By Alexandria Sage
CANNES, France (Reuters) - The "Arab Spring" is the focus of two movies at Cannes this year as film makers present tentative steps towards democracy on the big screen, one year after political upheaval in Libya and Egypt.
While both films deal with contemporary events in the Middle East, "The Oath of Tobruk" ("Le Serment de Tobrouk") is a French-language documentary about the Libyan war with a highly subjective slant.
"After the Battle" ("Baad el Mawkeaa") is a fictional account of the uprising in Cairo from Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah.
At the centre of The Oath of Tobruk - which is not included in the official competition in Cannes - is Bernard-Henri Levy, a prominent French left-wing intellectual, who is co-director, narrator and central subject.
The film follows him meeting rebel leaders and convincing former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to take the lead in the West's response to the crisis, which resulted in Muammar Gaddafi's overthrow last year.
"It's a film that tells how the international community ... can reverse the course of things, stop a massacre and save a population," Levy told a news conference on Saturday, accompanied by several Libyan representatives.
Levy always appears camera-ready in his film, wearing a crisp suit as he walks through rubble, and we see him being cheered at rallies, greeted by politicians (one of whom likens Levy to the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire) and interviewed on TV.
We hear little from the rebel leaders themselves and nothing from the local population.
"Those with a cynical turn of mind might be tempted to rename it (the film) 'How I Ran the Libyan Revolution'," wrote British newspaper the Guardian.
At Saturday's press conference - which prompted complaints because it was held before reporters had viewed the film - Levy was accompanied by two men, their faces covered by the Syrian flag, whom he introduced as dissidents who had slipped out of Syria to attend the film festival.
Given the continued bloodshed there, Levy said his documentary should be viewed with a double focus - that of a "war won and one of a tragedy in process".
"The Benghazi of today is called Homs," he said.
LOVE LETTER TO EGYPTIANS
The messy clash between classes, and between the individual and society, is the subject of Nasrallah's film, set against the backdrop of the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"Every day something new happened," director Nasrallah told reporters, describing last year's revolution.
"All our energy, thoughts, and emotions were focused on these events and I thought, 'This is the stuff of a film. This is what film is made of'."
In the movie, the drop in tourism with the outbreak of the popular revolution has left horseman Mahmoud (Bassem Samra) out of work.
Manipulated by President Hosni Mubarak's forces, he and other horsemen terrorize protestors by riding at full speed through Tahrir Square in a brazen act of intimidation, a real-life incident that occurred in February 2011.
The film centers on the unlikely relationship between Mahmoud and a secular divorcee, Reem, played by Menna Shalaby, who crosses paths with him.
"The revolution is for you, so they stop paying you crumbs," Reem implores Mahmoud, who struggles to understand how the demonstrators can help improve his lot in life.
Nasrallah - who said his cast and crew were harassed while filming at Tahrir Square at the height of the demonstrations - called After the Battle a love letter to his country.
"If I made this film, it's because Egypt and the Egyptian people - who aren't yet used to democracy, who are making their first steps to recover their dignity, because a dictatorship makes you hate yourself - these people deserve this love letter that we wrote for them with this film."
After the Battle is one of 22 films vying for the top prize at Cannes, the Palme d'Or, to be awarded on Sunday.
(Reporting By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Sophie Hares)