Cannes - Ecumenical Award Winners 1990-2014

Since the Festival of Cannes is considered the most important of world film festivals, it is to be expected that the awards made by any jury would be to films of the highest quality. Of course, this does depend on the entries and the overall standard in a particularly year. Critics can be very hard in making comments when they think that the selection for competition is not up to par. An example of this was the Competition program of 2003.
One would, therefore, expect the winners of Ecumenical Awards should be of a particularly high standard. This part of the reflection on awards focuses on the years 1990 – 2014, awards over a quarter of a century.
The first observation to be made on the awards during the 1990s is that they were given to important and significant directors, directors who were well-known. A glance at the list from 1990 to 1999 reveals a steady honouring of such directors: Giuseppe Tornatore, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Gianni Amelio, Alain Cavalier, Zhang Yimou who won ex aequo with Nikolai Mikhalkov, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Atom Egoyan, Theo Angelopoulos, Pedro Almodovar. An impressive group by any standards.
Considering the themes of the winning films, we see a steady humanity, in Italian society, for instance, (Tornatore and Amelio), crises in family life (Leigh and Egoyan), wider historical and social films (Yimou and Mikhalkov, with history in China and in Russia, Loach with the Spanish Civil War and Angelopoulos on Greece). Ken Loach made an interesting comment, when he was guest of honour in Cannes in 2004 for the 30th anniversary of the Ecumenical Awards. He remembered the phone call from the ecumenical jury in 1995, thinking that he was going to be attacked by the churches for Land and Freedom, and being surprised that he had won the prize. Mike Leigh, often an acerbic commentator, was not displeased  with winning for Secrets and Lies but declared that he would have preferred an award for his very tough Naked three years earlier. Egoyan had already won several ecumenical awards and was to win again at Cannes in 2008 for Adoration.
A surprise winner in 1999 was Pedro Almodovar with his controversial All About My Mother and its unusual (but not for Almodovar) take on Spanish society, politics, sexuality and the church. Posters for this film on its release and in the annual film industry books for 1999 had the information that it was an Ecumenical Award winner in large letters across the poster.
During the first decade of the 21st century, the winners, once again, were, as can be seen by glancing at the list, prominent directors, Makmahlbaf, father and daughter, Kaurismäki, Salles, Haneke, Inarritu, Akin, Egoyan, and Ken Loach again.  Once more worthy winners with strong reputations. 
The international range of subjects was wide: Afghan themes before the invasion of 2001 in Kandahar, the aftermath for women, education and the Taliban in At Five in the Afternoon.  Small-scale local dramas featured in 2002, Finland in Man Without a Past and one of the fine Dardenne Brothers Liege dramas, Le Fils in 2002. Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries of Che Guevara was popular in both themes and accessible treatment in 2004.
More complex and sometimes sinister dramas also featured: suburban France and suspicions in Caché (2005), multi-international storytelling in Babel (2006), German-Turkish themes in The Edge of Heaven (2007).  Egoyan was to win again in 2008 with another family drama, Adoration, while the jury voted for Loach’s lighter touch in Looking for Eric (2009). That was the year that jury president, director Radu Mihaileanu, quipped (but was taken very seriously) that an anti-prize should have been given to Lars von Trier for Antichrist for its treatment of women.
The winner in 2000, also the winner of the FIPRESCI award, was the Japanese film, Eureka. It was a critical success, a film of great humanity, with a very long running-time, but not a film that has featured prominently in discussions in succeeding years.  In that millennium year, there were many candidates to consider including Code Inconnu and Fast Food, Fast Women, both of which received Ecumenical Commendations, as well as Blackboards, In the Mood for Love, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and Liv Ullman’s Faithless.  The same was to occur in the anniversary year of Cannes with a large range of fine films which included The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Stellet Licht.
This raises the issue of commendations (French ‘mentions’). There were many in the 1990s, usually each year, like Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990), Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse and Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), Rithy Pan’s Rice People (1994), Kaurismaki’s Drifting Life (1996), the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta (1999).  It is not surprising that there should be these awards with the Cannes significant selection for the Competition.
In 2001 and 2003, there were no commendations, only prizes for Kandahar (2001) and At Five in the Afternoon (2003).  There was something of a change in 2004 with no commendations for the Competition (despite the presence of Nobody Knows) but a commendation for a film in Un Certain Regard, Moolade.  This consideration of films in Un Certain Regard widened possibilities and was followed for the next several years.
The surprise in 2010 was Xavier Beauvois’ powerful Of Gods and Men, a winner with explicit religious themes that pleased not only religious viewers but secular audiences as well, winning the Jury Prize from a panel led by Tim Burton. 
The 2010 jury returned to awarding commendations to films in the Competition, to Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry and to Mike Leigh’s Another Year – both of which would be strong candidates for the Prize in any other year.
Part of the difficulty in jury’s deciding was somewhat ideological, that awarding commendations diminished the value of the prize.  One might ask, ‘in whose eyes?’.  Critics?  But that does not really matter.  The directors who have won commendations are happy to receive their awards.  In more recent years, the trend in Ecumenical Juries at most festivals has been usually to award one or more commendations.
The next two winners, 2011 and 2012, were a little more controversial. Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must be the Place, 2011, about a rock star and his journey to find his ancestry may not have seemed like a winner while audiences watched it – it was about half way through that its value and values really emerged.  One of the candidates in 2012, and later winner of the SIGNIS Europe award, was Michael Haneke’s Amour.  Haneke had already won the Ecumenical Award for Caché (2005) and commendations for Code Inconnu (2000) and The White Ribbon (2009). The mercy-killing theme meant that Amour did not win in Cannes, although the actual winner was a fine and challenging film, The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg about a man falsely accused of sexual abuse. In 2013, the winner was one of those almost-perfect candidates for an ecumenical award, Asghar Farahdi’s The Past, a film that equals his Ecumenical Award-winning A Separation in Berlin 2011.
Looking at the winners of Ecumenical Awards in Cannes is an experience of exhilaration that so many fine films have been honoured by the Ecumenical Juries.