Controversial Films Shine at Cannes

"One way or another, when we select the Palme d'Or winner, I think we are going to feel very confident that the film-maker who made the film is very aware of the times in which he or she lives." So says Sean Penn, who is the president of the jury at the Cannes film festival this year — but he is not setting a new trend.

Cannes has always been a platform for brave directors to win public attention. Leaving behind the glamour and the glittering stars, the red carpet this year is welcoming and supporting some of the most politically and socially aware movies — stories that the world mostly forgets or refuses to acknowledge.

The job of a penniless volunteer in a disaster zone, the Mafia that handles the biggest underworld economy in Italy, forgotten massacres, child soldiers and controversial, political prisoners dying on hunger strike, are just some of the untold stories that have garnered global attention thanks to this festival.


In the "Third Wave," director Alison Thompson and her partner Oscar Gubernati left New York with little money to help the victims of the 2004 tsunami.

They dug toilets, collected corpses, played with children, built shelters, found food, restarted the school and tried to restore morale. The movie recalls the work of those who went there to help with no support other than their determination to make a difference.

Sean Penn has used his clout as president of the jury to promote the "Third Wave." "In lieu of the fact that governments don't seem to be able to help, this film gives an indication of how you can help yourself." His call has been heard.

U2 Frontman Bono, filmmaker Michael Moore and actresses Natalie Portman and Faye Dunaway showed up at the movie premiere of this low budget documentary in a show of support.

Another celebrity voicing a cause is Madonna. Not to be outdone by her ex husband, she's showing a film about Malawi, the country where her adopted boy, David, comes from.

The Material Girl produced and narrated "I Am Because We Are," which shows the devastating impact of AIDS and poverty in this African country.

But while such acts of solidarity may appear honorable in the celebrity realm they seem slightly faded in comparison to someone risking their life to get across a message.

Roberto Saviano has been condemned to death by the Italian Mafia, for "Gomorrah," his book and subsequent film about the Camorra, the branch of the Italian mafia based in Naples, southern Italy.

Following a few death threats and mute telephone calls the 28-year-old writer has been put under escort protection and cannot live in Naples anymore. Whenever he goes back he has to be accompanied by his bodyguards.

He has recently been given added protection after one of the defendants in a trial told him, "Remember me to Father Peppino."

Father Peppino Diana was an anti-mafia parish priest murdered in his own church in 1994.

In the film Saviano and the makers of the movie want to draw the world's attention to the Camorra's financial wealth and to its growing grip on a worldwide business.

"We are talking about an economy that makes 150 billion euros in Italy alone."

He is also disturbed by the amount of blood on the Camorra's hands. "The organized crime group has killed more people than in the Gaza strip," Saviano said at a press conference.

From gangland warfare to arms- and drug-trafficking, and even the mishandling of toxic waste for profit, the film paints a terrifying portrait of a crime syndicate that will stop at nothing, not even national borders. Erfan Rachid, an Iraqi journalist in Cannes admits the world he saw described in "Gomorrah." "It's a reality I know very well, it's Iraq.''

It wouldn't be the first time that the Camorra has threatened to get rid of those who speak too much. Journalist Giancarlo Siani was only 26 years old when he was killed by mobsters because he had written about their illegal business.

The security officials at the Cannes Film Festival take the threats against Saviano's life seriously.

At the "Gomorrah" press conference no one was allowed to stand up, not even the photographers who were obliged to sit down behind. Outside the room huge bodyguards screened any moving object or person approaching the doors.

And the red carpet saw the whole movie crew being applauded but Saviano was not allowed to attend. He entered the Theatre Grand Lumiere, where the film is officially screened, from a secondary entrance.

Nevertheless, even though Saviano has not himself enjoyed the limelight, his film has come to the attention of many, and the Camorra's activities are no longer so secret as before.