Undeterred by Libyan terrorism or radiation clouds over Europe, a 29-year-old black American named Spike Lee realized a dream this week by presenting his first full-length feature at the Cannes Film Festival. Filmed in 12 days on an initial budget of $20,000, "She's Gotta Have It" received a heartwarming reception from movie fans disillusioned by the fickleness of some of Hollywood's biggest names.
The world's most glamorous film festival opened Friday with bitter jokes about Rambo running away from phantom terrorists and French press headlines about "The Deserters of Cannes." But the well-publicized cancellations of Hollywood types like Sylvester Stallone have helped shift media attention toward unknown movie directors like Lee who are still struggling to crack a particularly ruthless and competitive industry.
"It's worked in our favor. A lot of the smaller films are getting a lot more press," said Lee, a New York University film school graduate who wrote hundreds of pleading letters to assemble money for his film.
In normal years, such "events" as a custard pie attack on French new wave film director Jean-Luc Godard or the latest Nagisa Oshima movie are the stuff of which Cannes is made.
This year, talk has also turned to the level of radiation in French lettuce and the threat of attack from Libyans. More than 600 uniformed police officers and three companies of riot police have been drafted to help defend "the bunker," as the glass-and-concrete festival building is aptly known. Security guards seem to outnumber the hopeful young actresses who flock to Cannes.
Short, wiry and intense, Spike Lee is about as far as one could get from the popular European image of an American movie mogul. His preferred style of dress at Cannes -- where life along the seafront promenade known as La Croissette can resemble the catwalk of a fashion show -- has been sneakers, a blue baseball cap, red running shorts and a vest.
Lee arrived in Cannes with virtually the entire cast of "She's Gotta Have It," which takes an amused look at the sex life of a young black woman and her three competing boyfriends. Most cast members had never been outside the United States. Somewhat nervous about coming to Europe amid alarmist media reports, they have been pleasantly surprised at what they found.
"The terrorist threat was exaggerrated back home. The weather is fine, security is tight and nobody has been blown up," said the film's associate producer, 29-year-old Pamm Jackson of Washington, D.C.
American critics who have seen "She's Gotta Have It" doubt that it has much of a future outside the relatively confined world of arts festivals and private screenings. Despite some wonderfully comic moments and inspired acting, notably by Lee himself as a Woody Allen-like boyfriend, the film lacks the technical polish needed to turn it into a commercial success.
For Lee, however, simply making the film and bringing it to Cannes is a considerable achievement.
He noted: "Very few black people are in a position to make a film of their own. A lot of that is our own fault. There are a lot of potential black filmmakers around -- but many think you need millions of dollars before you can get started. You don't. You need faith in your ability and a team of collaborators willing to sacrifice something in order to achieve an ambition."
The absence of the Hollywood moguls has also focused the spotlight on Menahem Golan, the Israeli-born chairman of the Cannon Group Inc., the largest independent film company in the United States. Once regarded as something of a cultural pariah by the festival organizers because of his unashamedly commercial approach, Golan is unquestionably one of the dominating figures at Cannes this year.
Part of the reason is a deliberate attempt by Cannon to move upmarket by signing directors like Franco Zeffirelli, Robert Altman and Andrei Konchalovsky. But it is also because he has remained loyal to Cannes, despite the obvious security risk.
"If there's a target, I'm the target," he says cheerfully. "After all, I made 'Delta Force,' " a popular action movie pitting U.S. antiterror "good guys" against assorted Arab "bad guys." "But I was not prepared to take the major step of pulling out of Cannes."
Relaxing on the terrace of his Cannes hotel, Golan concedes that he has taken various "precautions," visible as muscular young men in light suits with bulging pockets.
At a crowded press conference in Cannes, Lee is asked what he thinks about "The Color Purple," another festival entry about black people.
"I hate that film," he says. Director Steven Spielberg "doesn't know anything about black people."
The director of "The Color Purple" is unavailable for comment. He decided to give Cannes a miss this year.