The Cannes Film Festival (May 14-25) this year was a ripe ground for protests. Here is a look at two films — To a Land Unknown and The Belle from Gaza — that delved into the plight of Gazans

Happening as it is amid multiple global wars on its doorsteps — Israel’s war on Gaza and the seemingly never-ending Russia’s war on Ukraine — the Cannes Film Festival (May 14-25) this year was a ripe ground for protests. The red carpet has had its fair share of demonstrations: not too far back, in 2022, a half-naked Ukrainian woman with red body paint protesting the rape of women in Russia’s war appeared on the carpet.

With student protests drawing attention to the war on Gaza rocking campuses globally, the festival, acutely aware of the possibility of similar protests on the red carpet, has been extra attentive. Extra security detail for the jury, cops in combat military gear roaming the festival grounds, and a ban on protests (and Palestinian lapel pins) in the vicinity, Cannes has managed to run its yearly global cinema jamboree without major disruptions.

Yet there were spillover solidarity messages if one cared to look. Cate Blanchett’s jet-black gown on the red carpet caused speculation about its perceived pro-Palestine message — that she lifted the train to reveal the green flap on her gown signified support for Palestine (the three colours of the Palestinian flag) gained enough traction. While an Israeli protester wore a yellow gown emblazoned with pictures of Hamas hostages on the red-carpet last week, a graphic Israeli movie about the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023, was cancelled by the festival, citing security concerns. There was a brief pro-Palestinian demo in the market pavilion section that caused no more than a ripple.

To a Land Unknown: A migrant drama

Despite the precautions to deescalate protests, the festival did offer a glimpse of Palestinians’ lived realities in two projects. To a Land Unknown, a narrative feature about Palestinian refugees, set in Athens and directed by Mahdi Fleifel, a Palestinian-Danish director, was screened in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar section. Inspired by a true story, the film showcased the Palestinian reality of being pushed to the fringes of civilised society. It opened with a quote from Palestinian scholar Edward Said: “In a way, it’s a sort of fate of Palestinians not to end up where they started, but somewhere unexpected and far away.” Said’s words acquire an extra edge in the wake of Israel’s attack on Gaza.

A migrant drama, To a Land Unknown (still above) is centred on Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and Reda (Aram Sabbah), two Palestinian paperless refugees who hustle on the streets of Athens, with hopes to get to Germany where one of them wants to open a cafe in which the other wants to bartend. As far as ambitions go, these are not lofty. But stuck in a refugee camp with no hopes of ever making it out, their primary goal becomes how to leave Athens for the real Europe. They had arrived from Lebanon, which in their opinion is no better than their homeland: “Lebanon is a prison, like Gaza,” one of them says.

Chatila and Reda devise a plan, a brutal one, in which they spare no kindness to their own kind. What emerges is a complex portrait of two human beings desperate to seek a life in a safe country. The film bears witness to the cold-heartedness sometimes humans can harbour when their existence is at stake. Its understated cinematography goes to a greater extent to not glamorise suffering. Peppered with Mahmoud Darwish poems, the film is an incisive ode to Palestinian struggles within and outside Palestine.

As Fleifel said in an interaction after the screening: “The winner gets to tell the story, we are never going to get a chance to make Dunkirk or a biography on Churchill. You can either be a filmmaker in exile, making a film about exiles or you can stand on the sideline and become bitter. We don’t have the privilege of telling our stories in the third person.”

La Belle De Gaza (The Belle from Gaza): Gazan trans people in Tel Aviv

To a Land Unknown was preceded by a documentary about Gazan trans people in Tel Aviv by the French documentary filmmaker Yolande Zauberman that found place in the Special Screenings section. In Zauberman’s documentary, La Belle De Gaza (The Belle from Gaza), she goes in search of a trans Arab person she met on the backstreets of Tel Aviv a few years ago, who told her she walked all the way from Gaza to start a life in Tel Aviv. Armed only with a fading image on her phone, in the process of finding Belle, Zauberman cracks open the lid on the precarious lives of Arab trans people on the streets of Tel Aviv.

French filmmaker Yolande Zauberman's documentary about Gazan trans people in Tel Aviv, La Belle De Gaza (The Belle from Gaza), found place in the Special Screenings section.

“I realised every time I’m on the streets, I’m reenacting my rape,” says one. Another quotes the Quran to state that everyone’s under the protection of Allah. Another, the possible eponymous Belle from the title, says that they allowed the filmmaker to shoot them only veiled for fear of retribution from their family. Over and above the threat of violence in the city, the trans people also fear for their lives from their own family back in Gaza because there’s always someone who knows someone who has been beheaded by their family due to their orientation. One even has a neck tattoo of a phoenix, consigned to a beheaded friend’s memory.

Seen in one way, the documentary could play into the hands of the Israeli PR about the non-existent LGBTQ rights in Palestine and reinforce its own pink washing of the country as a champion of queer rights. But Zauberman, who has been critical of Israeli society in the past in her documentaries, takes no prisoners.

The myth of Tel Aviv being a haven for queer people gets blown open when these girls recount the perilous circumstances in which they work and how often they are exposed to the most horrifying hate crimes. One recalls their friends being assaulted by a gang of men — they broke it off by fighting the men (after pulling their wig out) to save their friends. “At that moment, I became a man,” the dancer said.

Despite very few visible signs of pro-Palestinian solidarity, it was everywhere and nowhere at the Cannes film festival this year, depending on where one looked.

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