CANNES, France -- The jury of the 57th Cannes Film Festival insisted Sunday that it awarded its top honor to Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary not because of its politics, but because of its quality as a film.
"We were dealing with reels of film, not politics," said jury president Quentin Tarantino. "We all agreed that 'Fahrenheit 9/11' was the best film."
Tarantino and his eight fellow jurors were breaking with 56 years of festival tradition by explaining and defending their selections at a press conference the day after the awards were named. This was not the jury's idea but the festival's, Tarantino said, after Toronto critic Bruce Kirkland observed that past juries had operated with the secrecy of a Masonic lodge.
Some critics of the Palme d'Or for Moore interpreted it as a slap by the French against President Bush and his invasion of Iraq, but in fact the jury had four American members and only one French member; the other jurors were from Finland, Hong Kong, Belgium and the U.K.
"I knew this political crap would be brought up," said the outspoken Tarantino. "I think judging a film by its politics is a bad thing. If this movie was saying everything I wanted it to say, but not saying it with the best filmmaking, I would have opposed it."
The film, which received the longest standing ovation in Cannes history, charges that Bush has bungled the war on terrorism and sent U.S. troops to Iraq under false pretenses. One of its most talked-about scenes claims Bush remained in a Florida classroom, reading a book to children, for seven minutes after learning of the attack on the World Trade Center, until aides finally had to ask him to leave.
When an Italian journalist complained that the film had "only one point of view," juror Tilda Swinton, an actress from Scotland, replied "We've heard what Bush has to say. We live with it. It's not a fair fight. This film helps to redress the balance." And juror Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-born American novelist, said, "Moore starts by saying this is his view of the world. He gives voice to people who are voiceless."
Every one of the jurors said they supported the award. American director Jerry Schatzberg said, "Before I got here, I was thinking, I hope the other jurors are not going to be sympathetic just because of the film's distribution problems. Quentin told us on Day One to keep politics out of it and just judge the films."
The movie generated controversy after Disney president Michael Eisner ordered his Miramax subsidiary, which produced it, not to distribute it in America. Miramax head Harvey Weinstein says the film has distribution in every other country in the world. Ironically, Eisner's decision may help the movie; the Palme d'Or has raised Weinstein's asking price for U.S. rights.
Tarantino's famous temper was revealed at one point in the press conference when a journalist questioned the "cinematic qualities" of "Fahrenheit 9/11."
"You're talking about pretty pictures," Tarantino said. "This film is made of images. When a U.S. soldier is shown with an [Iraqi] captive whose head is in a hood, that is not a pretty picture, but it is a powerful image." When the journalist tried to argue, Tarantino said the discussion was over and took off his earphones so he could not hear the translation.
The jury did not reveal individual votes but hinted at some differences. Its jury prize for the Thai film "Sud Pralad," which sharply divided Cannes audiences, also split the jury, "but some of us were moved by that film to a staggering degree," Tarantino said, and so dissenters on the jury respected their passion.
He defended the Grand Prize (second place), which went to the violent Korean revenge thriller "Old Boy." "The most exciting films in the world are coming out of Japan and Korea right now," he said. "It took 10 years for the genre pictures of Hong Kong to be recognized; it's great that a film like this can play in Cannes." Fellow juror Tsui Hark, whose own Hong Kong genre pictures, like "Chinese Ghost Story," took years to win recognition, kept a poker face.
The press conference was the closing act of what many of us thought was a return to form for the festival. Its new director, Thierry Fremaux, cast his net wide by including two animated films and two documentaries in the competition.
And he closed the fest on a traditional note with the new MGM musical "De-Lovely," based on the life of Cole Porter. As thousands of guests, from "Star Wars" creator George Lucas to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, partied on a jetty out beyond the Palais, there was a concert of Porter's songs by such as Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Robbie Williams, Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. Backed by a full pop orchestra, they were shown on a vast video screen flanked by high-powered speakers, so that everyone on the beachfront, the Boulevard Croisette and all of the oceanfront hotels could see and hear the performances (whether they wanted to or not).
I don't suppose Cannes has ever been away, but it's certainly back.