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After a Two-Year Drought, A Sprinkle of Docs at Cannes

By Josh Slates

I last wrote about the Cannes Film Festival in the pages of Documentary magazine in 2005. The argument of my article was, in essence, that the festival had retreated from programming documentary titles in the Competition after it had awarded the Palme d'Or one year prior to a nonfiction film (Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11) for only the second time in its history.

Plagued by charges that the festival had allowed political sentiment to trump creative merit by awarding the prize to Moore, festival president Gilles Jacob and artistic director Thierry Fremaux reworked the festival catalog in line with its traditional programming initiative: namely, fiction films from internationally renowned auteurs.

If I had implied that the 2005 festival had represented a dearth in nonfiction titles, it was a feast of plenty compared to the range of programming in 2006. Aside from the occasional and cursory documentary about the making of a classic film beloved to the festival brass, nonfiction programming was almost completely absent.

It is heartening to note that the 2007 event, which represented the 60th anniversary of the most exclusive and prestigious film festival on the planet, brought documentary titles back into the fold. Although no nonfiction title was selected for inclusion in the main Competition, there was at least enough of a varied sampling of films to justify a brief overview of documentary offerings at the festival.

For Cannes, which has a history of championing films that address social issues from a humanist or politically liberal perspective, examination of the nonfiction titles screening this year illustrates this bias quite clearly.

The special screening of The 11th Hour, a film by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners about the looming specter of climate change and the perils of pollution, was greeted with a popular interest and fanfare uncommon among Cannes audiences--well, at least uncommon for any nonfiction work not directed by a certain documentarian from Flint, Michigan. It might have had something to do with the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio, who narrated and produced the film through his Appian Way production company, was present to promote the film...but never mind.

Also present was Ken Burns, who hosted an endurance-whittling, two-day marathon screening of his 14-hour-long documentary, The War, which he directed and produced with Lynn Novick. Perhaps its special exhibition had something to do with the fact that the piece happens to draw undeniable parallels with current events...but never mind.

Of note is the fact that one of the strongest titles to emerge from the International Critics Week (a sidebar usually devoted to embryonic freshman narrative efforts) was a documentary titled The Mosquito Problem: and Other Stories, an audacious tale of European downward mobility produced and directed by, respectively, Martichka Bozhilova and Audrey Paounov, both of Bulgaria.

The most newsworthy documentary to screen at this year's festival was, of course, Michael Moore's long-awaited Sicko, his just-recently-completed exposé of the American managed health care system. Given Moore's undeniable skill at persuasive nonfiction filmmaking, it is to be wholly expected that Sicko is an undeniably persuasive nonfiction film.

If it was Moore's intention to connect with even his usual detractors by tapping into a shared vein of discontent over the state of national health care, then his decision to cast the human cost of the health care industry's for-profit model in the lead role of his new film (as opposed to his own decidedly polarizing self) proves to be a wise intent indeed.

Moore and his production staff also utilize their long-established bravura juxtaposition of existing stock footage to make the almost salient point that the American public's resistance to "socialized medicine" is at least partly attributable to its rhetorical link to the encroaching Communist menace. The cunning and brilliance of Sicko is that, in Moore's on-screen adventures throughout the French public health system, he effectively demonstrates ways in which even an average red-blooded American patriot might admit that a socialist health infrastructure is conceivably superior to a capitalist health infrastructure.

Much has been made of late about the fact that, as part of the principal photography of Sicko, Moore transported to Cuba several first responders suffering from ailments contracted as a result of their efforts at the World Trade Center collapse. I will weigh in (for whatever it's worth in an otherwise overly chatty national debate) and offer that it is an absurd tragedy of the highest order that, while detainees at Guantanamo Bay allegedly receive complimentary and comprehensive health care, many 9/11 rescue workers find their personal health care mired in bureaucratic bungling and are forced to spend much of their disability pay on expensive prescription medicines.

Barbet Schroeder, who is equally known for his dabblings in Hollywood as he is for his documentary portraits of the intersection of brilliance and psychopathology (General Idi Amin: A Self Portrait; The Charles Bukowski Tapes), presented Terror's Advocate, a methodical examination of the life story of Jacques Verges that is being distributed stateside via Magnolia Pictures.

In the course of his education at the Sorbonne in the 1950s, law student Verges would form a fortuitous friendship with another young student named Pol Pot. Verges also describes the ways in which (on May 8, 1945) he remembers becoming radicalized upon the sight of the massacre perpetrated by the French military on the Algerian market village of Setif, which occurred, perversely, on V-E Day.

Schroeder illustrates how Verges calculatedly launches his career by successfully commuting the death sentence of Djamila Bouhired, a photogenic figurehead of Algerian resistance. So legendary is Bouhired that her devastating bombing of an Algiers "Milk Bar" in 1956 (which came to represent the opening salvo of a popular Algerian resistance) would be subsequently dramatized by Gillo Pontecorvo in his 1966 film The Battle of Algiers.

Terror's Advocate also conveys possible indications that Verges may possess ulterior motives in defending his chosen clients. In 1963, he traveled to Algiers to form a practice in divorce well as continue his relationship with Bouhired, who had just been released from prison.

The real "get" of Schroeder's piece, one that damningly reinforces this assertion, is a phone interview with the legendary terrorist Carlos the Jackal, in which he claims that Verges had attempted a romantic liaison with his wife at the time, Magdalena Kopp, in the wake of Verges' defense of her involvement with a failed 1982 bombing plot in France.

For the man who most notoriously represented Klaus Barbie at his war crimes trial in 1987, simply for the opportunity to contrast his client's actions with those of the French military during its occupation of Algeria, is there anyone he wouldn't represent?

"I'd even defend Bush," Verges explains in the film. "But only if he pleads guilty."

Josh Slates is the editor of Travels Through Elsewhere Cinema, a continuing journal of below-radar, sub-hipster cinema; the latest issue (#4) is available through Atomic Books.