CANNES, France (Reuters) - A young man teaches music to a group of Iranian children, an Aboriginal boy in central Australia sniffs glue, a bored group of soldiers hang about smoking until a busload of prisoners arrives to be shot.
Alongside the glamour of the red carpet and avant garde experimentation, social realist cinema has had a special place at the Cannes film festival ever since Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist classic “Rome Open City” was shown in 1946.
Several pictures this year maintain the tradition and take an unsparing look at the contemporary world.
“No one Knows about Persian Cats” by Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi, is one of the more talked-about entries in the “Un Certain Regard” section.
Described as “documentary-fiction,” the film looks at the underground music scene to illustrate some of the wider restrictions in contemporary Iranian society.
“The music movement is a huge thing and at the same time, music is forbidden in Iran; particularly women singing,” Ghobadi told Reuters.
“I like music, and I like underground music. That’s why I did it. I wanted to give a picture of what is happening in music,” he said.
Ghobadi could risk imprisonment by presenting the film but he brushed aside any concerns about how the authorities at home might react.
“I’ve got to the stage where I am not worried about anything. Nothing actually matters to me apart from what I‘m doing so nothing stops me from getting on with my career.”
Even where imprisonment is not a danger, treating sensitive social issues imposes a special responsibility on a filmmaker, believes Australian director Warwick Thornton, who is showing “Samson and Delilah” at Cannes.
“When I wrote the script, I didn’t put anything in that I had not seen in my own life, either witnessed or having been done to me,” he said.
The film highlights the desperate state of many Aboriginal communities, where glue-sniffing, alcohol abuse and violence are common, although it ends on a more hopeful note.
“To write from that place, no one can argue with me because I have personally seen it,” Thornton said. “You have to be that strong when you’re working with your own community.”
Among the other films treating social issues, “The Petition,” which deals with local government abuse in China, shows later in the week.
Vladimir Perisic, whose film “Ordinary People” paints a shockingly everyday picture of soldiers routinely executing prisoners in the war in former Yugoslavia, said cinema was an important means of portraying contemporary reality.
“The representation of this war came from the media. There was a lot of misrepresentation, a lot of misinformation by all sides,” he said.
Shot with long, flat takes and minimal editing, Perisic’s film seeks to get beyond war film cliches but the Serbian-born director said there were limits to what films could achieve.
“I think there is a therapeutic element to art but I don’t believe art can solve all questions, especially an extreme trauma that lasted 10 years,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mike Davidson, Dina Selim and Rob Lang