Parisians game to play God to play God

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The Independent Online
What if a French filmmaker set out to produce an account of the Mitterrand era on the model of JFK or Nixon? The weekly Paris Match offers what it thinks could be the ideal casting: Isabelle Adjani (last seen in La Reine Margot) to play Danielle Mitterrand, Richard Berry, starring in a comedy about the clash between gay and straight lifestyles, as Dieu himself, and for Anne Pingeot, Mitterrand's long-time mistress, Fanny Ardant. The magazine also found the ideal actors for the role of Mitterrand's illegitimate daughter, Mazarine; and two of his prime ministers, Michel Rocard and Laurent Fabius.

Unfortunately a spanner was put in the works of this ingenious scenario right away by Adjani who said she didn't think she would be at all good as Danielle Mitterrand and had the temerity to propose someone far less well-known in her place.

Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, France's 52-year-old star television presenter, is back on the screen of TF1's main evening news programme after a 100- day suspension, playing himself. He was banished in January, just before his conviction for corruption was upheld. His crime was to have accepted gifts, including holidays and designer suits, from the PR agent of the former mayor of Lyons, Michel Noir. His defence was that everyone else in the journalistic establishment was doing the same.

The return of PPDA, as he is known, has divided the French media; some think that his return discredits the news, others think that his private and professional lives can be separated. PPDA has spent his enforced leisure promoting his novel, filming in Madagascar and interviewing the Burmese dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, for TF1. The clinching argument for his return, however, seems to be the French television ratings war: the audience for the 8pm news declined during his absence. If it does not pick up now, the cognoscenti say, his future will be on the line again.

How do you play a national resource? And more to the point, who should be allowed to play such a role? The rush to put the life of Nelson Mandela on celluloid is forcing these questions to be examined more urgently. The South Africans, as one would expect, are protective, not to say possessive. The rest of the world might regard Mandela as a beacon for humanity, but his homeland is proprietorial. Having housed and fed him for 27 years, it presumably feels it has a stake in the legend.

So when it was announced yesterday that Miami-born, Bahamas-educated, English-sounding Sidney Poitier wanted the part, African feathers were ruffled. "The veracity of the story, its texture and reality, could only come from a South African performance," said Dan Robbertse of the South African actors' union.

But the American backers of a planned television film for the US Showtime channel do not agree. The South African producer of the film, David Wicht, says the backers would only fund the film if Poitier was the star. "There are only a few actors out there who could convincingly play Nelson Mandela and Sidney Poitier is one of them." Mr Wicht said. Robbertse says local actors John Kani, Winston Ntshona or Zakes Mokae all have the skill to play the "national treasure".

Recently Mandela supported the tiny local film industry by selling rights to his best-selling autobiography to South African director Anant Singh. "It is our duty to primarily support our own artists and give them resources and backing," Mr Mandela said. It looks like an uphill struggle. The top tip for the hero's role in a third film is Harry Belafonte.

James Roberts