‘No amateur’: Identity politics, media crackdown help propel Erdogan to victory

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defeated opposition challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Sunday’s Turkish presidential election runoff – a victory analysts ascribe to Erdogan’s focus on identity issues and use of the government’s resources, as well as Kilicdaroglu’s tepid leadership of a precarious coalition.

The first round was a shock to many Western observers who thought they might finally see the back of Erdogan. But after the Turkish president came within a whisker of re-election in that ballot, his second-round victory surprised no one. He defeated opposition challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu with 52.1 percent of the vote.

“I will be here until I’m in the grave,” Erdogan said as he addressed jubilant supporters from an open-top bus in Istanbul.

These polls belied the Western cliché that elections are about “the economy, stupid”Along with his much-criticised response to February’s devastating earthquakes, Turkey’s economic woes looked like a big weakness for Erdogan at the outset of the campaign.

While growth remains robust, five years of an inflation and currency crisis has seen the cost of living soar for many Turks – a major reversal after the abundant economic gains after Erdogan first took power in 2003. Experts blame this crisis on Erdogan’s unorthodox belief that cutting interest rates helps reduce inflation while all mainstream economic theories hold that higher interest rates are required to calm rampant inflation in an economy.

Identity politics

But culture war has been at the heart of Turkish politics ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made the country a modern nation-state in 1923, introducing strict secularism as he transformed Turkey along Westernising lines. Erdogan’s traditional constituency of socially conservative Muslim voters in the Anatolian heartland have always seen him as their champion in this culture war. A gifted orator and political strategist, Erdogan has already gone down in history as the leader who smashed secular Kemalism’s long hegemony over Turkish politics.

“Erdogan won primarily because he was once again able to shift the focus from socio-economic issues to identity issues,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau.

>> Read more: Turkey’s undefeated Erdogan enters third decade of rule

Erdogan also instrumentalised Turkey’s long fight against Kurdish militant group the PKK, which has waged a guerrilla war against the Turkish state punctuated by ceasefires since 1984 and is classified as a terrorist group by the EU and the US as well as Turkey.

Kilicdaroglu won the support of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Erdogan then accused the opposition of having links to terrorism, saying opposition leaders went into “dark rooms to sit and bargain” with militants.

“He was particularly successful in directing the anger of Turkish society towards the PKK [against] the opposition,” Unluhisarcikli noted.

Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu’s big-tent approach was always going to be a tremendous challenge. The opposition contender had to juggle the Nation Alliance – the heterogenous six-party coalition behind his candidacy, which included the nationalist Good Party – with the HDP’s endorsement of his candidacy.

>> Read more: Turkey’s Kurdish areas serve as petri dish for illiberal democracy test

After Kilicdaroglu’s disappointing first-round performance, he won the support of the nationalist Victory Party’s Umit Ozdag and adopted his hard line on the Kurdish issue – which evidently risked alienating the millions of Kurdish voters Kilicdaroglu needed.

“The diversity of the opposition alliance was both an advantage and a disadvantage,” Unluhisarcikli observed. “It was an advantage because it made it possible for Kilicdaroglu to address a wider audience. It was a disadvantage because it led to an image of dysfunctionality. Moreover, while most voters could find an element they could identify with in the opposition alliance, they could also find one that they could not tolerate.

When he was performing well in opinion polls ahead of the first round, Kilicdaroglu’s unassuming, professorial demeanour looked like a potential boon after two decades of Erdogan’s often mercurial style. But in reality Kilicdaroglu’s image was that of a “lacklustre candidate” backed by a “wobbly coalition”, said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University and the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

‘Authoritarian reasons’

Beyond the issues and personalities, Erdogan was able to mobilise resources surpassing the typical advantages of incumbency. He made lavish offers to voters using the state’s largesse, notably promising discounted gas bills for a year. Erdogan’s presidential power was helpful to his campaign in other ways, as the government controls 90% of the national media and has effectively curtailed the power of the independent press, seeing Turkey fall to 165 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index.

Highlighting restrictions on press freedom, observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe found during the campaign that the polls were “marked by an unlevel playing field” even if they were “still competitive”.

“There are electoral reasons why Erdogan won and there are authoritarian reasons why he won,” Eissenstat said, emphasising that both sides of this equation are crucial.

“Given Erdogan’s gross mismanagement of the economy, his electoral skills would mean little without the authoritarian components: his control of 90% of the media, his use of the courts to limit the opposition, his use of government resources to support his own campaign,” Eissenstat continued. “As the saying goes, ‘only amateurs try to steal elections on election day’: Erdogan is no amateur. Election day had some irregularities, but nothing wildly out of the ordinary. Erdogan controlled every aspect of how the election was [run] and that is the key explanation for why he won.

>> Read more: Nationalism is ‘definitely a winner’ in Turkey’s presidential elections

All that said, Kilicdaroglu came closer to defeating Erdogan than any previous opposition standard-bearer. In the 2018 presidential elections many Western observers thought Muharrem Ince had a decent chance of winning. But Erdogan clinched re-election in the first round, despite a lively campaign from the candidate representing Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party.

“The second round was closer than I thought it would be,” Eissenstat said. “The opposition did very well given the limits it was working under, and the voter turnout was higher than I expected.”

“I am in Turkey right now and my sense from conversations before the run-off [was] that opposition voters were demoralised and that many would stay home,” Eissenstat continued. “In the event, the Turkish electorate’s belief in the moral importance of voting trumped their hopelessness. The exception was the Kurdish vote, which clearly was dampened by Kilicdaroglu’s swerve to the right in the second round.

Potential successors?

But there is no mistaking the sense of jubilation among Erdogan and his supporters as he enters his third decade in power. This year is symbolic, too, as Turkey is marking a century since Ataturk made it a nation-state.

Beneath the congratulations pouring in from Washington to Moscow, there is a clear divide between the perspectives of Western governments and those of Turkey’s geopolitical partners, pre-eminently Russia. After the Western commentariat hailed Erdogan as a reformer in the 2000s, their attitudes soured during the following decade, as he ramped up an assertive foreign policy amid his turn towards illiberal democracy at home.

>> Read more: How the West, Russia see Turkey’s presidential elections

Yet the West’s most pressing geopolitical priority, the war in Ukraine, demonstrates that Turkey is both troublesome to the Western alliance (as shown by Ankara blocking Sweden’s NATO accession) and a valuable partner (as shown by Ankara brokering Ukraine’s Black Sea grain export deal). 

Russia will “celebrate” Erdogan’s victory as Moscow sees his “transactionalism as convenient” – while “for the West, he will continue to be a challenge, but they will try to make the best of it”, Eissenstat said. “They won’t be happy, but in the end, they want to work with Turkey and Erdogan is its president.

On foreign and domestic policy alike, Eissenstat expects Erdogan is unlikely to make any major changes during this new presidential term.

“He will likely make some half-hearted nods at a reset with some Western powers and with the markets to try to help stabilise the economy, but I think the general trajectory of his rule is set,” Eissenstat said. “I don’t expect him to become wildly more repressive and I certainly don’t expect him to liberalise.”   

Nevertheless, both analysts foresee one key difference in the 69-year-old Erdogan’s third term: he’s likely to hand-pick his political successor.

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The unlikely rise of orange juice as a stock market darling

Orange juice has become the most profitable raw material for investors, according to French daily newspaper Les Échos. While average prices for many raw materials have fallen, stocks for the popular breakfast drink have seen a spectacular rise since the start of the year that shows no signs of slowing.

More profitable than oil, traders flock to orange juice,” the financial newspaper Les Échos said in an article published on Monday. 

Prices for the drink have soared since the start of the year, and investors have been paying attention. “Orange juice is quite simply the most profitable raw material right now,” said Alexandre Baradez, market analyst at financial services company, IG France. 

The company has listed orange juice as one of the best commodities to invest in over the coming months along with copper and gold 

A 30 percent increase in six months 

Market speculators often have a preference for raw materials, the stock prices of which can fluctuate dramatically due to current events. Petrol, gas and wheat prices, for instance, have been significantly impacted by the war in Ukraine. For traders investing in these materials on the stock market, there is significant risk but also the prospect of large returns.  

Orange juice, though, has not been impacted by fighting in Bakhmut, sanctions on Russia, or lack of Ukrainian cereal exports. Even so, prices for the drink have soared by 30 percent since the start of the year. 

In the same time period, the average price for raw materials overall has fallen by 11 percent, according to Bloomberg. Stock prices for petrol have fallen by 12 percent since January. 

“The performance of orange juice is remarkable,” said Baradez. “Even more so because the increase has lasted for some time already, which is in itself quite rare.”  

While prices for raw materials tend to be cyclical with periods of high volatility, orange juice stocks have been high for months and are expected to keep rising.  

“Orange Juice rose from circa $90/lbs at the start of 2020 to over $285/lbs last month. While the traditional breakfast drink has now fallen back to $255/lbs, further moves upwards could be imminent,” a report from IG said. 

Florida oranges 

The US state of Florida has long been a hub of orange juice concentrate production for North America – a market that strongly influences global prices for the raw material. In recent years, “Florida has been hit by a succession of factors that have pushed prices higher”, Baradez said. 

Historically, Florida has produced more than 80 percent of US orange crops each year but production has been plummeting for years.  

Just over five years ago, the state-wide industry was worth $9 million and employed some 70,000 people. Today, that number has fallen to 32,000 employees and the industry value has fallen to $6 million, according to the Washington Post. 

The US Department of Agriculture expects 2023 to bring the worst harvest of Florida oranges in 80 years, producing 16 million boxes of orange juice – down a historic 61 percent on the 41 million produced in 2022.  

Poor tree health, the Covid pandemic and harmful weather events have all played a role.   

In 2005, orange trees in Florida were found to have a small type of bacteria that was making them sick. This was the start of a bought of yellow dragon disease (also called Huanglongbing) that had spread to almost 90 percent of commercial orange groves in Florida by 2015. 

There is no known cure for the disease, which kills trees within five years and makes fruit produced in the interim significantly more bitter.   

As Florida has struggled to maintain production, demand for orange juice began to soar. The Covid pandemic boosted sales in the US, as the drink is typically seen as a way to load up on vitamins and ward off illnesses such as colds and flus. By the end of March 2020, US sales of orange juice were up 38 percent compared with the same period the previous year.   

Then, another blow for farmers. In 2022, hurricanes Nicole and Ian devastated citrus fields in Florida. Damage caused by Hurricane Ian alone cost Florida’s orange juice industry $247 million. 

A new market? 

The current situation is “the result of a classic discrepancy between supply and demand”, said Baradez.  

To try to make up the shortfall, California has increased its orange juice production. Brazil – the largest global exporter of orange juice – has also increased sales to North America. But these measures are not having a significant impact on the financial market, which has its own influence over prices.  

Market speculators “have played a role in accelerating this phenomenon”, said Baradez.

A small number of powerful hedge funds and traders have an enormous influence on commodity prices. There are around 20 who wield enough power to decide “whether it will rain or shine” on the markets, according to Les Échos. And their influence is even stronger for a stock like orange juice, which has less investors than for traditionally popular markets such as oil, wheat, sugar and coffee. 

Looking to the future for orange juice prices, “there is no reason for the trend to reverse”, said Baradez. There is still no remedy for yellow dragon disease (which was also detected in California in 2018) and Florida is one of the US states most susceptible to seasonal hurricanes. 

As such, price increases look set to persist around the world ­– bad news for orange juice consumers who, in turn, are likely to see supermarket prices for orange juice continue to rise.  

There is also the potential for wider impact public health issue. “This is becoming a problem for many governments which rely on cheap OJ to get vitamin C into the general population,” the IG report said.  

While orange juice becomes too expensive for some, demand may grow for cheaper alternative sources of vitamin C such as medicines and food supplements. Ultimately this could push prices up for these products too – no doubt creating a ripe new market for stock market investors.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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Symbolism, history and nationalism put Erdogan in strong position ahead of presidential runoff

Emotion trumped economics in the 2023 Turkish presidential campaign, forcing the opposition to embrace nationalism ahead of Sunday’s runoff. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was ahead of the curve, using a mix of nationalist rhetoric, pan-Islamic heroism and historical references in a bid to enter his third decade in power.

A battle for auditory supremacy is raging at the Kadikoy ferry terminal, where boats plying the Bosporus Strait shuttle passengers from Istanbul’s Asian and European sides.

On a giant screen mounted on a truck right by the waterway, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition candidate in Turkey’s 2023 presidential runoff, is promising to deal with all the problems plaguing the country today. The economy is in shambles, rights and liberties have been shrunk, and the “politics of negativity” has divided the nation, he booms.

Commuters watch a Kemal Kilicdaroglu campaign clip at the Kadikoy ferry port in Istanbul. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

A few yards away, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) stall is selling their candidate, the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at top volume. The loudspeakers here are belting out a vibrant, catchy campaign tune. “Once more, and again…choose Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” blasts the sound system as flag-waving supporters keep the beat with their arms.

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan man a campaign stall at the Kadikoy ferry wharf in Istanbul.
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan man a campaign stall at the Kadikoy ferry wharf in Istanbul. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

This city bridging two continents is deeply divided over the two men contesting Turkey’s first-ever presidential runoff on Sunday, May 28. The electoral face-off comes two weeks after the first round handed Erdogan just 0.5 percent less than the 50 percent of the vote needed for an outright win.

It was a surprisingly strong showing for the man who has led Turkey for two decades, overseeing the recent economic crisis and weathering criticisms of governmental negligence following devastating earthquakes earlier this year.

The opposition focused on Turkish wallets, following the familiar US campaign dictum, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

But it wasn’t. In the end, emotions trounced economics.

Kilicdaroglu’s signature campaign video featured the septuagenarian candidate bemoaning the rising price of onions at a kitchen table.

The high point of the incumbent’s campaign saw the president instrumentalising the inauguration of a warship, the TGC Anadolu, at an Istanbul port. “We see this ship as a symbol that will reinforce our position as an assertive country in the world,” Erdogan proclaimed at the inauguration ceremony on April 23.

Symbolism has been the driving force behind Erdogan’s stratospheric rise to power and his ability to retain it despite the odds. His melding of nationalist rhetoric, pan-Islamic heroism, religious tropes and historical references presents a populist package that has flattened political opponents in the past and looks set to do so again.

And to do that, Erdogan always has Istanbul.

Harnessing Istanbul’s rich history

It was as Istanbul’s mayor that Erdogan referenced a banned poem by an Ottoman-era Turkish nationalist, earning him a short stint in jail and a victim narrative that galvanised his supporters.

More than a quarter-century later, Erdogan faces his first presidential runoff on a date weighted with a historical significance not lost on Turks.

On May 28, 1453 Sultan Mehmet II commenced his final attack on Constantinople, breaching the Byzantine capital’s mighty walls. The next day, the city of the world’s desire, which had been unconquered for a thousand years, fell under Ottoman control.

If Erdogan wins the runoff on Sunday May 28, the president will be in Istanbul the day after the election, according to the presidential office. It will mark the 570th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople.

‘I prefer a courageous leader’

In the city that birthed Erdogan’s political career, Istanbullus – as residents call themselves – are already beginning to act as if an Erdogan reelection is a done deal just days before Sunday’s vote.

For those suffering the effects of the economic crisis, but plan to vote for Erdogan anyway, there’s a distinct lack of excitement, but some comfort in continuity.

Sitting on a park bench in Fatih, a conservative Istanbul district by the Bosporus, Hussein Polat sounded resigned over the country’s future.

“I was upset, really depressed about my financial situation and I didn’t want to vote in the first round. But in the end I did vote, and I voted for Erdogan,” said Polat as he tossed a handful of wheat grains to a growing flock of pigeons.

At 64, Polat’s economic prospects look bleak after working nearly 50 years in a shoe repair store and a tea stall.  “I can hardly make ends meet, the prices of even the basics have shot up. Nobody wants to give me job now that I’m 64. Life is so difficult these days,” he said.

Hussein Polat takes a break from feeding pigeons at a park in Fatih, Istanbul.
Hussein Polat takes a break from feeding pigeons at a park in Fatih, Istanbul. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

Despite his economic difficulties, Polat did not opt for change at the ballot box because he said he didn’t know much about Kilicdaroglu’s policy platform.

“I really didn’t get a sense of the other guy,” said Polat, referring to Kilicdaroglu.

It’s a common admission among older Turkish voters who get most of their news from TV stations following years of clampdowns on the press by the Erdogan administration.

During the month of April, Erdogan had exactly 60 times more coverage on the public TV channel TRT Haber (TRT News) than his main challenger, according to the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF). Kilicdaroglu received 32 minutes, said RSF, quoting unnamed sources within Turkey’s High Council for Broadcasting (RTUK). “In other words, a public TV channel not only acted as a state TV channel but also sided with one candidate against another,” the NGO reported.

Despite his professed lack of awareness of Kilicdaroglu’s platform, Polat said he was convinced that Erdogan possessed more leadership skills than his rival. “Erdogan has more courage than Kilicdaroglu. I don’t believe in Kilicdaroglu’s promises. I prefer a courageous leader who is trustworthy. With Erdogan, even if we have difficulties with him, he has built bridges and mosques. I’m a nationalist, and I’ll vote for the man who’s good for the nation,” insisted Polat.

On a ferry ride from Istanbul’s European side to Kadikoy, on the Asian side, Ahmet Alton, a retired civil servant, said he benefitted from Erdogan’s decision to increase pensions by 2,000 liras ($100) in late March.

“The opposition is not trustworthy,” said Alton. “They can make all the promises they like. I don’t believe they can keep them,” he concluded.

Men, women and veils again

While Erdogan’s supporters felt free to voice their distrust of the opposition, the same was not true for many Kilicdaroglu supporters.

Sitting on a bench, watching the sun set as she waited for the ferry, a 30-year-old architect from Istanbul’s Uskudar district agreed to talk only if her identity was not revealed and her name changed to Zeinab Bilgin.

“I support Kilicdaroglu, but if I reveal it publicly, and if Erdogan wins, and I apply for a job and they do a background check, they will know I’m a CHP supporter. Then I’ll have problems getting jobs,” she said, referring to Kilicdaroglu’s secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The main electoral issue for Bilgin is women’s rights following the shock win in the May 14 parliamentary elections for the Kurdish conservative Free Cause Party (Huda-Par).

Once a fringe party sidelined for its links to a Kurdish Islamist armed group operating in the 1990s, Huda-Par aligned with the ruling AKP in the 2023 vote. The alliance won the party four seats in Turkey’s 600-member parliament, alarming women’s rights activists.

The Islamist party has called for the repealing of laws providing protection for domestic violence victims and has said women’s working conditions should be revised so that they “befit their nature”. 

For Bilgin, the rise of parties such as Huda-Par would mean a rollback of women’s rights in Turkey. “In the West, people are talking about AI and ChatGPT. In Turkey, we’re still talking about the headscarf and religion and 1453,” she said, referring to the year Constantinople was conquered.

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Cannes serves up a parade of ageing maestros and a Tarantino masterclass

From our special correspondent in Cannes – The final stretch of the world’s premier film festival has seen Cannes roll out the red carpet for a cavalcade of veteran auteurs, including two-time Palme d’Or laureate Ken Loach, past winners Wim Wenders and Nanni Moretti, and fellow Italian Marco Bellocchio, whose magnificent “Kidnapped” joined the list of frontrunners for this year’s top award. Meanwhile, the 1994 laureate Quentin Tarantino delighted his Riviera fans with a lengthy chat about his taste for violence in movies – provided no animals get hurt.

The 76th Cannes Film Festival has witnessed a number of modest breakthroughs for the world’s premier movie gathering, most notably in the abundance of African films on display and the number of women directors competing for the coveted Palme d’Or.

Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher wrapped up that contest on Friday with her latest folk tale “La Chimera”, about Italian tomb raiders who hunt ancient graves to find artefacts to sell. It followed the premiere of French director Catherine Breillat’s new erotic thriller “Last Summer”, centred on the fallout from a woman’s relationship with her stepson.

But for all the talk of a welcome shift towards greater diversity, this year’s edition has also featured an impressive array of old-guard veterans, from 80-year-old Martin Scorsese to 86-year-old Loach, who is having a record 15th shot at the Palme d’Or.

The veteran Briton first won at Cannes in 2006 for his Irish civil war drama “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, before repeating the feat 10 years later with “I, Daniel Blake”. His latest entry “The Old Oak”, which he has described as his last, is about an English pub struggling to survive amid tensions caused by the arrival of Syrian refugees.

Other silver foxes this year included 77-year-old Wim Wenders, the 1984 Palme laureate for “Paris, Texas”, whose “Perfect Days” – about a Tokyo toilet cleaner – was widely hailed as a gem. Critics, however, were distinctly harsher with another festival darling, Moretti, whose “A Brighter Tomorrow” was described by some as a dud.

Hidden histories

Outside the main competition, the revered Spanish director Victor Erice made his long-awaited return to Cannes at 82 with the highly rated “Close Your Eyes”, a meditation on memory and ageing, while fellow octogenarian Martin Scorsese provided one of the festival’s red-carpet highlights with his “Killers of the Flower Moon”, starring fellow travellers Robert De Niro and Leonardo Di Caprio.

A grim Western, Scorsese’s movie exhumed a dark chapter in America’s past, focusing on serial murders among the oil-rich Osage tribe in the early 20th century. It was one of several period dramas to screen in Cannes this year – some shedding light on little-known episodes from history, others bringing to the fore the characters (mainly women) who were left out of the history books.

Encore in Cannes: Leonardo Di Caprio, Martin Scorsese & Robert de Niro on the red carpet. © AFP (Loïc Venance)

The festival’s journey into the past began with Maïwenn’s curtain-raiser “Jeanne du Barry”, about French king Louis XV’s scandalous relationship with a lowly courtesan, starring Johnny Depp as the monarch in a high-profile comeback that generated plenty of controversy.

Brazil’s Karim Aïnouz paid tribute to the resilience of Catherine Parr in his thrilling “Firebrand”, starring Alicia Vikander as the last of Henry VIII’s six wives, though it was unfortunate to see his heroine upstaged by an uproarious Jude Law as the paranoid and bloodthirsty English king.

Two other period dramas caused a stir at the Riviera film gathering, joining the frontrunners in this year’s race for the Palme d’Or. One was Jonathan Glazer’s Auschwitz-set “The Zone of Interest”, a chilling look at the idyllic family life of a German officer stationed at the Nazi death camp. The other was Marco Bellocchio’s “Kidnapped”, the harrowing tale of a young Jew who was abducted by papal authorities in the 1850s, on the eve of Italy’s independence.

A sinister Vatican tale

“Kidnapped” is based on the true story of Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old Jewish boy from Bologna who was taken from his parents and raised in the Catholic faith on the grounds that his maid had baptised him in secret. His appalling story, which eventually became a cause célèbre of the liberal camp in the nascent Italian state, was far from isolated.

Historians have documented numerous cases of forceful conversions of Jewish children, a practice encouraged by widespread antisemitism in the Church. In Mortara’s case, the family’s strenuous efforts to recover their son eventually led to a national scandal and a trial, involving the pope himself in a rear-guard battle to uphold religious dogma and the Vatican’s privileges.

“The dislocation of the Papal States”, which Bologna was then part of, provides the backdrop to “Kidnapped”, turning the Mortara family’s private tragedy into a political tussle, Bellocchio told a press conference in Cannes. His film is also a deeply troubling study of child abuse, detailing how the young Edgardo’s extensive brainwashing led him to become a priest and a lifelong partisan of the Church.

The 83-year-old Italian director, whose 2002 Cannes entry “My Mother’s Smile” was banned in Church-owned Italian cinemas, insisted that his latest work was not an “anti-clerical” statement. At the festival presser he said it was “not a film against the pope or the Catholic Church, but against intolerance.”

Tarantino’s masterclass

A fixture of the Palme d’Or contest, Bellocchio is yet to win a prize in Cannes – aside from the career award he picked up two years ago for his lifetime achievements. His lack of success here stands in stark contrast with that of another Cannes stalwart, Quentin Tarantino, who showed up for a masterclass on Thursday before an ecstatic crowd of several hundred, packed inside the Théâtre de la Croisette.

The superstar director of “Pulp Fiction”, who won the Palme at his first attempt in 1994, is currently at work on what could be his final feature film. His Cannes talk came two months after the release of his book, “Cinema Speculation”, in which he recounts his first steps as a film buff and details his love of the movies.

Tarantino kicked off the talk with a surprise screening of John Flynn’s “Rolling Thunder”, an obscure movie about a Vietnam veteran pursuing the criminals who killed his family – which he introduced as “the greatest revenge flick of all time”. With its gun-blast violence, lyrical badmouth, and cathartic final bloodbath in a Mexican bordello, it had all the hallmarks of a Tarantino favourite.

The poster for Quentin Tarantino's masterclass at the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes.
The poster for Quentin Tarantino’s masterclass at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. © David Rich

The screening of “Rolling Thunder” was a chance for the filmmaker to reflect on his approach to on-screen violence, a subject he touched on in his book, describing how his mother would take him to the movies as a young boy and let him watch violent films – as long as the violence was contextualised and “understood”.  

Morality should not dictate the aesthetics of a film, Tarantino argued at the Cannes talk. The most important thing is to “electrify the audience”, he added, quoting American director Don Siegel. He did, however, draw a red line at on-set violence against animals, noting that “killing animals for real in a film (…) has been done a lot in European and Asian films”. The taboo applied to insects too, he quipped, eliciting laughter from the audience.

“I’m not paying to see death for real. We’re here to pretend, which is why I can put up with all this violence,” he explained. “We’re just being silly, we’re just kids playing, it’s not real blood and nobody gets hurt.”

A final film?

Tarantino also asserted his preference for edgy and divisive directors, as well as those – like Flynn from “Rolling Thunder” – who never got the credit they deserved.

“Everyone loves Spielberg and Scorsese, there was no question of me joining the club of the most popular guys, that’s not my style!” he said, echoing a theme he mined in his book, in which he detailed his love for Brian De Palma’s more divisive movies. “Part of my love for De Palma came from the possibility of getting into trouble defending him, sometimes to the point of coming to blows,” he added.

Quentin Tarantino arrives for his masterclass in Cannes.
Quentin Tarantino arrives for his masterclass in Cannes. © Delphine Pincet

Touching on his last Cannes entry, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019), Tarantino said his primary motivation for making the film was to “avenge” Sharon Tate, the actress who was brutally murdered by members of the ‘Manson Family’ in the 1970s, by imagining an alternative ending to the tragedy.

He was distinctly less chatty when quizzed about his new project, the forthcoming film “The Movie Critic”, billed as another ode to cinema. “I’m tempted to give you some of the characters’ monologues right now. But I’m not going to do that, no, no,” he teased the audience. “Maybe if there were fewer cameras.”

Tarantino has repeatedly suggested his tenth feature film is likely to be his last, based on his belief that filmmakers only have a limited number of good films in them. Whether or not he quits as a director, the conversation about movies will go on, he added, wrapping up the talk with a simple, “To be continued”.

Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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Cannes spotlights Cameroonian film: ‘It’s high time African stories influence world cinema’

From our special correspondent in Cannes – The Cannes Film Festival delivered its first honours on Thursday with a historic prize for Malaysia’s “Tiger Stripes” while African movies continued to enjoy the Cannes spotlight with the screening of “Mambar Pierrette”, an intimate portrait of a free-spirited seamstress and single mother in Cameroon. Its director, Rosine Mbakam, sat for an interview with FRANCE 24.

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With the race for the Palme d’Or now in the final stretch ahead of Saturday’s closing ceremony, the 76th Cannes Film Festival made history on Thursday by rewarding Amanda Nell Eu’s playfully subversive debut feature, “Tiger Stripes” – the first movie by a female Malaysian director to screen at Cannes.   

coming-of-age drama about female puberty inspired by the body-horror genre, “Tiger Stripes” scooped the top award in the Critics’ Week sidebar, dedicated to first and second films. The jury was led by French director Audrey Diwan, whose abortion drama “Happening” won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival two years ago.  

The Malaysian filmmaker won plaudits in Cannes for her bold take on menstruation and the trauma endured by young girls ostracised by their communities. While the film is set in a rural and conservative environment, Eu told FRANCE 24 it carried a universal message. 

“There are so many parts of the world where women or young girls fear their own bodies or don’t have ownership of their bodies,” she said following the film’s premiere. “Telling the story of what happens to young girls is incredibly universal.” 

>> Read more: Malaysian tweens earn their ‘Tiger Stripes’ in Cannes body horror

Films about the challenges of adolescence also picked up the remaining prizes in the Critics’ Week segment. Belgian director Paloma Sermon-Daï won the runner-up Jury Award for “It’s Raining in the House”, which follows two siblings as they experience first love and learn to fend for themselves, while Serbia’s teenage sensation Jovan Ginic won the Revelation Award for his part in “Lost Country”, about a 15-year-old’s showdown with his mother – a senior official in the administration of former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic. 

Mother courage in Douala 

In the festival’s other segments, Africa’s “Cannes Moment” continued with the screening of films from two countries that are seldom represented at the world’s leading movie gatherings. 

“Omen” (“Augure”), a promising debut feature by the Belgian-Congolese rapper Baloji, mined the themes of displacement and ostracism through a set of characters who have been rejected by their communities following accusations of witchcraft. Its screening in the Un Certain Regard sidebar marked the first time a film from the Democratic Republic of Congo premiered at Cannes. 

Encore in Cannes! © AFP

In the Directors’ Fortnight, which runs parallel to the main festival, Rosine Mbakam’s “Mambar Pierrette” painted an intimate portrait of a Cameroonian seamstress and single mother struggling to make ends meet against a backdrop of social hardship and the threat of floods.  

Pierrette Aboheu Njeuthat stars as the titular character, a mother of three who works tirelessly at her sewing machine to provide for her children while customers and neighbours linger in her small shop, sharing their joys and disappointments in a deftly woven tapestry of communal life in the city of Douala. 

A remarkable debut feature based on the life of Mbakam’s seamstress cousin, “Mambar Pierrette” draws on the director’s experience of documentary filmmaking, which has previously explored the themes of kinship and migration to Europe. FRANCE 24 spoke to the filmmaker about her focus on character studies and her commitment to promoting African stories in the moviemaking industry.  

“Mambar Pierrette” is your first feature-length fiction film, although it is based on your cousin’s life. Where do you draw the line between documentary and fiction? 

I drew inspiration from Pierrette’s life to write the script, placing it at the very heart of the film. Once we started shooting, the other characters also added their input, bringing the screenplay closer to their own lives.  

Fiction never takes over. Its role is to add substance to the narrative and provide more context. In particular, the fictional element helps underscore the fact that Pierrette’s social predicament is not only a result of her small income, her husband’s irresponsibility or Cameroon’s politics. It is also derived from an enduring neo-colonialism that leaves swaths of the population in poverty. 

“Mambar Pierrette” director Rosine Mbakam (left) pictured with her cousin Pierrette Aboheu, the film’s protagonist. © David Rich

The fabric shop is at the heart of your film. What does it symbolise? 

My film tells the story of Pierrette, who is a seamstress in real life. Sewing embellishes, it brings people together, and her workshop is a place where people open up and share their secrets. I wanted to highlight the value of this work of dressmaking and transformation, which has all but vanished in the West. We shop, but we have lost this relationship with what we wear. 

The sewing room also represents gender relationships in Cameroon. The men remain in the entrance, at the door, while the women establish themselves in the workshop, inhabiting the space. These opposing stances signal the contrast between a new generation of women who are increasingly assertive and men who don’t accept this reality – and are therefore in a vulnerable situation. Pierrette doesn’t sew for women only, she works for everyone, her workspace excludes nobody. By keeping at a distance, the men seek to protect themselves and avoid questioning their position in society.

This year’s festival has witnessed a breakthrough for African films, carried by a new generation of female filmmakers, in particular. Does this give a particular significance to your presence in Cannes?   

It is indeed very important to me. We know how much Western cinema has influenced Africa and continues to do so. It is high time that our works travel in the opposite direction and influence world cinema – introducing new narratives, different ways of speaking French, and characters we are not accustomed to seeing. The West must get used to all of this. 

There is a lot happening in African cinema, but these productions are scarcely visible in Europe. Africa is awash with European and American films, but how many films make it out of Africa? That’s why our selection at the Cannes Film Festival is so important. This is the best way for our films to be seen in France, Italy or elsewhere. Without these festivals we cannot export our works. I’m immensely proud to see so many African movies here in Cannes this year. 

Mali’s Souleymane Cissé has spoken of a Western “contempt” for African films. What are your thoughts on the way the film industry looks at the continent? 

The film industry tends to follow preconceived ideas. The few African films that make it abroad are often filmed by Westerners who, in reality, are merely filming themselves. Such films often show Africa without African people. I was interested in filming Pierrette, but people often ask me why I didn’t show more of the neighbourhood in my film. I don’t blame them, because that’s what they are used to. They have this image of a continent blighted by poverty and they want to feed that image. But I’m not going to change my way of filming. Pierrette is the focus of my film; she dictates the rhythm, the narrative and the camera’s movements. 

People who attended the festival will go home with seven African films on their minds – not one or two, as is usually the case. This is huge. These stories will feed the West but also the imagination of young Africans, who will see their stories valued beyond their continent. 

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A look at the Free Russia Legion, the pro-Ukrainian group that attacked Belgorod

A cross-border incursion into the Russian region of Belgorod on Monday put the Free Russia Legion under the spotlight, prompting questions about this mysterious paramilitary unit of anti-Putin Russians.

Russians fighting for Ukraine crossed the border north of Kharkiv into Russia’s Belgorod region on Monday night, prompting accusations from Moscow and denials from Kyiv. A paramilitary group called the Free Russia Legion (and another known as the Russian Volunteer Corps) later claimed responsibility for the incursion, prompting a new round of questions about the group: Who are they and what kind of weaponry do they have?

Russian authorities on Tuesday said they had eliminated the group of “saboteurs” responsible and injured several in the Grayvoron district 80 km north of Belgorod city, although the Free Russia Legion’s political representative told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday the group “didn’t lose a single soldier”.

>> Read more: Pro-Kyiv Russian group says it ‘didn’t lose a single soldier’ in cross-border raids on Belgorod

Significantly, Moscow did not refer to the unit directly. Admitting that Russian fighters had turned against the national army and were launching attacks on Russian territory would be “really bad for Putin and Russian propaganda”, said Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in Russian and Ukrainian security at the University of Glasgow.

Such an admission could even pose a threat to those in the Kremlin. “It is their strongest possible way to make a point, to try to show to Russian audience they exist as an opposing force to Putin’s regime,” said Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation and a specialist in the Russian military.

A mysterious unit

The Free Russia Legion was established in March 2022 after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for volunteers days after the Russian invasion the previous month.

It’s just the same as all the other fighters in the international legion. They just happen to be Russian,” Grant said.

The unit has always been shrouded in mystery, but individual members are far less enigmatic. In Ukraine they are quite well-known because a lot of them have been interviewed by Ukrainian media or Russian opposition outlets,” Aliyev pointed out.

Some of them, especially in the beginning, were former PoWs who were given the choice to join this Legion. I don’t think most of them have a professional army background, but they have received decent training, and have combat experience because they fought in Donbas region and around Bakhmut,” Aliyev said.

A former vice-president of Gazprombank, Igor Volobuev, announced in April 2022 that he was going to joingiving the Free Russia Legion one of its most famous recruits.

The Legion makes much of its dual identity, sporting uniforms that display both the white, blue and white stripes of the Russian opposition and the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag.

Its fighters have also adopted a capital letter “L” – for “Legion” and “Liberty” – apparently in response to the “Z” that adorns Russian army tanks and uniforms.

Founded with just 100 fighters, it is difficult to know how large the Free Russia Legion is today or where it has been active. But some analysts believe it has grown significantly since its inception.

It could be up to two batallions, meaning around 2,000 men,” said Stephen Hall, a Russia expert at Bath University. 

Most members have been vague about numbers when speaking to the media, citing hundreds of fighters with support in most of Russia’s major cities.

Good propaganda for Ukraine?

It is unclear whether the Legion shares a common ideology.

In terms of ideology, it is confusing. They are nothing like the [Russian] Volunteer corps, a well known far-right, proto-Nazi militia, who they seem to have fight alongside during the Belgorod raid,” Hall said.

“They are driven by a broad anti-Putin ideology. It seems like they want more democracy, but maybe not in the purely Western sense of it. And let’s be honest, some of them have probably joined for the better pay,” Aliyev added.

Where the unit has deployed also remains unknown. They appear to have fought in eastern Ukraine as well as in Bakhmut. But according to Aliyev it is unclear how long they stayed in Bakhmut or where they were stationed in the Donbas. 

The group’s obscurity has prompted doubts as to whether it exists at all: It’s a common view in Russia, which is convenient for the Putin regime. 

“It’s very important for […] Ukrainian propaganda,” Hall said. Their mere existence shows that Russian are fighting directly Putin and it sends the message that the regime must be aware and fear possible action from inside the country. That’s why there are people saying it could be a PR op for Ukraine. It’s too perfect.

“One possibility is that the Legion does have some Russian fighters, mostly already leaving in Ukraine before the war, and the Legion was built around them,” Hall continued.

Plausible deniability                                                                                       

But most experts FRANCE 24 spoke to believe they really are Russian fighters. A phantom legion of Russian soldiers makes little sense, Aliyev said, given their active presence on social media and the fact that Ukraine “has heavily invested in this Legion, providing training and armoured vehicles. They really wanted them to be operational alongside the Ukrainian army.”   

I think they didn’t really know until now how to use this Legion. For exemple, they clearly didn’t want to send them for too long [to] Bakhmut and risk losing them. So that’s why there was little information about what was going on with them,” Aliyev continued. The Free Russia Legion was too valuable a propaganda instrument to be sent into the hell of Bakhmut, and too difficult to integrate into the chain of command for complex manoeuvres in the Donbas. 

The unit has a certain degree of autonomy, and it would very well be possible that they acted on their own. But nonetheless, some sort of non-official approval from Ukrainian army official has probably be given”, said Sim Tack, an analyst at Force Analysis, a US-based conflict monitoring firm.

Working separately from – but in coordination with – the regular Ukrainian army makes the Legion ideal for raids into enemy territory.

What this legion offers to Kyiv is plausible deniability when it comes to talking to western countries about what happened in Russian territory,” Hall said.

This would cross a red line with the United States and Ukraine’s other NATO allies, which do not want Ukraine to escalate the conflict by attacking Russian territory – and especially not while using Western weapons.

Nevertheless, incursions into Russian territory make sense as a military strategy.

“One outcome might be that Russia will feel obliged to move some troops to the northern part of the border in order to secure it, which could help a counter offensive if it happened in the south,” Tack said.

It also highlights that Russia has “poorly guarded” territory near the border, Grant added.

All of this makes the paramilitary units a dangerous complication for the Kremlin. And if Moscow is unable to acknowledge that pro-Ukrainian Russian fighters took the army by surprise, the Kremlin will need to find other culprits to blame.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Chinese stand-up comedy warned to toe the line following viral joke about army

A Chinese comedian was severely punished on Wednesday for making a joke about the People’s Liberation Army and his production company fined roughly two million dollars. This incident demonstrates that Chinese censors are now turning their attention to the small but growing world of stand-up comedy in China, which until now has enjoyed a certain measure of freedom.

On May 17, Chinese authorities imposed a record fine of 14.7 million yuan ($2.13 million) on the production company that employed comedian Li Haoshi and opened an investigation against him.

Li, whose stage name is “House”, “seriously insulted the army” and thus dealt a heavy blow to “national honour” and “patriotic feelings”, said the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism which imposed the fine on Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media.

Six words too many 

“This is the first time that a joke about the army has been punished in China,” said Olivia Cheung, a specialist in contemporary Chinese political history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

This is a severe punishment for a joke that “may seem totally harmless and not necessarily very funny”, said Marc Lanteigne, a Chinese studies professor at the Arctic University of Norway.

The joke in question invoked Li’s two adopted stray dogs chasing a squirrel:  “Normally, when you see dogs, you find them very cute at first. But when I looked at them, six words came to me: ‘Maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win’.

Reports do not indicate whether it made the audience laugh. However, what is known is that the scene was filmed and posted on social media, where it triggered an avalanche of comments.

The problem is that “it is a direct and literal reference to what has been the official slogan of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since 2013,” said Lanteigne. “Xi Jinping himself came up with the slogan and has used it on numerous occasions to refer to the modern army he established,” said Cheung.

The first part of the slogan, about discipline, refers to the government’s campaign to bring the army into line in the mid-2010s. “The army had a reputation for being very corrupt before Xi Jinping came to power, and he boasts that he put an end to this and brought discipline back into the ranks,” explained Cheung.

There is also the idea that the PLA is now “able to win victories” as a result of the modernisation reforms implemented by the Chinese president. “It was, and remains, one of Xi Jinping’s priorities and he believes that the Chinese army now deserves the utmost respect thanks to his efforts,” said Cheung.

The crime of insulting Xi Jinping 

Li thus tripped up twice over. First, he made the mistake of joking “about a subject that affects the president personally”, said Cheung. Second, he compared the army to dogs. This is a risky choice, as these animals are seen in China as “cute but dirty, and better not to have too many around”, said Lanteigne. This is not the kind of metaphor that the government wants to see being used in any sort of media to describe the military.

However, some Chinese people felt that imposing a two million dollar fine was excessive and took to social media to question the “double standards” demonstrated by the authorities, reported the New York Times. These internet users recalled that a company selling false negative Covid-19 test certificates during the lockdown period was only fined the equivalent of $10,000 dollars.

“It’s clear that this is not just about punishing the comedian for his joke, but about making an example of him for everyone in order to establish a new red line that must not be crossed,” said Lanteigne.

He sees this punishment as part of a “tightening of restrictions on freedom of expression in recent years”. China has long had a reputation for being heavy-handed when it comes to censorship, but it “began cracking down even harder during the health crisis”, added Lanteigne.

The Chinese authorities realised during the height of the Covid crisis that there were still issues with their information control strategy. Censorship failed to silence the people of Shanghai, who were confined for more than two months in the spring of 2022 and criticised the authorities in the viral video “Voices of April”.

In this respect, stand-up comedy was still a haven of relative freedom of expression in China. This form of humour only recently burst onto the Chinese media scene. For a long time, stand-up comedy was perceived as less dignified than other traditional forms of live performance, as it “is considered a Western import”, explained Lanteigne.

Thwarted freedom of expression in Chinese stand-up 

As a result, there were only a few dozen stand-up clubs in the country where comedians could perform in 2018, wrote the China Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper. In other words, not enough to worry Beijing. Since then, they have rapidly increased in number, with comedians performing on 179 stages across the country.

One of the reasons for the craze is the popularity of television shows like “Rock & Roast”, which make millions of viewers laugh every week. China’s “zero-Covid” policy has been a boon for comedians, who are now popular with TV stations eager to brighten up the lives of Chinese people under confinement, reported the Financial Times.

Li has benefited from the buzz, appearing several times on “Rock & Roast”, helping to “make him a star”, according to the New York Times.

This star status made him the ideal target for Beijing to get its message across. The authorities used to tolerate “caustic” humour “as long as the criticism was aimed at local authorities and referred to the minor administrative hassles of everyday life”, said Lanteigne.

But when it comes to subjects of national importance  such as the military  comedians are now required to “abide by laws, maintain ethical values and provide the public with nutritious spiritual food”, said the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism.

This record fine is, in a way, the price of the success of stand-up comedy in China. Comedians’ voices did not carry far when there were only a few hundred of them in 2018. But now that there are officially more than 10,000, Beijing has decided to designate them as actors of official propaganda, as are the state media and film industries.

Li was hit hard by this new reality. Despite his apology, the China Association of Performing Arts, the body that manages live performance in China, has called for a total boycott of all his shows.

This article has been translated from the original in French

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Malaysian tweens earn their ‘Tiger Stripes’ in Cannes coming-of-age body horror

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From our special correspondent in Cannes – A young girl’s experience of puberty gets the body-horror treatment in Amanda Nell Eu’s playfully rebellious “Tiger Stripes”, the first feature by a Malaysian female director to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. FRANCE 24 spoke to Eu about the making of the movie and its universal message.

A bold and stirring debut feature, “Tiger Stripes” offered an original take on the experience of menstrual metamorphosis – and a welcome distraction from the relentless rain that has dampened the mood here in Cannes.

Its Cannes screening, part of the Critics’ Week sidebar, was met with warm applause from a large and varied audience that included teenage pupils on a school outing.

One student said she saw a “universal message” in the film, noting that “difference isn’t always accepted – in France, too”. Another said it was important that male students saw it as well, though joking that “the boys in the class probably didn’t get the message”.

There are hardly any male characters in this female-centred movie, aside from a sweet but apathetic father and a charlatan guru who takes it upon himself to “drive the monster” out of the film’s menstruating protagonist – live on social media.

“Tiger Stripes” is powered by an exhilarating trio of TikTok-savvy first-time actresses whom Eu and her casting director initially reached out to on social media, owing to Covid-19 restrictions.

From left to right: Feisty trio Piqa, Deena Ezral and Zafreen Zairizal in Cannes for the premiere of “Tiger Stripes”. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Set largely in the strict environment of a Muslim school for girls, it explores the wildly shifting dynamics at play between feisty 12-year-old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) and her two best friends once she gets her period and starts experiencing other, frightening bodily changes that lead to her ostracisation.

Rejecting or taming the “monster” in Zaffan is as cruel as it is futile, the movie points out, in a defiant call to lift taboos on the female body and sexuality.

Can you talk us through the premise of your film and why you chose to draw on the monster genre?

I love to tell stories that are inspired by my own body and emotions, and that’s how it really started. I was thinking about what it was like when I was growing up, with puberty. It’s my weird sense of humour that to me puberty is like a body horror [film], because one night you look one way and then the next day you wake up and things have grown on you – and if you don’t know what’s happening to you it can be quite terrifying. I remember it was quite violent the way I rejected my changes and really didn’t want it to happen.

As a young girl you’re always told that you’re emotional, you’re hysterical. But you’re really going through a lot of things and sometimes you’re labelled as a monster. And so I thought, ‘Let me show a young girl who really does turn into a monster and what a monster really is’.

Why did you opt for a rural Malaysian setting?

I really wanted to tell a fairy tale and in that sense you never really know in what village or part of Malaysia it is. It’s always this idea of ‘once upon a time there was a young girl who lived far, far away’. Of course we have the jungle, society surrounded by wild nature, and I thought that was a nice idea for a fairy tale.

“Tiger Stripes” director Amanda Nell Eu. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

What would you say is specifically Malaysian, or Southeast Asian, about your film, in terms of its setting, themes and influences?

There’s the idea that monsters, ghosts or spirits – we have many names for them – are very much part of our community, and they’re also very much linked to nature. We believe there are many spirits living in trees, in waterfalls, in rivers. That was very inspiring, because I absolutely love the power that nature has. And to have that represented in a young girl was very exciting.

Of course the folk tales, the monsters, even the prosthetics were an homage to Malaysian B-movies from the 1950s and ‘60s, by the Shaw Brothers in particular. Those movies were always very gnarly and strange, and that was definitely something that I wanted to show on-screen.

How much did the film’s young cast inform and shape your movie during filming?

A lot! Of course I wrote the script and had my ideas of how it was going to be, but you throw all that away when you start auditioning and meeting talents. I love that they would always surprise me with their own personalities, their own experiences. It was very important to be with them every step of the way, moving with them, because they have so much energy that they want to unleash.

It’s also very much part of my personality. I do like crazy colours and bizarre things, and my personality worked well with the girls’ energy. I’m so connected to the girls; we could share and open up on whatever we were feeling. When we watched the film together yesterday it was so emotional just looking at their faces.

There’s a lot of love and hate between the girls on-screen; was it important to show that sorority is not a given?

I grew up in all-girls schools, so I know the experience where you love and support your best friend but you also really hate her and there’s jealousy and miscommunication. They go hand in hand and I love exploring female friendships that way. That was the balance of the film: to show both love and jealousy, and differences, and how you overcome that and support each other.

Zaffan’s is a lonely journey but it was important to show that you’re not alone if you share your experiences and stand proud.

It’s a universal message?

Telling the story of what happens to young girls is incredibly universal. There are so many parts of the world where women or young girls fear their own bodies or don’t have ownership of their bodies. There [are] people in power always dictating what they’re supposed to look like, what they’re supposed to wear, what they’re allowed to do and how they’re supposed to behave. It’s not just in Malaysia, it’s all over the world.

How does it feel to be the first female director from Malaysia with a feature here in Cannes?

It’s a mixed feeling. I don’t want to be pinpointed as a woman and yet at the same time I represent that voice and I’m so happy that I get to have my crazy voice represented here, because we don’t have that many female directors back home. It has also been many years since a Malaysian film has been represented in Cannes and so I hope this will help pave the way for more films that make it to the international market.

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Cannes Film Festival © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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Cannes’s ‘essential workers’ stage Carlton protest as French pension battle hits festival

From our special correspondent in Cannes – A relentless downpour threw a wet blanket on the world’s premier film festival on Friday, but it did not stop Cannes’s “essential workers” from staging a protest outside the Riviera town’s most emblematic palace hotel – a prelude to a larger rally scheduled on Sunday.

France has been roiled by months of mass protests – the biggest in several decades – against a deeply unpopular pension overhaul that President Emmanuel Macron’s government rammed through parliament without a vote.

The protests, some of them violent, have prompted the local authorities in Cannes to order a ban on demonstrations within a broad perimeter around the Palais des Festivals and the town’s palm tree-lined boulevard, the Croisette.

Opponents of the reform, however, have warned that they won’t sit quietly during the festival – a prime showcase for France and one of the world’s most publicised events, luring visitors and media organisations from all corners of the world.

“Cannes isn’t just about glitter and bling. It’s about workers too, people without whom the festival wouldn’t even take place,” said Céline Petit, a local representative of the CGT trade union, which is spearheading the resistance against a reform Macron has already signed into law.

Having failed to overturn the protest ban in the courts, the CGT found a way around it, staging a small rally of hospitality workers on private grounds, just outside the front porch of Cannes’ best-known palace hotel, whose guests this year include the film icon and festival darling Martin Scorsese.

The protest took place a day after the world premiere of the fifth and final installment in the “Indiana Jones” saga. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

The use of a private hotel meant the rally was technically allowed, on condition that the protesters – a mix of union representatives and workers from the hotel and catering industries – numbered no more than a few dozen.

Braving the rain, they unfurled a large banner that read, “No to pension reform”. The glitzy setting, with the entrance to the recently refurbished Carlton in the background, made up for the lack of numbers.

“Hotel staff don’t normally have a voice,” said Ange Romiti, a CGT member representing staff at the Carlton hotel. “This is our chance to get our message across when the eyes of the world are on Cannes.”

No porters, no festival

Macron’s flagship pension overhaul raises the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and stiffens requirements for a full pension, a move the government says is required to balance the books amid shifting demographics.

Unions, however, say the changes are profoundly unfair, primarily affecting women with discontinuous careers and low-skilled workers who start their careers early and have physically draining jobs – the very “essential workers” who were feted during the Covid pandemic.

Without the Carlton’s 680 staff, and the thousands more employed in the Riviera town’s crucial hospitality sector, “absolutely nothing would happen in Cannes”, said Romiti. “But cleaners, porters, waiters, cooks – they’re all exhausting jobs, it’s impossible to keep going until 64,” he added.

The government has also faced fierce criticism over the timing of its reform, coming on the heels of the pandemic and amid a crippling inflation crisis.

“It certainly wasn’t an opportune move, let alone a classy one,” said Romiti. “Neither was it democratic,” he added, referring to the government’s use of special executive powers to get around parliament, despite an overwhelming majority of the French rejecting the reform.

>> Read more: ‘Democracy at stake’: French protesters vent fury at Macron over pension push

“Our democracy has taken a hit,” said the union representative. “It’s important that people keep up the fight and remind the government that this is not okay.”

Job insecurity

The protesters gathered outside the Carlton said the government’s controversial pension push threatened to exacerbate structural problems in an industry that is already grappling with severe shortages.

“Young people are abandoning these professions,” said Romiti, pointing to hiring difficulties. “They’ll be even less inclined to do them if it means lifting mattresses and carrying heavy trays at 64.”

The film industry itself faces a haemorrhage of jobs, said Mathilde, a festival worker who showed up at the Carlton protest in solidarity with hospitality staff. She is a member of the Collectif des précaires des festivals de cinema, which has launched a campaign to raise awareness of growing job insecurity in the industry.

Changing with the times?
Changing with the times? © france24

Mathilde said recent government cuts to unemployment benefits had made life impossible for the seasonal workers on whom film festivals depend, while the latest pension overhaul will make it harder for workers with interrupted careers to qualify for a pension.

“It’s just not worth it to work in festivals any more, and festivals can’t cope without us,” she said.

It’s a message the CGT also put forward ahead of the festival as it threatened to cut power during the 12-day film extravaganza, as well as at Roland-Garros and the Formula One GP in Monaco, in protest at the pension reform. The union hasn’t pulled the plug on Cannes, so far, but the threat remains.

Hollywood walkout

Often described as a celebrity bubble removed from the social context around it, the Cannes Film Festival has a long and rich history of social and political activism – from its pre-war roots in the left-wing Front Populaire to the May 1968 unrest that saw the likes of Jean-Luc Godard pull the curtain (literally) on the festival.

A founding member of the festival, the CGT still has a seat on the administrative board. It has planned another, larger protest on Sunday, this time further away from the Croisette. It will also host a screening of the 1988 documentary “Amor, Mujeres y Flores” (Love, Women and Flowers), about the effects of pesticides on women working in Colombian plantations.

This year’s festival is unspooling against the backdrop of labour unrest on both sides of the Atlantic, with US screenwriters staging a rare walkout.

The Writers Guild of America is seeking better pay, new contracts for the streaming era and safeguards against the use of Artificial Intelligence in writing scripts – a demand Hollywood studios have rejected.

Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

The walkout has been a recurrent topic of discussion during the numerous press conferences in Cannes, with jury members throwing their weight behind the strike on the opening day of the festival.

“My wife is currently picketing with my 6-month-old, strapped to her chest,” said juror Paul Dano. “I will be there on the picket line when I get back home.”

On Thursday, Ethan Hawke wore a shirt that read “Pencils Down” during the presser that followed the screening of Pedro Almodovar’s 31-minute queer Western “Strange Way of Life”, which garnered rave reviews.

The next day, veteran actor and activist Sean Penn described the studios’ stance on AI as “a human obscenity” during a press conference for his new film, “Black Flies”, a gritty drama about New York paramedics directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire.

“The first thing we should do in these conversations is change the Producers Guild and title them how they behave, which is the Bankers Guild,” he said. “It’s difficult for so many writers and so many people industry-wide to not be able to work at this time. I guess it’s going to soul-search itself and see what side toughs it out.”

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‘Indy’ mania grips Cannes for Harrison Ford’s last crack of the whip

A year after celebrating Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” comeback, the Cannes Film Festival paid tribute to another beloved icon of the 1980s with the world premiere of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”, returning Harrison Ford to the French Riviera to the delight of fedora-sporting Indy fans lining the Croisette.

Donning Dr Jones’ iconic fedora, leather jacket, safari shirt and khaki trousers, 39-year-old Marco Vendramini of Italy looked every bit the part as he stood outside Cannes’ Palais des Festivals early on Thursday, patiently waiting for his childhood hero to show up on the red carpet later in the day.

A lawyer by trade and Indy fan at heart, Vendramini arrived in Cannes at 3am after a six-hour drive from his hometown of Padua. He napped for a few hours in a nearby carpark before hitting the Croisette in his Indy outfit, joining other early birds in a fast-growing queue of fans of the world’s best-known archaeologist.

It’s not the first time this Indy buff went out of his way to catch a glimpse of his favourite film star. In October 2021 he flew to Sicily after finding out that the crew were shooting scenes for the film in the picturesque town of Cefalu. The gamble paid off, as evidenced by a photograph of him posing with Ford and other Indy lookalikes.

Firstcomers waited up to 12 hours for a chance to see Harrison Ford up close on the red carpet. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

“If I can get an autograph on this picture, it will make my day,” he said, holding up a large print of the photo from Cefalù. “If he takes me inside for the screening, it will be even better.”

In Maverick’s wake

The marquee red-carpet premiere at this year’s festival, James Mangold’s “Dial of Destiny” got the “Top Gun: Maverick” treatment with a special, out-of-competition gala screening at the Grand Théâtre Lumière.

Disney, which now owns the rights to the “Indiana Jones” franchise, is hoping the world’s glitziest film festival will serve as a springboard for its latest instalment – much as it set the stage for the “Top Gun” sequel’s blockbuster success.

At the very front of the queue outside the Palais, in the exact spot where she stood last year, Cannes fixture Martine said the “Top Gun” premiere – which saw the French air force honour Tom Cruise with a spectacular fly-past – ranked among the highlights of her decades-long love affair with the festival.

The peppy 79-year-old blonde, nicknamed “Sharon Stone” by her friends, also recalled the last time Ford showed up in Cannes, almost a decade ago for a screening of the “The Expendables”, riding a Soviet-era tank along with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other arthritic action heroes who had surely known better days.

“It was an extraordinary spectacle, the Hollywood show at its best,” she gasped with a sparkle in the eye. “Stallone insisted on greeting every one of us before stepping inside – I hope Ford does the same today.”

Honorary Palme

Just like Cruise last year, Ford was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation at Thursday’s gala premiere, and honoured with a special Palme d’Or for a long and distinguished career that saw him play some of the most iconic roles of the past 50 years, from Han Solo in the “Star Wars franchise” to Rick Deckard from “Blade Runner”.

Harrison Ford poses on the red carpet in Cannes ahead of Thursday's gala premiere.
Harrison Ford poses on the red carpet in Cannes ahead of Thursday’s gala premiere. © Joel C Ryan, AP

“I’m very touched. I’m very moved by this,” he told the audience, visibly emotional as he looked around the vast theatre. “They say when you’re about to die, you, you see your life flash before your eyes. I just saw my life before my eyes.”

At 80, he has described the fifth instalment in the “Indiana Jones” franchise as his final one

“Dial of Destiny” sees Dr Jones come out of retirement to help his goddaughter track down an ancient treasure, even as diehard Nazis – inevitably – get in the way. The film uses de-aging technologies to shave several decades off Ford in flashback scenes set during World War II.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays the goddaughter, joining a star-studded cast that includes Mads Mikkelsen, Antonio Banderas, Boyd Holbrook, John Rhys-Davies, Shaunette Renee Wilson and Toby Jones, to name but a few.

The franchise’s fifth instalment is the first one to be directed by someone other than Steven Spielberg, though the veteran director is still involved as an executive producer, along with George Lucas. John Williams, who has scored each “Indiana Jones” film since the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, also returned to compose the film’s score.

Released back in 1981, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was a triumph at the box office and scooped four Oscars. Its two sequels – “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) – built a legend that has inspired theme parks, video games and a spin-off TV series about Indy’s youth.

Though widely panned by critics and fans alike, a fourth instalment released nearly two decades later – “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” – proved to be another commercial hit, bringing the combined box office takings to nearly two billion dollars.

‘Indy will end with Ford’

Coming on the heels of the “Star Wars” saga, Indy’s runaway success cemented Ford’s standing as the most profitable film star of the late-20th century, capping an extraordinary turnaround for a man whose long-stuttering career as an actor forced him to take up a day job as a carpenter – until a chance encounter with Lucas resulted in him landing Han Solo’s part.

Ford could easily have missed out on Indy’s part too, with Lucas initially opting to give Tom Selleck the role – until TV series “Magnum P.I.” got in the way. That’s how the adventuring archaeologist ended up with Ford’s iconic chin scar and roguish grin, rather than an iconic moustache.

To imagine another actor taking on the role, in the manner of the James Bond franchise, would be absurd, said Vendramini, back on the Croisette. “Indiana Jones is intimately – and exclusively – tied to Ford,” he explained. “The character will therefore end with Ford.”

That day surely isn’t far off. But for now, Cannes and the wider world of cinema are eagerly clinging on to the industry’s most iconic – and bankable – characters.

As one film critic observed after the “Top Gun” premiere last year, for a film industry battered by the Covid pandemic and gnawed by self-doubt, Maverick’s triumphant return was “as comforting as an old leather jacket”. So is Indy’s final crack of the whip.

Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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