Drama at Cannes as Hollywood heavyweights ignore demands for a boycott over French 'anti-Semitism'

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The Independent Online

The Cannes film festival was the scene of a real-life political drama yesterday when American participants were urged to boycott the glamorous event in protest at the rise of the far right in France.

But while the call to arms from an American Jewish organisation dominated the opening of the 55th annual festival, two of the biggest stars in town, Woody Allen and Sharon Stone, firmly rejected it as a needless gesture, paying tribute instead to the democratic instincts of their hosts.

Allen did so in his measured, analytical way, Stone with the language of love we have come to expect from Hollywood actresses in the Cote d'Azur.

Quite aside from the merits of calling for a boycott of a country that overwhelmingly rejected an extreme right-wing candidate in its presidential election, the lack of Jewish Americans, or any Americans for that matter, would have left large gaps at the movie industry beach parties.

Last night associates of heavyweights including the Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, the actor Michael Douglas and the director Roman Polanski said they would not be cancelling their plans to attend the festival.

Their defiance was a humiliating setback for the Pacific South-west chapter of the American Jewish Congress, which had hoped to protest over Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in the first round of the election, as well as a number of anti-Semitic attacks.

The violence in France, which has Europe's biggest Jewish population, has been linked to the troubles in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Stone, who sits on this year's festival jury, said: "I think this whole thing was due to the election, and that the fellow who didn't win was pretty vocal in his anti-Semitism, and I think that the fellow who did win won by 82 per cent of the vote. In our country we call that a landslide. So you have a pretty healthy percentage who have a pretty loving look at the situation."

Allen, whose Jewish identity usually figures strongly in his films, was more down to earth. The director and star of the festival's opening film, Hollywood Ending, said: "I have never felt that the French people in any way were anti-Semitic. I know a number of French Jewish people who live in France and certainly don't feel that way.

"The French country can be very proud of the way they responded in the last election. They came out in a very clear-cut way in how they responded to intolerance. They showed they are a democracy that has no patience with the extreme right. I don't think a boycott is in order.'' Indeed, he described the attempted boycott as the kind of protest the Nazis used against the Jews before the Second World War.

Leading French Jewish artists also condemned the move, in which two Hollywood newspapers published advertisements claiming that today's France bore striking similarities to the pro-Nazi Vichy era during Second World War, and calling on the movie industry to stay away from Cannes.

Entitled "For Your Consideration at Cannes", the advertisement listed attacks this year on synagogues, Jewish schools and members of the French Jewish community, next to a list of anti-Semitic attacks in France during the Second World War.

The French directors Claude Lanzmann and Claude Lelouch said: "While our country has unfortunately seen a certain number of anti-Semitic acts recently, there is nothing that makes 2002 like 1942. The comparison the American Jewish Congress has made is offensive for us as Frenchmen, and for each of us as Jews. Even worse, it is offensive to the memory of the countless victims of the Holocaust.''

A number of movies scheduled to be screened will highlight Jewish themes and troubles in the Middle East.

Polanski, who fled America in 1978 after being charged with having sex with a 13-year-old at the home of Jack Nicholson, shows his first movie at the festival for 25 years. The Pianist is based on the true story of the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman who was playing Chopin on Warsaw radio when Germans stormed the building. His family was taken to concentration camps but he survived, dying two years ago at the age of 89.

It is a highly personal film for Polanski, whose mother died in Auschwitz. He escaped from the Krakow ghetto through a small hole in the barbed wire, cut by his father. Polanski, 68, who was offered the chance to direct Schindler's List but instead left it to Steven Spielberg, said he was at last "ready to face again that nightmarish period" by making The Pianist.

But what could be a more controversial film is Kedma by the internationally fêted Israeli director Amos Gitai. Gitai's movies, which have included a highly critical examination of fundamentalist Judaism, have outraged parts of the Israeli public in the past. Kedma is set in 1948 and looks at the lives and actions of the first Jewish settlers in what was then Palestine, shortly to become the state of Israel.

The festival also sees its first film in competition by a Palestinian director. Elia Suleiman, who was asked by the European Commission to set up a cinema department at Birzeit University in the West Bank, brings his film Yadon Iaheyya to Cannes on Sunday.

It tells of a love story between Palestinians. A woman from Ramallah is barred at an Israeli checkpoint from crossing to see her lover in Nazareth. Their encounters take place on a deserted lot by the checkpoint.

So the festival this year does appear to be markedly in touch with contemporary political events, though its awareness is not helped by a misprint in the official brochure. The description of the Gitai film called the Holy Land the "Holly Land".