Saturday, the 25th of May

Talking points

Painting the town saffron. PHOTO: The Guardian
  1. Narendra Modi vowed an 'inclusive' India after a landslide victory 
  2. Scientists traced severe ozone-depleting emissions to China
  3. Austria's far-right party in government collapsed in disgrace
  4. Omani author Jokha Alharthi won a historic Man Booker prize
  5. Samsung's founding family faced the prospect of a $7b estate tax bill
  6. The U.S. charged Julian Assange under the Espionage Act
  7. Theresa May announced her resignation after her latest Brexit plan failed
  8. Three-time world champion Niki Lauda, the 'heart of F1', died aged 70
  9. Democrats wavered on impeaching Trump as a public spat worsened
  10. Europeans went to the polls in bloc-wide parliamentary elections

Deep Dive

Sand Van Roy did not come to Cannes to make friends. PHOTO: Variety

The French Riviera is awash with more socialites than usual this week. Yes, it's the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. There's been constant jostling over who is allowed in (sorry, Netflix), debate over chequered legacies and a breathless celebration of auteurs. But there's been something else amongst the camera flashes and champagne receptions: a clear-eyed critique of the role Cannes plays in the age of #MeToo.

Casting about for equality 

There is an outsized focus on women at Cannes this year, and for good reason. It is the world's premier screening event for an industry compromised by glaring gender inequities, sexual abuse and an old boys' club mentality. Which is not to say that Cannes, at an institutional level, isn't making an effort to level the playing field. Last year the festival launched its 50/50 program to ensure that there would be gender parity among the top roles at the festival by 2020. And events like the Kering Women in Motion Honor Award are serviceable examples of amplifying womens' voices.

But in the absence of quotas, progress has been slow. Festival director Thierry Fremaux himself once argued that Cannes was the end point of the film making process and thus a simple reflection of the state (read: gender split) of the industry. But as his many critics have pointed out over the years: film schools have recorded gender parity in entrances for years – Cannes is allowing itself to lag. For instance, this year just four women's films stood among the 21 entries for the coveted Palme D'Or. And so far only one woman has ever won the top prize (Jane Campion in 1993 with 'The Piano').

Red carpet politics

The good news is that the gender debate wasn't restricted merely to catered events held behind closed doors. The Dutch actress Sand Van Roy walked the red carpet earlier in the week sporting a large temporary tattoo that read "Stop Violence Against Women". That has been an oft-repeated message on the international film circuit since the #MeToo movement first gathered steam, but it certainly hasn't lost any currency.

Van Roy sued the prolific French director Luc Besson for rape last year but the case was dropped over a lack of evidence. It was certainly not the first accusation against Besson, whose films regularly feature impressionable or sexualised young women locked in orbit with older men (Léon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, etc). Even as the Harvey Weinstein case closes – with a rumoured $44m payout to his victims this week – the debate rolls on in France.

There were moments of friction elsewhere too: an Argentine film crew carried green banners in support of Argentinian activists who've fought tooth and nail for the legalisation of abortion. It's good to see the red carpet being used for something other than an ephemeral fashion show. And a lifetime achievement award for Alain Delon did not pass without sharp criticism of the actor's comments about women, homosexuality and violence.

Standing ovations

Bong Joon-ho was lauded for five straight minutes during the credits of his darkly comedic 'Parasite'. Quentin Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time In Hollywood' for six. Bong is an up-and-coming Korean director who rose to fame after a backlash against his first film 'Okja' being released directly to Netflix. And Tarantino of course is a doyen of Hollywood. Both have produced films that are – from all reports – masterpieces. And over the course of the festival they have captured the lion's share of media attention. And herein lies the challenge. One of the key problems faced by the film industry is not just the gender imbalances within the industry itself, but also the persistent problem of how the industry is covered in the broader media.

The European Union has revealed fascinating data on how men dominate the field of film criticism. Women author just over a third of the film reviews in France, despite making up half the industry. Furthermore those female journalists who do write reviews usually do so for general interest magazines rather than the more lofty arts and film criticism publications. So media coverage can tend to portray the festival through a rather testosterone-tinted lens. And from a distance it may look like Cannes is just a celebration of Quentin Tarantino's unique brand of ultra-violent humour. 

But let's not finish on such a sour note. Much needs to change, and it is, and it will. But in the meantime, and despite some retrograde views (see: Abdellatif Kechiche's unwaveringly weird male gaze in 'Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo'), the women are landing some powerful counterpunches too (see: Taiwanese actress Wu Ke-xi starring in a film that she wrote the screenplay for, 'Nina Wu').


Riot police fire teargas into crowds. PHOTO: EPA

Jakarta erupts 

Indonesia's presidential election was hard-fought but largely peaceful. It's no secret that the challenger Prabowo Subianto courted conservative and militant elements of Indonesia's religious establishment even as Joko Widodo sought to temper rising religious and ethnic friction. It was officially confirmed this week that Jokowi had won; a result that seemed to point to the electorate's embrace of more inclusive politics. Which is precisely why the level of violence took many by surprise.

Prabowo's supporters took to the streets with vengeance on Tuesday and Wednesday night, releasing the pent-up tension of a month-long vote count and the pain of defeat. Their leader refused to concede, claiming without proof that there were massive irregularities at the ballot. What followed was a two-day riot that left eight dead, and perhaps as many as 700 injured. Rocks, fireworks, molotov cocktails, rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters criss-crossed the Jakarta sky in running street battles. Crowds torched buses and set upon journalists. At least three people were arrested with firearms in their possession. Worryingly, the violence was not limited to political or religious lines: rioters also chanted anti-Chinese slogans.

Thankfully, the violence subsided later in the week, leaving authorities to start piecing together what had happened. Jakarta police have reported that hundreds of the arrested rioters carried envelopes full of money, and some have suggested the Islamist group Garis (which furnished ISIS with fighters some years ago) are instigating and paying for the demonstrations. This has yet to be confirmed, though it is not difficult to imagine given that Prabowo's campaign tacitly supported some of the country's most regressive religious organisations. It cannot be ignored that the torrent of fake news in Indonesia has also contributed to the violence.
Diego Garcia Atoll in the Chagos Islands. PHOTO: AFP

Washing away imperial footprints

In 1965 Mauritians were in the midst of heady independence negotiations with their British colonial masters. It was agreed that Mauritius would hand over the far-flung Chagos Islands to Britain in exchange for self-rule over the rest of the archipelago. Britain got its way, and so created the British Indian Ocean Territory on a series of islands about 500km south of the Maldives. The local Chagossian people were expelled from the atoll of Diego Garcia to make way for a huge joint British-American airbase. And over half a century this base has grown into one of the most important airfields projecting American power in the southern hemisphere.

In recent years the Chagos Islands gained notoriety for hosting a CIA torture prison, but for the most part the base has existed beyond the imagination of people in the West. But the same cannot be said for the people in Mauritius. This week the United Nations voted 116 to 6 in favour of returning the Chagos Islands to their original inhabitants. The vote (coupled with an earlier International Court of Justice opinion) is a sharp rebuke to the old orthodoxy of justifying colonial possessions by highlighting their military significance. In 2019, to most members of the United Nations, this is no longer reason enough.

And if you think Chagos sounds like a legal disaster for both Britain and America, it pales in comparison to the looming environmental catastrophe in the Marshall Islands. Repeated American nuclear and hydrogen bomb tests were a regular occurrence in the second half of the 20th century. One in particular, codenamed Castle Bravo, was the first test of a thermonuclear bomb on the Bikini Atoll in 1954. The blast was three times larger than expected; and rained radioactive material down upon hundreds of Pacific Islands. A huge operation was undertaken to dig up irradiated soil from the affected lands; in total 73,000 cubic metres of the stuff was buried under a giant concrete dome on Runit Island. Now rising sea levels mean that water is likely seeping in and out of the unsealed nuclear storage facility. 

The Best of Times


Mother knows best 

Bonobo societies share an extraordinary and unique trait: they are matriarchies. As such they are more peaceful and less individualistic than male-dominated higher ape societies (humans, take note). But there is one area where female bonobos enter into fierce competition: encouraging their sons' sex lives. A ground-breaking and frankly hilarious study has shown that juvenile males are three times more likely to find a mating partner if mum is around to groom them and help them select a suitable candidate. These assertive mothers have even been observed getting into tangles with other rival males.

Grandma Ca 

This story may well have been lifted from the script of the charming Bill Forsyth film 'Local Hero' (antipodean readers: think 'The Castle'). In Vietnam a string of coal plants is being built to meet the soaring electricity needs of a buoyant economy. But in the scenic Van Phong Bay one slated project – funded by Japan – has been delayed by a 99-year-old grandmother Pham Thi Ca. The frail and partially blind nonagenarian has steadfastly refused to hand over her family's ancestral farm land. The authorities tried financial inducements and even demolished her house, but Grandma Ca isn't budging. As she says, "My house is here, my land is here, so I will be buried here". She is a local hero.

The Worst of Times

Trump to dispense with the rules of war. PHOTO: Getty Images

Evacuating the moral high ground

U.S. President Donald Trump is using his power to pardon criminals in a none-too-subtle political and transactional manner. Some of the criminals have been allies (like Sheriff Joe Arpaio) while others are sycophants (such as Conrad Black and Dinesh D'Souza). To this list we can now add war criminals.

Former Lieutenant Michael Behenna has already received his pardon for having shot dead an unarmed and naked Iraqi. Trump has received a list of high-profile war convictions from Iraq and Afghanistan. They include a Navy SEAL who shot unarmed civilians and stabbed to death an unarmed, subdued and wounded prisoner. An Army Major who escorted an unarmed Afghani off base and murdered him. And an ex-Blackwater security guard who was responsible for the 2007 Fallujah massacre.

Trump intends to announce the pardons on Memorial Day, a key day of commemoration for America's armed forces. But the plan has drawn the disgust and ire of the Pentagon. Senior officers have strongly advised the White House to not pardon war criminals, for reasons that are too blindingly obvious to need spelling out.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

"In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions...

Kenya's Binyavanga Wainaina in his searingly ironic essay How to write about Africa. He died this week aged 48. Wainaina was an anti-colonial writer in a colonised country, a gay man in a society that rejected homosexuality and a black voice in a world of white literary criticism. Read him.

 Headlines of the week

Couple leave newborn baby in taxi on way home from hospital

Evening Standard

Chinese passenger tries to smash high-speed train window to 'get some air'

South China Morning Post

Special mention

Craig Wright. The Australian computer scientist has been the subject of significant debate since telling the world that he invented Bitcoin under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The problem is that few people believe him. However, this week his claim got a boost when the U.S. Copyright Office awarded him registrations (note: not a copyright) for Bitcoin's early code. We're not sure whether he's living by the aphorism "fake it til you make it" or not. Either way: good for Craig.

Some choice long-reads

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you've ever wondered why younger generations spend all their time on YouTube and Twitch, you are not alone. But if you've ever fallen prey to assuming that they exist outside the 'real' world of politics and society: think again. In a one-hour rant this German YouTuber has done more damage to Angela Merkel's party than most of her political opponents could muster in years. Pay attention to what the youth are saying in the spaces they inhabit – or get left behind.

Tom Wharton