The Cannes Film Festival is facing increasing censorship from both governments and the public. What are the implications for freedom of expression?
Iranian film producer Jafar Panahi’s latest film, “Three Faces”, has been presented at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with the director conspicuously absent from the proceedings. Panahi, who has already been an award-winner at the festival, has been barred from leaving his home country, since 2010. According to the Iranian authorities, Panahi is guilty of, “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”.
“Three Faces,” tells the story of a famous Iranian actress who receives a video from a young girl, pleading for help in escaping from the claws of her conservative family. The actress asks her friend, who happens to be Panahi himself, to determine whether the video is a hoax. They decide to set out together, in search of the young girl, who lives in an isolated mountain region in north-west Iran, and where ancient traditions still dictate the way of life.
It does seem ridiculous that Panahi is prevented from leaving Iran, because no-one sees his films in his home country, courtesy of Iranian censorship. This is just yet another example of authoritarian governments trying to stifle works of art that they consider to be too much of a challenge to their flawed politico-religious doctrine.
Pahihi is not the only one, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, facing homemade censorship. Wanuri Kahiu is a Kenyan film director, whose latest film, “Rafiki”, has caused quite a stir on the Croisette. The story relates the blossoming love between two women whose respective families are political rivals, and is inspired by Monica Arac de Nyeko’s “Jambula Tree”, a story depicting the love between two girls, that takes place in Uganda. “Rafiki” challenges the Kenyan authorities to come face to face with what is, for them, a strictly forbidden aspect of human relationships.
Our names became forever associated with the forbidden. Shame. – Monica Ariak de Nyeko, in The Jambula Tree
Two heads better than one
Film festivals are decidedly provocative. Amidst the setting sun on the beautiful, but shark infested, ocean that surrounds the Réunion Island, the scandal concerning a festival poster was coming to a head – originally, having had two. The original poster was considered to be too “Blackface“ to be artistically correct, and the organisers were forced to remove it.
Aurelia Mengin, who is also a film producer, is surprised that her poster has caused so much debate, and had to be taken down. This was supposed to be art, revolving around a particular theme. In this case, it was all about Siamese twins, women who were half human half bird, due to a genetic mutation, and body paint. The hairstyle represents a nest and is a tribute to a yellow bird that illuminates the tropical vegetation of the island. The Siamese twins are liberated from the hardship and pain of childbirth, by their ability to lay eggs. These women are from another world and should have stayed that way. If it’s any consolation to Mengin, she’s in the company of world-famous footballer, Antoine Griezmann, who got severely reprimanded for disguising himself as a pro-NBA basketball player and posting a picture on Twitter.
You may find the poster profoundly racist and hurtful, in true “Blackface” tradition. I have a different personal interpretation of the same poster. My interpretation is influenced by who I am, and the way I interact with the outside world.
I see two beautiful women, whose blackness reflects the infinite depth of eternity. The redness of their lips and eyes reflects the colour of their heart. It is not the colour of blood, it is the true intense redness of love. Being Siamese twins, the two women share their souls in such an intimate and beautiful way, that we cannot begin to imagine the secrets and feelings they both share with each other. The hairstyle represents the safety of a home – the nest – belonging to an animal which, like no other, has mastered the freedom of the skies. In their hands, they hold the one thing that we all should treasure – the fragility of life.
The important question posed, is how far can a work of art go, without being censored by a community that finds it offensive. Would the white community of the Réunion Island have been offended, if the Siamese twins had been painted white, instead of black? To add a twist to the story, although the festival organisers took down the poster and replaced with a more political one, the town where the festival was being held, did not. The mayor of Saint-Philippe had no intention of taking the poster off the streets of his town, defiantly saying that those who feel offended by the poster can take him to court.
I’m a poet and don’t I know it
Even if I can imagine the most beautiful landscape, I will have extreme difficulty in painting it, due to my lack of technique and talent, for painting. The technique can be commented on, and judged by, experts. As for talent, you either have it or you don’t. But each one of us, whether artist or not, is capable of interpreting a painting. This interpretation remains extremely subjective, and there is no clear-cut “right” and “wrong”. The visualisation of a painting is a personal experience that no-one can live through, in your place. It is profoundly influenced by who you are, and what the world around you represents, for you.
I remember a poem that I wrote and submitted to a French literary site, as part of an online competition. The jury refused to publish it online. I can only understand this censorship as a result of a subject matter – adultery – that they did not like. I wrote about a woman having deep regrets concerning her illicit affair. She rushed home and ignored a red traffic light. In my imagination, the traffic light realised that she had sinned and was going to die, but could do nothing about it. She got hit and killed by a car.
I cannot judge whether my poem was better written than other pieces on the site because my views are naturally biased. However, what really infuriated me, was that one of the moderators sent me a short email, to which I could not reply. He would have preferred a description of what the cyclist was looking at whilst cycling. He also seemed to think that I wanted the woman to die as if she deserved it – a complete misunderstanding of what I had written. In the text, only regret and bitterness are alluded to.
The consciousness flies away from the lying body,
To lose itself in the greyness of the low countries,
Hugging the wings of the windmills,
A scarf of regrets, a dress of bitterness,
Did I want her to die? No, she just happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time,
Silence broken by a life that capsizes,
A rocking bike and a spinning wheel,
A scarlet hand clings to the bitumen,
A path of stars forever lost.
Death of the author
The universal foundation on which a work of art is built is representation. This maintains a visible gap between what the work of art is representing and reality. The artist is free to provoke and even to upset, as long as there is no incitement to violence and hatred, and the message conveyed remains within the law. That certain communities have a predetermined view on the narrowness of present-day society is, in itself, acceptable, and must be respected. But do these well-meaning people have the right to censor and enforce their views on others? It is well-known that your liberty ends, where the liberty of the other begins. This is no more so than for the written word, and the exposed image.
For the French literary critic and theorist, Roland Barthes, whatever the intention of an author, it is only the people’s interpretation of the written words that matter and becomes reality.
“Literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”
Most people will probably never know what that intention really was. Their interpretation will be based on their own preconceptions, feelings, and biases based on history, all of which define who they are. Although esthetic, moral, and political values of a work of art must remain open to debate, the exchange of views must be carried out in an environment based on freedom of expression, and mutual respect.
“Destroying art will only deprive us of one of the most magnificent characteristics of what it is to be human – our imagination and the ability to transcribe it”
Earlier this year, Manchester Art Gallery temporarily removed JW Waterhouse’s 1896 painting, Hylas and the Nymphs, from its displays, “to prompt conversation”. The topics discussed, included the presentation of the female body as either a “passive decorative form” or a “femme fatale”, and the role that works of art could play in the expression of more contemporary issues such as gender, race, sexuality, and class. Well, if only paintings could talk.
Censoring a work of art is synonymous with political helplessness and frustration. It cannot represent a political tool for protecting minorities, whatever their sense of outrage, and is certainly not a basis for the discussion of what art should or should not be. Nor will it change everything that is wrong with our societies. Following the censorship argument, underscores the ridiculous nature of its premise. Should we think about painting over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, because Michelangelo only depicted white people? Should we destroy Vincent van Gogh’s “Maison d’Arles”, to protect the homeless from being insulted?
Destroying art will only deprive us of one of the most magnificent characteristics of what it is to be human – our imagination and the ability to transcribe it – and we will have regressed to a world without culture. I suppose that if taking down a painting is done in the name of “art”, then the burning of books is done in the name of “literature”. Both will eliminate provocative artists and authors, a fact of little importance since, according to Barthes, both artists and authors do not exist, in the first place.
George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.