Michael Moore turns up the heat at Cannes

Hollywood slanging match over controversial Bush-baiter's 'Fahrenheit 9/11' adds spice to celebrated competition
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The Independent Culture

The Cannes film festival loves a scandal. And, thanks to Michael Moore, it has a nice juicy one.

The Cannes film festival loves a scandal. And, thanks to Michael Moore, it has a nice juicy one.

Things looked controversial enough when the grizzled comic documentarist was simply invited to show up for this year's festival competition and screen Fahrenheit 9/11, his freshly minted blast against the Bush administration and its response to the al-Qa'ida attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre.

The Europeans, after all, love to lionise Mr Moore as a fearless intellectual who tells truths about his country that others are afraid to admit - witness the reaction to his anti-gun-lobby movie Bowling for Columbine, which not only played at the Cannes film festival but won a special jury prize two years ago.

The new film promises to hit all sorts of hot buttons, from profiteering in Iraq to the ties between the Bush dynasty, the Saudi royal family and those responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Any controversy stemming from the film itself has taken on new overtones now that Mr Moore has accused the Walt Disney Company of stifling his free speech rights by refusing to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11 in the US. He told fans visiting his website that Disney was engaged in an attempt "to kill our movie" and had informed him only at the beginning of the week that it was pulling out. (The film was produced by the semi-independent Disney subsidiary, Miramax, which normally uses Disney's Buena Vista distribution arm for domestic releases.)

Mr Moore's agent, meanwhile, told The New York Times that Disney's chief executive, Michael Eisner, wanted nothing to do with Fahrenheit 9/11 for fear that it would upset Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the President's brother, and compromise the privileged tax and legal status enjoyed by Disneyworld and other company assets in the Sunshine State. Mr Eisner, of course, is already in the wars having recently been stripped of his title of chairman after 45 per cent of shareholders - including former Disney directors Stanley Gold and Roy Disney, Walt's nephew - refused to support him.

While the charge of corporate censorship is sure to be lapped up by the Cannes festival crowd, it is overshadowed by the growing suspicion that Mr Moore has largely manufactured the controversy to generate publicity. He has himself admitted that Disney made clear a year ago it had no intention of distributing Fahrenheit 9/11. At the same time, Disney has done nothing to stop him finding another distribution deal elsewhere. He has apparently received numerous offers, and the expectation is that Fahrenheit 9/11 will be released this summer, unaltered and on schedule.

A Disney spokeswoman, Zenia Mucha, has dismissed the whole affair as "ludicrous and ridiculous" while another

In other respects, this is being trumpeted as a major year for Hollywood, with the DreamWorks animation Shrek 2 in competition and Wolfgang Petersen's Homeric epic Troy, starring Brad Pitt, in an out-of-competition slot. The studios are certainly using Cannes as a major launchpad though it is notable that many of the films with prestigious slots have already been released in the US and elsewhere.

But the main competition will feature just one "British" title this year, Stephen Hopkins's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers: Jamaican-born Hopkins cast an Australian - Geoffrey Rush - in the title role, and the film is a co-production between BBC Films and the US company HBO. The biggest surprise is the absence from the main competition of a title regarded as a dead cert - Mike Leigh's Vera Drake. Featuring Imelda Staunton as an abortionist in 1950s Britain, the film is said to be Leigh's strongest in years.

Yesterday, Mr Leigh's spokesman, Jonathan Rutter, said, "Mike is definitely disappointed, but he's been confirmed for competition in Venice. Most people are saying that Vera Drake is one of his better - if not his best - films to date. In the UK there was a bidding war between six distributors for it."

The dearth of UK cinema is hardly unprecedented - the British contingent was notably absent in 2001 - but the reasons behind this decline are a source of some debate. The British director Peter Greenaway, said there was no immediate cause for concern.

"The British film industry has never been a particularly settled phenomenon. It all depends on funding and the individuals in the spotlight .

Additional reporting by Jonathan Thompson