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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gere Back in Lights After Exit Stage Left

Amid a scrum of journalists and a storm of flashbulbs, Richard Gere, president of the jury of Moscow's 19th International Film Festival, returned to the limelight Wednesday after a low-profile week in Russia during which he has been most conspicuous by his absence from the public eye.

"I understand Russians," said Gere, 46, to a packed press conference at the Metropol Hotel. "I feel instinctively close to you. It's emotionally right for me to be in Moscow now, though it's very hard on the mind and eyes to watch six hours of films a day."

Jury-watchers and the Russian press have not been so convinced of Gere's dedication.

A trip to St. Petersburg and a country sojourn with director Nikita Mikhalkov in Nizhny Novgorod have punctuated his viewing, reported Komsomolskaya Pravda, and other jury members have reportedly walked out of at least one film, contrary to the rules of the festival.

"The jury will see all of the films in the festival. If some are absent from a screening, that means that they've seen the film already," said Gere, going on to say he was "very excited" about serving on a film-festival jury for the first time.

Twenty-two films are competing at the festival for a Grand Prize of $50,000.

A screening of Yugoslav director Zelimir Zilnik's hard-hitting satire "Marble Ass," billed as the festival's most controversial film, was deserted by the jury halfway through, said a U.S. journalist covering the festival, who made the point to Gere.

"I've been forbidden from answering that question," Gere replied, after consultation with his assistant and friend Masha Valentinovna. When pressed, he retorted, "Have you seen the film? Did you enjoy it? Just because it's from a country at war doesn't make it a good film."

"In Serbia my film offended many Balkan fundamentalists," said Zilnik. "Does this mean that the jury has something in common with the fundamentalists who also disliked the film? This is a question for the director of the festival who chose the jury."

The nature of Gere's relationship with Valentinovna, who sat next to him at the press conference, caused speculation in Moscow's more excitable papers when he called her up to the stage at the opening ceremony and kissed her on the lips. Gere separated from his model wife Cindy Crawford, 29, last December after taking out large newspaper advertisements seven months before announcing: "Reports of divorce are totally false ... we remain very married."

Other gripes over the festival have included the vast cost, including accommodation for the jury at the Savoy Hotel at the expense of the government, and rumors of large sums paid to Gere to attend.

"It's normal for film festivals to pay their jurors," said Tele-Utro reporter Andrei Malakov, one of the Gere press entourage. "I know for a fact that Gere got $200,000 of government money to come to Moscow." The festival committee denied this claim outright.

Aside from the overheated press hype, reminiscent of the bloodthirsty British tabloids, the only hitch Gere confessed to was during his weekend visit to Nizhny Novgorod. "The only unlucky thing was that I didn't catch many fish," he said. "I was arrested for illegally taking caviar from the river, but I'm not allowed to talk about that."

The star of "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Pretty Woman" also gave some insights into his spiritual life as a buddhist, announcing that after his spell in Moscow he would be leaving for Mongolia and "hopefully" Tibet.

Gere also said he would be setting up a branch of Gere Productions to sponsor film making in Eastern Europe and Russia.

"I want to help ethnic directors make films which come out of their own cultures," he explained. "And to help communication on the planet, so that people can express themselves through art and put their guns away."