Living On

Armen is heavily missed. His absence left a hole in independent observation of the political and economic risk situation in Latin America. Beyond the merely analytical though his work was wide-ranging from Armenian philanthropy and social observation of Latin and European lifestyles through to being a "fly on the wall" at the Cannes Film Festival every year and reporting back on the more exotic foibles of the international jet-set.

We miss his wit, his sense of history and his bon mots (in French, Armenian and, even, Turkish). Armen was very much a product of the Levant but then, like so many other Levantines, converted to an international stage where they offer insight into all around them. This record tries to humbly accumulate his collected writings for public consumption so they can be preserved and appreciated for the urgency of the moment in which they were written to the timelessness of the observations.

How best to categorise the uncategorisable? Maybe Armen could be described as an Armenian/Anglo/Franco Samuel Pepys for our times.....

It is ironic that ultimately it was the very mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the Chilean "system", which he documented so thoroughly, that brought about his tragic end.

Friday, May 20, 2011

FRANCE’S SECRET DIPLOMATIC WEAPON …Is none other than the Cannes film festival

Fourteen consecutive years of attending the Cannes film festival as a fully accredited journalist is an eye opener, not just on the international film industry. As this was not my real professional activity (though I am satisfied that I performed it well), I would benefit from considering the wider picture as an international analyst.

A series of events over the years, some of which will be detailed below, caught my attention. Though there is no doubt that the festival is primarily a cinema showcase, it is used regularly by the French authorities to score diplomatic points, taking political postures, and bear influence on world opinion with the smokescreen of the film industry.

METHODOLOGY First of all (and it would require a separate paper to detail in full), the Cannes Festival has a rigid and bureaucratic protocole and structure which are a mix between Louis XIV’s court at Versailles and the Chinese Communist Party. The people who run it, from CEO down even to the security apparatus, remained unchanged throughout the years I was present. Decisions are taken by half a handful of people at the top. You are subjected to strict behaviour, and if you step out of line, depending on the gravity of the offence, you are either called-in for a severe talk, or just expelled in perpetuity. Each year, you have to prove that when you attended last year, you actually wrote about it rather than spend your time on the beach. Still, if you are interested in the movie world and what comes with it, it is a unique experience.

However, the festival is sponsored by the French foreign ministry, and
that is where the discreet diplomat posturing comes in. Sometimes, the
“facilities” are also lent to friendly foreign countries who have agendas
of their own. It is an ideal place for putting across political points
linked to international events. Over 4,000 journalists from all over the
world are present, and not only are they not international affairs
experts, but they are avid to be fed with anything original. This makes
Cannes the third most covered event in the world after the Olympics and
the World Cup, except the the latter take place every 4 years, whereas the
festival is annual.

The system is well known to intelligence services and government image
building departments. Plant a story in a place remote from the event, and
wait for it to be picked up by the mainstream media. Even papers with no
personal correspondens give high coverage to Cannes, so the potential is
unlimited. We have the recent example of the London International
Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), supposedly independent but stuffed
with personnel from British and US intelligence services, publishing
negative reports about Ecuador’s president Correa, and the Peruvian
candidate Ollanta Humala (it seems talking on the phone to Chávez is now
an international criminal offence). The IISS, and I can vouch personally,
has no historical expertise on Latin America. The method even has a French
name: “intox”, short for intoxication (of the mind).

The practical way the positioning is made on specific issues depends on
the circumstances. If it is a matter which started well before the
programming is finalised (around mid-April), it is incorporated into the
official programme. On the other hand, if it is, to quote CNN, a “breaking
story” , then schedules are modified to add it on. This causes problems
not just for the organisers, who may find that there are no screens
available, but particularly for the journalists who are already facing
16-hour working days, and even then unable to cover everything they want.

THE CASE OF VICTOR LITVINENKO Let us start with the most blatant case,
though it is one where Cannes lent its facilities to “friendly
governments”. In late 2006, a Russian journalist, apparently with links
to the FSB (ex-KGB), but who had fallen out with them, died from a
difficult to identify radiation poisoning in London. The British
authorities accused the FSB of having engineered his death. Whatever the
case may be, in the middle of the May 2007 festival, we are suddenly told
that a documentary on his demise would be projected as part of the
festival, followed by a press conference attended by Litvinenko’s widow.
The film was obviously one-sided, aiming to prove the British theory, as
was, predictably, the press conference. The event, was not heavily
attended, probably due to the fact that it was not a hot story any more,
and the difficulty of fitting it in if you had an interview with Brad Pitt
scheduled at the same time (such things, if you can get them at all, take
three days of formalities and pleading with press agents, the most
obnoxious and arrogant bunch of tarts I have ever come across, who torture
journalists during the day, party all night and as a result are
unreachable until lunch time). Connasses!

Back to the Litvinenko event, and the funniest part. As we went out of the
room, a number of journalists who had not been present were waiting to
interview those of us who had. I myself gave three interviews in French,
Arabic and English. The English TV crew caught my attention. They were
over-eager, with short-cut hair, and a camera on which there were three
letters that, after living 20 years in Britain, I did not recognise as
belonging to any known channel. They grabbed me first, and asked me what
was my opinion of the Litvinenko case after this. I told them that I had
an open mind, which did not please them very much. They were obviously an
intelligence service “channel” (MI6-TV?). Their presence could not have
been possible without official complicity, if you know how hard it is to
get a journalist badge for Cannes.

week, where as some readers will know, the controversial Danish director
Lars von Trier was declared “persona non grata” by the festival
organisers, though he had a film in competition. This unprecedented
situation was due to his ramblings at his film’s press conference, where
he tried to say that he had some sympathy for Hitler as a person, and
after thinking he himself was a Jew, found out that he was a German,
therefore a Nazi. The sayings, however rambling, were taken out of
context, as he never said he agreed with the Holocaust or denied it, nor
proferred anything anti-Semitic (contrary to the Dior designer John
Galliano some months ago).

We live now in a world where you can insult the Arabs burn Korans, carry
out extra-judicial assassinations, deny the Armenian Genocide (as did
the Swedish Prime Minister who was in Santiago this week, and who when his
parliament passed a resolution recognising the plight of the Armenians,
sent a letter of apology to the Turkish government). However, it is
forbidden to criticise the State of Israel, nor any Jewish person or
institution, or even upset them, without at least being branded an
anti-Semite, losing your job, or even ending up in jail.. Voltaire was
certainly absent from this year’s film festival.

Now Lars von Trier is a clown, not a very common trait in Scandinavia, but
to use an untranslatable Spanish expression, a “tonto grave”. He came to
fame by founding the Dogma school of film-making, and after acquiring a
number of followers, suddenly dropped it. He pretends to be a Communist,
but lives like a bourgeois. The first time one of his films was selected
for the festival, and contrary to protocole, he said he would not be
attending. The organisers pleaded with him to change his mind, and he
finally ceded, driving all the way from Copenhagen because he has a fear
of flying. However, he imposed one condition: when going up the red
carpet, the music (which normally is something related to the film),
should be the Internationale. I can imagine the ensuing discussions, but
he got his way, and from the balcony of the press room, seeing all those
beautiful people going up the steps with von Trier raising his fist and
the Communist anthem playing, was rather surreal.

Within 24 hours, the festival authorities published a communiqué declaring
him “non grata”, and all the media concentrated on the fact that he said
he sometimes sympathised with Hitler. His film is unlikely to get any
prize, whatever its qualities. Would it have happened if he had said
instead that Muslims are promiscuous because they can hav up to four
wives? I doubt it. After all, it was in his country that a cartoonist got
away insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Would it have happened if instead of
him, it had been Jean-Luc Godard? Well, some years ago, there was a social
conflict in France involving temporary workers at artistic events (such as
Cannes..). Godard had a film at the festival. He came into the press
conference and said he was ceding his time to one of these workers, who
was shown in and delivered a political diatribe totally unrelated to the
film. Godard was not expelled, nor is ever Catherine Deneuve, who smokes
like a chimney at each press conference she attends, though it is strictly
against French law. Opening a Chilean parenthesis here, the death this
week of two more Carabineros in a car accident, because they were not
wearing seat belts as the law demands (FOR EVERYONE), is a ridiculous
waste. The police are supposed to enforce a regulation they themselves
they do not obey (most Carabineros drive around without belts). Too busy
clobbering pregnant women at peaceful sit-ins? Or protecting my psychopath

Now we know which side of the Middle Eastern conflict the sympathies of
the Sarkozy adminstration are to be found. This being said, and after
being criticised for their dilly-dallying in the early days of the Arab
protests, they had to appear to show sympathy to the cause. An “Arab day”
was added on to the festival, with Egypt as special guest. Now Egyptian
cinema has a long and honourable reputation, although contrary to the more
recent Iranian phenomenon, it has not circulated much outside its own
region. From time to time, a bone is thrown to Palestinians with the
screening of a rare film made by a Palestinian director. When that
happens, be sure that there are one or two Israeli films in the programme

The Kurds have had their moments. Of course, it is only the Iraqi Kurdsh
community, not the much bigger and equally discriminated minority in
Turkey. Never mind that the Kurds have never had a country or national
structure at any time in history. There is an exiled Kurdish director
living in Paris who made the first Kurdish feature film. He was invited.

I shall not even dwell, for lack of detailed knowledge, on the African
aspect of French dilomacy, in a region with traditional links to its
former colonial power.

THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE After Israel, one of the darlings of the French
authorities, under various governments, is Turkey. The festival is pleased
to oblige. In 2004, the film Ararat, one of the few ever made dealing with
the Armenian Genocide despite 96 years having passed, was premiered in
Cannes, under the direction of the respected Canadian-Armenian director,
Atom Egoyan.

The film was eventually screened in Cannes, but at what price. It did not
take part in the competition section in case it won something, and that
would have upset the Turks. An anti-Armenian demonstration was organised
next to the red carpet, an area normally under strict security. The
following year, “in compensation”, two Turkish films were selected to take
part in the festival, and the former personal yacht of Ataturk was moored
just off the Palais des Festivals with a Turkish flag nearly as big as the
boat itself. In 2007, Turkish Nobel Literature prize winner Orhan Pamuk
was a member of the festival jury, though I am not sure what they meant by
that considering that he is one of the few Turkish intellectuals to have
condemned the Armenian Genocide.

In my 14 years there, not a single movie from Armenia itself was selected
for the festival. Last year, there were two shorts, but they were from
Diaspora Armenians (Russia and Lebanon). On four occasions, I sponsored
the presence of journalists from Armenia (there were none otherwise). The
problems I had to get them an accreditation and a French visa were
tremendous. On two occasions, staff at the French consulate hinted that if
the girls accepted to be “friendly” or paid a bribe, it would make things

For the 60th anniversary of the festival, there was a get-together of
many famous directors to speak about the present state and future of
cinema. I rose and asked why was there so little Armenian presence at the
festival since independence ? Roman Polanski walked out saying “he was
wasting his time here with stupid questions” (sure man,. we do not want
any competition for the Pianist). Next day, I was called before the
headmistress (I mean the head of the press office), and told not to
misbehave again. However, lo comido y lo bailado..

PUNISHMENT “Punishing” misbehaving countries whose actions are not
appreciated by France is also a regular feature. Iran and China, if they
have jailed or put any restrictions on film makers, are publicly pilloried
by various manifestations of public support for them during press
conferences, etc..

Sometimes, the tables are turned and France, as represented by the
festival, is the subject of criticism and boycott, particularly from the
Americans if the government has failed to support or criticised any aspect
of US policy.

So as you can see, in France, cinema is politics by other means, not just
local “engagé” film-making, but a way of scoring international diplomatic

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