Moroccan sex strike film closes Cannes competition

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Cannes film festival screenings reached their climax Saturday with a Romanian director's story of women in a parched Moroccan village who go on "love strike" to force their menfolk to bring water.

The last of 20 films vying for the Palme d'Or, Radu Mihaileanu's "The Source" is an allegory of modern ills including the emotional drought in people's lives as well as an attempt to dispel cliches about women and Islam.

The script is based on a 2001 news story about women in a Turkish village who stopped the gruelling and dangerous task of fetching water from a hilltop spring and went on sex strike to get the men to have the water piped down.

Beautifully shot amid the arid mountains of Morocco, the film tries to tackle an array of issues, from the right to education to corrupt state-financed development and the creeping power of Islamic fundamentalism.

The cast, of either Maghreb or Palestinian origin, had to learn the Moroccan dialect for the film which is entirely in Arabic -- something Mihaileanu insisted on when he moved from being the film's producer to its director.

"This is a story with universal echo, this fight, this light, this beauty of women that relishes going against the grain of all the cliches the world has about Arabs and the Muslim religion," Mihaileanu said after the screening.

Leila Bekhti, the Frenchwoman of North African origin who plays the film's star and strike instigator Leila, stressed that the film was about people communicating and helping each other.

"This film is an ode to love, it's about altruism and listening to each other," said Bekhti. "This is the big problem in the world, we don't hear each other any more, we don't see each other. It's not about women against men."

Leila battles on all fronts, against the men who spend their days drinking tea in a cafe, against women who say they can't resist their men, and against the village's religious authority, the imam.

Her schoolteacher husband Sami, played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, has taught her to read and write, and encourages her to read the heady eroticism of "1,001 Nights" for pleasure and the Koran to prepare to argue with the imam.

Shot last year before revolts erupted around the Arab world, Mihaileanu said his film was also trying to capture "the Islamic enlightenment" of returning to the religion's source.

"Unfortunately it's little known that in the Koran and in the Islamic religion there's an enormous amount of women's rights," he said.

"It's some men who interpret the Koran and the Hadith (sayings of the prophet) who try to hide them to keep power for men."

"The Islamic enlightenment is about returning to its origins, returning to the source of texts, where women have a real place in the Islamic religion."

Following the screening late Friday of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia", the Cannes jury headed by Robert De Niro can now retire to make their difficult choices before announcing winners on Sunday.

While critics have hailed the calibre of films in this year's competition and of the stars walking the red carpet, the world's biggest film fest has been overshadowed by a furore over Danish director Lars von Trier.

The provocative Dane was excluded from the festival after comments he made to journalists about understanding Adolf Hitler although his film "Melancholia" remains in the race for the festival's top prize.

"Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" was, at two hours and 37 minutes, the longest feature vying for the Palme d'Or -- and some thought the most tedious with its slow-moving plot built around a murder deep in the rural interior of Turkey.

Ceylan took best-director honours at Cannes for "Three Monkeys" in 2008, and the sweeping wide-screen visuals in "Anatolia" echoed his background as a still photographer.

© 2011 AFP

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