A Cacophony of Battle Cries at Cannes Film Festival

CANNES, France — It’s chilling to see books being destroyed en masse. When faced with this image, in a screening at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, a comparison immediately flashed to mind: the burning of books by the “brown shirts” in Germany, in 1933. This scene, from Sergei Loznitsa’s new documentary, The Invasion (2024), describes a patriotic action of Ukrainian citizens surrendering their Russian books as a gesture of resisting Russia’s imperialism. The sight of what once was a Dostoevsky or Mayakovski, disgorged by a conveyor belt as misshapen, useless heaps, is the most thought-provoking image that viewers will encounter at a festival that otherwise keeps a safe distance from contemporary politics.

In The Invasion, Loznitsa adheres to his customary style: static shots, patient observation, no narration. He distills war as experienced by civilians, from funerals and raids to food lines and the search for water. His film conveys the immense struggle to stay alive, to make sense of trauma, and to heal, as in the case of wounded soldiers. But the open framing left me wondering what he makes of the pulping. Is it an embodiment of the idea that there’s no room for equivocation in a world torn by wars? Or does it also pick up on his previous investigations into nationalistic gestures, portrayed with more ambivalence in his films such as State Funeral (2019)? At the core of The Invasion is the toggling of the fine line between the instrumentalization of nationalism and the genuine desire for patriotic solidarity rooted in the resistance of a population under siege.

A different kind of war is being waged in the Amazon, as portrayed in another documentary in Cannes, The Falling Sky (2024), by Eryk Rocha and Gabriela Carneiro da Cunha. The film, gorgeously shot by Rocha and Bernard Machado, is narrated by Brazil’s Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa and inspired by his eponymous book. In it, Kopenawa fights to preserve the autonomy of his people’s land against the invasions of white farmers and land-grabbers, effectively conveying his message that Brazil’s Indigenous peoples must mobilize around ecological and political issues with the visual power of Yanomami rituals. Similarly to Loznitsa’s studious documentary, there’s a profound sense in Rocha and Cunha’s film that honoring the dead fortifies resistance.

Oliver Stone and Rob Wilson’s documentary tribute to Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose nickname lends its title to Lula (2024), is yet another rousing battle call — this time, in defense of democratic values against the rise of the far right. Though the film has unprecedented access to Lula, it feels like a telling of his story from his own perspective, tracing his biography from a childhood in poverty to his ascendance to become the founder and leader of a Workers Party (PT), and then the nation’s president (2003–11), his fall into corruption charges and jail time, and his triumphant defeat of the ultra-right-wing incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, in 2022. The story of how Brazil’s democracy withstood Bolsonaro’s attacks parallels the current political climate of the United States, where Donald Trump, who attempted to undermine election results, is yet again running for president. 

Lula is also a fascinating glimpse into how populous countries such as Brazil view the US’s international policies, given the latter’s legacy of meddling in Latin American coups, effectively aiding in dismantling young democracies, including Brazil’s, in 1964. PT’s power and the corruption plaguing Brazilian politics at all levels don’t interest Stone and Wilson as much as Lula’s charisma, which somewhat dulls the film’s critical edge. But Lula is the only film I’ve seen here with enough archival material to vividly restage a historical moment. 

Visions of collectivity also emerge in other notable documentaries at the festival, particularly Yolande Zauberman’s La belle de Gaza (2024), in which she interviews trans women in Tel Aviv, and Nada Riyadh and Ayman El Amir’s The Brink of Dreams (2024), in which young women in a provincial Egyptian town form a theater troupe aiming to stage plays about women’s rights, only to learn that most of the men closest to them vehemently oppose their emancipation. In Zauberman’s film, what starts out as a search for an elusive trans woman who is said to have walked from Gaza to Tel Aviv in order to escape prejudice and undergo a gender-confirming surgery, turns into a broader portrait of trans sex workers who have not been spared the vicious war waged on LGTBQ+ communities. 

The festival’s most heartening note came with Claire Simon’s documentary, Elementary (2024), for which she spent four months at an elementary school outside Paris, observing students and teachers. Simon, who films with minimal crews to stay agile and be close to her subjects, covers such topics as reading, math, and biology, but also recess and physical education. What ultimately emerges from the film is that elementary schooling encompasses far more than gleaning or retaining facts. Particularly when students of different backgrounds discuss attitudes toward being observant in a religion class, the film suggests that school is about learning how to be with others and oneself, to gain confidence, communicate, learn to lose, and be compassionate.

Elementary may not be as obviously urgent as Simon’s previous documentary, Our Body (2023), in which she highlighted women’s reproductive care, including abortion. But it brings up the secondary meaning of its title, reminding viewers that it is elemental to commit to constructing the kind of society we wish to have, in which discussion, cooperation, and care, can flourish.

Cannes Film Festival continues at various venues around Cannes, France, through May 25.

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