Eva Husson’s “Girls of the Sun” remains a rarity in cinema for being a story centered on women in combat. In a year of historic battles over the status quo in gender and power relations, the story gains a special resonance.
“At such an important moment in history for women — a paradigm shift — I was very surprised that nothing had been done on this level before,” Ms. Husson said of the film, which will have its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. “As a woman, I’ve been quite angry over the past year.”
In “Girls of the Sun,” a former lawyer (Golshifteh Farahani) joins a battalion of women in Kurdistan after escaping enslavement by extremists. She becomes a commander and recounts her experiences to a war reporter (Emmanuelle Bercot). The resulting drama was compared with “Black Panther” by Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s director, for revamping traditional points of view.
“My experience is a lot of women have lived through very traumatic things, but most of them are extremely strong and resilient and are hard-core survivors,” Ms. Husson said. “These stories are truly powerful to other women, and I felt they are not told enough.”
Ms. Husson is one of the three female directors in the 21-film competition at Cannes, which runs through May 19. In the past, the festival has drawn criticism for gender imbalances in its lineup. And this year, other urgent political struggles also enter the spotlight.
If anything could define its 71st edition — which is being held on the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 protests in France against President Charles de Gaulle’s government, when the festival shut down after days of sit-ins — it is the impossibility of compartmentalizing movies during turbulent times.
The 2018 competition, for example, also has the latest film from Iran’s Jafar Panahi, “Three Faces.” Yet for years, Mr. Panahi has been confined in his home country by the Iranian government. He has a Russian counterpart in Kirill Serebrennikov, director of “Leto,” a competition film about rock ’n’ roll in Russia during the 1980s. Mr. Serebrennikov, an acclaimed theater director, has been under house arrest in Moscow.
Even in the weeks since the announcement of this year’s lineup, fresh political dramas emerged. Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rafiki (Friend)” was banned in her home country, Kenya. The film, the first Kenyan selection in Cannes history, portrays a romance between two young women, taboo and illegal in that country.
“As much as it’s a great, great honor to have a film acknowledged in Cannes, you want the people you made it for to be able to see it,” Ms. Kahiu said in an interview hours after the Kenyan Film Certification Board announced the ban.
For directors like Ms. Kahiu, Cannes serves as a home for exiled films. More generally, however, the festival remains a dedicated showcase for the art of cinema, whether politically targeted or not. It is an unabashedly big stage in an age of small screens.
In the auteurist tradition of Cannes, that means spotlighting filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard (“The Image Book”), Alice Rohrwacher (“Happy as Lazzaro”), Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”), Lee Chang-dong (“Burning”), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“The Wild Pear Tree”) and Jia Zhangke (“Ash Is the Purest White”). Stars, of course, don’t hurt; Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem headline the festival opener, Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows.”
The anticipation for such titles remains high, and in an overwhelming news media atmosphere, Cannes works to preserve the impact of its world premieres. A policy change coordinates the timing of press screenings so they do not precede and upstage red carpet galas. The move seems to ensure that no filmmaker or actor has to read a negative advance review (or tweet). It also feeds the sense of mystique and exclusivity that the festival thrives on.
That might sound a bit like pandering to producers and publicists looking to manage the first impressions of their films. But the shift could also have fans among filmmakers who like to preserve some mystery about their work.
“Films are the result of alchemy, and revealing the ingredients even before the experiment may prove counterproductive,” Ms. Rohrwacher wrote in an email about her “Happy as Lazzaro,” a tale of a bucolic innocent who leaves his world “It’s like inviting friends for a pasta: Real friends don’t ask ‘what pasta? what sauce?.’ ”
Ms. Rohrwacher screened “The Wonders” in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section in 2014. The latest class of Un Certain Regard features other names to follow, such as Bi Gan (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”); Ulrich Köhler (“In My Room”); and, among several first-time filmmakers, Vanessa Filho (“Angel Face”).
The section reflects efforts by the festival to address the gender imbalance among its directors. Nearly half the section’s films were directed by women. The actor-filmmaker Nandita Das of India, a Cannes regular and two-time jury member, is one of them.
In “Manto,” which Ms. Das also wrote, she tells the story of the Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto, a witty and relentless critic of India’s Partition.
Ms. Das views cinema and politics as going hand in hand. “For me, films have always been a means to an end. I make no bones in admitting that what I want to convey through the film decides the form that I choose to adopt,” she wrote in an email.
The stories told by Ms. Das and Ms. Husson dovetail with a larger sense that Cannes is acknowledging a changing world. The 2018 juries feature two female heads this year (Cate Blanchett and Ursula Meier), and the festival has announced efforts to gain parity in its administrative staff.
There are further announcements promised at a conference that will convene representatives of Time’s Up, 5050 x 2020 and similar international organizations.
In this climate, the role of Cannes in defining film history becomes particularly acute. That gives new significance to its Cannes Classics section, ordinarily a sedate redoubt of restorations and cinephiliac documentaries. One of this year’s selections, the documentary “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” shines a light on an early French filmmaker, who in recent years has attracted new attention for her pioneering work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Far from languishing in obscurity, this historical film has a celebrity narrator: Jodie Foster, who was also surprised to learn about Ms. Guy-Blaché. “I thought, how is it possible that I’ve never heard her? She was a writer, producer, studio head, with 1,000 films under her belt,” Ms. Foster, a Cannes veteran and multihyphenate, wrote in an email.
“Be Natural” will be screened in the annual assortment of out-of-competition films. There are midnight selections (such as Ramin Bahrani’s “Fahrenheit 451”) and special screenings ranging from a vintage 50th-anniversary presentation of “2001: A Space Odyssey” to a Wim Wenders documentary about Pope Francis.
The festival also features the usual complement of enfants terribles and causes célèbres. Yes, we see you, Lars Von Trier (“The House That Jack Built”), back after being banned. And welcome back — probably — Terry Gilliam, with “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which has been the target of legal threats by a producer.
But this year, it seems unlikely that Cannes will remain quite the same bubble of art, glamour and gossipy intrigue that attendees have known. Early signals suggest that the festival is acknowledging that cinema, like the world, has entered a period of change. Everybody knows (to borrow the opening film’s title), and, it seems, so does Cannes.