CANNES, FRANCE — Twelve months after Michael Moore scooped Cannes' top award with "Fahrenheit 9/11," - a scathing indictment of the Bush adminstration's handling of the war in Iraq - a very different movie director screened a very different view of the war at the world's premier cinematic gathering.
Director Hiner Saleem did not win the Golden Palm this year. But his film "Kilometre Zero" created a good deal of buzz at the competition, which closed on Saturday, not least because of its final scene.
"We're free! We're free!" two Iraqi Kurdish exiles shout exultantly as they hear the news of Saddam Hussein's overthrow on April 9, 2003. "We're free! We're free!"
That joyous reaction to the invasion of Iraq is not likely to go down well with the European audiences who idolized Mr. Moore. But Mr. Saleem, an Iraqi Kurd, is equally worried about being adopted as a standard-bearer by the war's supporters.
"My film is not the opposite of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' because I don't judge George Bush or the United States," Saleem says. " I judge Saddam Hussein and I simply say he was a monster."
As the primary victims of Mr. Hussein's brutality, subjected to poison gas and mass executions, "we Kurds would have been happy if the French or the Swedes had liberated us," he adds. "But it was the Americans who came. For us, the result is positive."
In fact, the controversial ending was tacked on to the original screenplay to give the film more currency, for fear that foreign audiences might find the central story line too distant. Most of the film - about a young Kurdish man press-ganged into Iraq's war with Iran in 1988 - explores the suffering and humiliation that the Kurds experienced at the government's hands.
The movie follows Ako from his village in the Kurdish mountains to the front line near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, and then back again when he is assigned to escort home the corpse of a fallen comrade.
Kilometre Zero's costar is Ako's Arab driver, and much of the tension in the film derives from the inimical tension in the car between Arab and Kurd as the two men drive the length of Iraq with a flag-draped coffin on the roof.
Also starring, though, is Saddam Hussein, a constant presence in posters and adulatory graffiti and, surreally, in the shape of a massive sculpture on a flat-bed truck that seems to haunt Ako throughout his journey.
That sculpture proved a problem for Saleem , who returned from 25 years of European exile to shoot the film in Iraqi Kurdistan. "I couldn't find a Kurdish sculptor who would make me a Saddam for any price," he recalls. "So I found an Arab sculptor who said he'd been doing Saddams all his life and could do one with his eyes shut."
Sameer set him up in the Kurdish city of Arbil and the sculptor began working on his commission in the garden. But after a while the neighbors could see what was happening over the wall. The next thing Saleem knew, the sculptor was ringing him from jail. "I had to call some pretty important people to get him out," the director laughs. "And I had to beg them: 'Give me my Saddam back.' "
Making a film in Iraqi Kurdistan was a challenge from the start: It took Saleem quite a while to find a camera, he had to bring all his technicians from France, and he didn't have the normal special-effects equipment a filmmaker uses. That means that in the battle scenes all the explosions are genuine.
"The Kurdish army gave me 200 pounds of TNT," Saleem recalls. "All the explosions are real, all the bullets were real. That meant I had to do all of those scenes in one take."
The resulting film met with mixed reviews at Cannes. The French critics were lukewarm, some wondering how the movie made it onto the select list of 20 films in competition. Though British and American critics were kinder, the Arab press has been "aggressive," Saleem says.
Even the US-funded Arab satellite TV channel, Al Hurra, which might have been expected to celebrate the first-ever Iraqi entry at Cannes, ran a disapproving story.
"When it comes to Kurds, their nationalism comes to the surface," Saleem sighs. Though his does too, of course: He doesn't regard his film as an Iraqi one, nor himself as an Iraqi. Both, he insists, are Kurdish and only Kurdish.
Partitioned between Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, Kurdistan is home to 26 million Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country, and the Kurds' voice has often been drowned out in the din of others' national interests.
Kilometre Zero's prominence at Cannes, says Saleem "gives Kurdish cinema a passport to the world. That is fantastic."
"The antiwar people accuse Kilometre Zero of being pro-Bush, and I'm afraid the other side will just say 'Look, we told you so.' We are meant to think either like the Europeans or like the Americans," Saleem complains. "Well, I want to think like a Kurd."
GOLDEN PALM - "L'Enfant" - a gritty tale of a petty thief who sells his newborn son to raise cash then tries to get him back. Directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
GRAND PRIX - "Broken Flowers" - a drama about an aging bachelor in search of his son. Directed by American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, starring Bill Murray and Sharon Stone.
BEST ACTRESS - Israeli Hanna Laslo for her role as a gabby cabdriver in "Free Zone," a road-trip tale through the Middle East. By Israeli director Amos Gitai.
BEST ACTOR - Tommy Lee Jones, American actor in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." It's about a Texas ranch hand who forces his best friend's killer to dig up the body and haul it for reburial in Mexico.
BEST DIRECTOR - Austrian Michael Haneke for "Cache," a disturbing story of coming to terms with the past, both personal and national.
BEST SCREENPLAY - "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," by Mexican Guillermo Arriaga.
JURY PRIZE - "Shanghai Dreams" - a love story among factory workers in the 1960s. By Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai.
Source: Reuters, Associated Press