a prisoner of conscience who has undeniably been arrested because of his opposition to the Islamic regime and his desire to exercise freedom of expression.

And however much Polanski's friends and defenders decry his situation, his solitude and pain in a chalet in the Swiss Alps cannot be compared to that of Panahi, for years prevented by the Islamic Republic from making a new film and now held in a true prison.

This is not a tale of two dungeons.

Bernard-Henri Lévy should have known better.