Cannes film festival crowns Sean Penn king of its jury

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The Independent Culture

The American actor and director Sean Penn has been chosen to preside over the Cannes film festival in May a controversial choice that appears to be as much anti-Washington as anti-Hollywood.

Although it remains as awash with diamonds, champagne, starlets and paparazzi, the world's most prestigious movie gala has taken on a more political tone in the past few years.

US actors have presided over Cannes juries in the past but none of has been so vocally opposed to the administration in Washington as Penn. The 47-year-old has rebuilt his career as an actor and director in recent years but is also one of Hollywood's most active campaigners against George Bush and his policies in Iraq and Iran.

Thierry Frmaux, the chief administrator of the festival, said yesterday that Penn was an obvious choice, adding: "He embodies the independent American cinema as well as presenting the face of the America we like."

In a statement, Penn praised the Cannes festival, which is often mocked in America as allergic to the kind of films the public wants to go to see. "It seems there has been a rejuvenation of cinema-building worldwide," he said.

A flood of "increasingly thoughtful, provocative, moving and imaginative films by talented film-makers" suggested that a "a new generation of film-making may have begun," Penn added. "The Cannes film festival has long been the epicentre in the discovery of those new waves of film-makers from all over the world. I very much look forward to participating in this year's festival as president of the jury."

In 2004, the Cannes festival awarded its main prize, the Palme d'Or, to the US documentary-maker Michael Moore for his cinematically weak, anti-Bush diatribe Fahrenheit 9/11.

Cinematic values were re-established last year, however, when the jury was chaired by the British director Stephen Frears. The Palme d'Or went to the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days a critically acclaimed portrait of an illegal abortion in Communist Romania.

Penn, a former husband of the singer and actress Madonna, was born in Santa Monica, California, into a showbusiness family. His father, Leo Penn, is a television director, while his mother, Eileen Ryan, is an actress. He began his career on stage and television before becoming a truculent celebrity in the 1980s as Madonna's husband.

His bad-boy reputation has been transformed in recent years by his liberal political activism and by the resurrection of his career as actor and director.

He won the best actor Oscar for Clint Eastwood's Mystic River in 2004. His latest film, Into The Wild, leads the nominees for the 2008 Screen Actors Guild Awards, which often point the way for the Oscars.

Penn's previous films as a director include Indian Runner (1990), The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Pledge (2001).

He has vehemently criticised President Bush's record on civil liberties and America's invasion of Iraq. He has also written a series of venomous articles in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, attacking Mr Bush's policy on Iran.