Among the most highly anticipated films selected for the 71st Cannes Film Festival, which begins May 8 and runs through May 19 in Cannes, France, are new works by Spike Lee and Jean-Luc Godard: a love story from Kenya that has been banned in its home country and the return of an acclaimed auteur shadowed by personal controversy.

Palme d’Or contenders

The psychological thriller Everybody Knows directed by Asghar Farhadi, and starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem (above), will open the 11-day festival, which comprises 21 official selection films, 18 titles in the un certain regard (in some perspective) category and eight out of competition films.

"Shoplifters", directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, debuts at Cannes. Photo, courtesy.

Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, debuts at Cannes Film Festival.

Official selection Le Livre d’Image (The Image Book) is directed by 87-year-old Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most influential filmmakers engaged in the French New Wave movement of the late 1950s and ’60s. The Franco-Swiss production is expected to be a visual examination of the contemporary Middle East. 

Other official selection films considered early award favorites are BlacKkKlansman and Shoplifters.

Directed by Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman is a crime drama about an African-American police detective who goes undercover to investigate the terrorist organization Ku Klux Klan and soon becomes the leader of its local branch.

Manbiki Kazoku, which loosely translates as Shoplifters, was directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda and follows a family of small-time thieves who adopt a child abandoned on the street.

Courting controversy

Rafiki is the first film from Kenya to screen at Cannes Film Festival.

Rafiki (meaning friend), directed, written and co-produced by Wanuri Kahiu, is an un certain regard selection from Kenya, but it already has been banned from distribution in the country due to its storyline of two teenage girls in love with each other.

"Rafiki" is the first film from Kenya ever to screen at Cannes. Photo courtesy.

The film “legitimizes homosexuality against the dominant values, cultures and beliefs of the people of Kenya,” said Ezekiel Mutua, chief executive officer of the Kenya Film Classification Board.

Kahiu said the board officials objected to the film because the ending is “too hopeful” and requested that she change it. She declined. Rafiki will be the first Kenyan film ever to premiere at Cannes.

The situation is not unprecedented nor unique to a traditionally conservative nation like Kenya.

In 2013, director Abdellatif Kechiche, and actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos received the top prize — Palme d’Or — for the French film Blue is the Warmest Color, the story of a 15-year-old girl who becomes infatuated with a stranger she glimpses in a city crosswalk and with whom she soon enters into a romantic union.

Blue is the Warmest Color received an NC-17 rating in the U.S. — effectively banning it from most mainstream theaters — because of several extended, graphic love scenes involving the character played by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux.

In France, the film was released with a “12” rating, but its operating visa was temporarily revoked in 2015 by a Paris court due to the sexual content. It has grossed about $19.5 million worldwide to date.

"Blue is the Warmest Color" received the Palme d'Or in 23013. Photo, courtesy.

Blue is the Warmest Color received the Palme d’Or in 2013.

Origin and influence

The Cannes festival was first held in 1949 as an alternative to the Venice Film Festival, which many believed demonstrated a pronounced fascist bias following the fall of  Benito Mussolini’s regime.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the film festival developed a reputation as a platform to premiere some of the most cutting-edge and influential films of the time.

The Wages of Fear (1953), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Taxi Driver (1976), Apocalypse Now (1979), Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), Barton Fink (1991) and The Piano (1993) all screened for the first time at the festival.

Cannes does not provide public screenings, remaining a closed industry affair, and as such, it is an important annual gathering spot for deals and connections to be made by top talent and power brokers.

The festival has, in recent decades, become an attractive launch venue for large budget commercial vehicles that are not synonymous with the festival circuit, including Shrek (2001), E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Dirty Dancing (1987), Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) and Thelma and Louise (1991).

Solo: A Star Wars Story will be screened in the out of competition category on May 15. This prequel to the 1977 classic Star Wars is directed by Ron Howard and stars Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover as intergalactic smugglers Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. The film will be released nationwide May 25.

"The Piano" debuted at Cannes in 1993. Photo, courtesy.

The Piano debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993.

Is time really up?

Not all of the drama at Cannes happens inside the screening rooms.

American film producer Harvey Weinstein has also left his mark on the festival. A wave of sexual assault and other allegations of misconduct against Weinstein in 2017 led to the Time’s Up movement that has combated a long-standing environment within the industry that tolerated inappropriate — and sometimes criminal — behavior by people in power positions.

The revelations surrounding Weinstein have prompted a sexual misconduct hotline set up this year by festival organizers in association with the French government.

“We have set up a partnership with the Cannes Film Festival to tackle sexual harassment,” said  French equality minister Marlène Schiappa.

“One of the rapes that Harvey Weinstein is accused of happened at Cannes, and so the festival cannot not act.”

Weinstein maintains that he committed no sexual assault.

Director Lars Von Trier returns to Cannes - following a ban in 2011 - with "The House that Jack Built. Photo, courtesy.

Director Lars von Trier returns to Cannes with The House that Jack Built starring Matt Dillon (above), following a ban in 2011.

Danish film director Lars von Trier, whose credits include Breaking the Waves (1996) and Antichrist (2009), returns to the festival to represent his new film, The House that Jack Built, in the out of competition category.

The provocative director is ending a forced seven-year absence from Cannes stemming from an infamous 2011 interview at the festival promoting the film Melancholia, which received a Palme d’Or nomination.

In the interview, von Trier made a prolonged, tasteless joke about sympathizing with Hitler and being a Nazi. He apologized for the incident and claimed no Nazi sympathies, but was banned until now, despite a fresh sexual harassment allegation from singer-actress Björk, whom he directed in Dancer in the Dark (2000).

“When I turned the director down repeatedly, he sulked and punished me and created for his team an impressive net of illusion where I was framed as the difficult one,” Björk wrote in an October, 2017 Facebook post.

Although Björk did not identify von Trier by name, the Los Angeles Times later reported that it verified that he was the man referenced in her allegation.

The festival also has faced criticism for underrepresenting female filmmakers in 2018. Of the 21 official selection films, only three have women directors: Nadine Labaki (Capernaum), Eva Hussan (Les Filles du Soleil) and Alice Rohrwacher (Lazarro Felice).

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