The vast majority of Cannes top-prize recipients have been either European or American, which makes it all the more worthwhile to note those winners that come from historically underrepresented nations. At the 1997 ceremony, Iran’s flourishing film culture enjoyed a breakthrough with its very first Palme d’Or, awarded to Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. The director had attended the festival earlier in the decade: in 1993, as a member of the competition jury, and in 1994, when his film Through the Olive Trees played in competition.
This new film was the result of a long and arduous process. Kiarostami had spent the previous summer and part of the fall trying to figure out how to end Taste of Cherry, and his inability to reach a decision meant that he missed the deadline to submit it to the Venice Film Festival. Not long after, Kiarostami was involved in a road accident that caused further delays on the shoot. As if all this were not bad enough, part of the negative was burned in the laboratory during the developing process, forcing Kiarostami to reshoot the lost sequences. When the film was finished, it was initially banned from export, but thanks to an intervention by Iran’s foreign minister at the time, Ali Akbar Velayati, a print was ultimately shipped to France at the last minute, screening in competition despite its inclusion being confirmed too late to be featured in the festival catalogue.
That year, Cannes celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and the festivities were among the glitziest and most celebrity-driven yet. Michael Jackson appeared on the red carpet for an out-of-competition screening of Michael Jackson’s Ghosts; Iggy Pop was in town to support Johnny Depp’s directing and screenwriting debut, The Brave, which he scored; and the Spice Girls were on the Croisette to talk about their forthcoming film Spice World. The opening and closing selections—Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element and Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power—also highlighted the festival’s increasingly commercial streak.
The jury included president Isabelle Adjani and members Gong Li, Mira Sorvino, Paul Auster, Tim Burton, Mike Leigh, Nanni Moretti, and Michael Ondaatje. Among the films in competition that year were Mathieu Kassovitz’s Assassin(s), Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (which won best director), Wim Wenders’s The End of Violence, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (which won best screenplay), Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth (which won a best actress award for Kathy Burke), Nick Cassavetes’s She’s So Lovely (for which Sean Penn won best actor), Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (which won the Grand Prix), Shohei Imamura’s The Eel (which shared the Palme d’Or with Kiarostami’s film), and Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo. In recognition of the festival turning half a century old, two special prizes were handed out: the Palm of Palms, which went to Ingmar Bergman, and a lifetime achievement award, given to Youssef Chahine.