Cannes Film Festival, 14-25 May 2008

Report by Alyda Faber, Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax (Canada) Member of the Ecumenica Jury

Cannes—a city on a hill cresting the Mediterranean Ocean, planted with non-indigenous palm trees in the 19th century to create a tropical beach resort.  In this setting, we find the world’s most glamorous film festival, “the heartbeat of cinema,” as Wim Wenders called it.  This festival is unique because of its well established international film market complete with mini-screening rooms where prospective buyers can view films.  What is the Cannes Film Festival like?  Did you see any stars? These were the leading questions when I returned home.

A single word describes the festival for me: intensity.  We watched from three to five films a day, usually starting with the first screening at 8:30 in the morning.  One of those films, Che ( directed by Steven Soderbergh) was 4 ½ hours long.  Between screenings, our jury met regularly to discuss the competition films at length.  The excitement of the festival began each day with people converging upon the Palais for the first film, festival goers often visible in the crowds with their silver Cannes bags.  Given the strict stage managing of appearances of actors, directors, and producers, press conferences offered the best opportunity to see ‘the stars’ close up.  Otherwise, images of famous directors and actors were as mediated by the media to those present at the festival as those who were not there.  Before the gala screening of Vicki Cristina Barcelona began, the Ecumenical Jury, seated in the rear of the balcony of the Grand Théâtre Lumière, was able to see only an image of Woody Allen on the giant screen, seated in the obscured seats below us.  On another occasion I joined a thick crowd outside the press conference room; I could hear people calling “Spielberg”, but could only see him as an image on the raised digital cameras in front of me.

This year’s festival marked the first time in twenty-one years that a French film was awarded the Palm d’Or.  It was also dubbed the year of the documentary for the strong showing of documentary films, including those that adapt innovative techniques and subjects to this genre, as well as films blending fiction and documentary techniques.

Prize of the Ecumenical Jury

The prize of the 34th Ecumenical Jury at Cannes was awarded to Adoration, a film directed by a Canadian (of Armenian origin), Atom Egoyan.  Just over ten years ago, Egoyan won an Ecumenical Prize for his film, The Sweet Hereafter.  The Ecumenical Jury awards its prize to a film that expresses strong artistic merit and creativity, has a universal aspect, elicits human transformation, and is consistent with the values of the gospel.  In some cases, another consideration is whether or not a prize from this jury will ameliorate distribution of a film that might not otherwise receive the attention and distribution it deserves. 

Adoration is a thickly layered film that is bound to provoke discussion.  An adolescent boy, Simon, reinvents himself as the child of parents involved in a terrorist bomb plot, a story which is taken up on internet forums.  Filmed with Egoyan’s signature multilayered and fractured plot lines, the themes of this film - terrorism, the seductions of victimization, adoration and vilification, the impact of high speed technologies on the “slow” time of human relationships, the cultural drift of religious symbols and narratives - are played out through Simon’s relationships to his deceased parents, the uncle who has given up his twenties to care for his nephew, his grandfather, and his French teacher.  Images of poignant beauty evoke the fierce yearning and loss experienced by the main character; the ways in which Simon is adored by several adults, and his own adoration of his lost mother.  Through the narrative strands of intergenerational family conflict and the larger social scene of terrorism, the film asks: who is made to bear the rage of others?  What are the intimate trajectories of social violence?  Related to this, as Egoyan discussed during a press conference, is the exploration of the religious and ethnic pluralism of Toronto where the film is set, particularly with a view to the ways that religious symbols have become cut off from religious communities and narratives (the hajib, Christmas decorations and crèche), becoming either fetishized or devoid of meaning.  How can these traditions be expressed in new ways?  What new symbols are needed to bear the weight of human yearning for connection and the struggle to relate well to “the other or that which is foreign in our own culture and religion”? 

The Palme d’Or

This year’s Palme d’Or for feature film, by unanimous decision of the Festival Jury with its president Sean Penn, went to Laurent Cantet’s cinema direct film, Entre les murs.  The director contends that schools are often viewed as safe havens from the problems of society, but he views them as microcosms of the larger society.  Based on a novel by François Begaudeau, who also plays the lead role, this film is focussed on the conversations between François and his French class over the course of a year at a highschool in a suburb of Paris where there are large numbers of new immigrants to the country.  François takes risks with pedagogy because he believes in reciprocity between students and instructors, and in the possibility of teachers caring for their students as unique individuals.  As members of the Festival Jury pointed out at the final press conference, the film does not resolve the contradictions that emerge in the course of François’ pedagogical techniques, but exposes both the violence and the hope of his interactions with students.  The Jury cited as reasons for their choice, among other things, the “magical performances” in the film, and the film’s “generosity” that offers us an opportunity to be “less stupid,” given its persistent examination of difficult questions about how we can co-exist and love each other amidst differences of race, language, religion, and social power.

Other major prizes

Two major prizes went to Italian films, which a jury member described as “twins” in the sense that both Gomorra (Grand Prix to director Matteo Garrone) and Il Divo (Jury Prize to Paolo Sorrentino) explore the ways in which democracy can be compromised in Western civil society.  Garrone’s film, about organized crime in Naples and Caserta, is notable for some key signature images that express the pathos and horror of the Camorra’s activities.  Sorrentino’s film, with its virtuosic visual style reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s Screaming Popes series of paintings and rock video rolled into one, offers a subtle and powerful portrait of a long serving Italian Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, repeatedly charged with corruption but never convicted.
The best director prize goes to a film with distinctive creative and technical power - this year’s prize was awarded to Nuri Bilge Ceylan for Three Monkeys.  The visual power of the opening scene - a circle of light in a big dark, a car driving along a secluded road at night, a wavering light that gets smaller and smaller and finally disappears - opens up the drama of a family implicated, through bribery, in the hit-and-run accident of a politician.  The director finds that the visual narrative of film is an apt medium for his aim of exploring the complexity of the human soul, which has within it “the coexistence of the power to rule and the potential to forgive, the interest in the most holy and … the lowest banality, and love and hate.”  He achieves this through the sombre weather of the film, resonant close ups of faces, lonely cityscapes, strained elliptical conversations between characters, and moments of ironic humour.

The award for best performance by an actress went to Sandra Corveloni, in Linha de Passe (directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas), playing Cleusa, the single mother of four sons of different fathers, expecting a fifth child.  Each son tries to find his own way out of the daily frustrations and humiliations of their poverty in barrios of Sao Paulo.  Corveloni’s performance evokes the strain of poverty’s indignities upon a mother’s love for her children.  The award for best performance by an actor went to Benicio Del Toro for the role of Che Guevara (directed by Steven Soderbergh) in Che, the longest film of the competition at 4 hours and 28 minutes.  Del Toro is equally convincing as a successful leader of the revolution in Cuba and the thwarted and defeated revolutionary of Bolivia.  The Belgian Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, won the prize for best screenplay for their film, The Silence of Lorna.  This film considers the issue of immigration and organized crime in Europe through the narrative of a young Albanian woman, Lorna, who gains Belgian citizenship by marrying a heroin addict, Claudy, who is to be killed by a mobster so that Lorna can marry a Russian Mafioso willing to pay well for citizenship.  The plan depends upon Lorna’s complicit silence.  The question of the cost of using other human beings as means to an end is treated in an elliptical filmic style, with a strong palette of primary colours.

Finally, the Festival Jury awarded two special prizes for the 61st festival, the first to Catherine Deneuve for her performance in Conte de Noël, a strong epic drama of a family haunted by a child who died because none of its siblings was a compatible tissue donor, and the second to Clint Eastwood (director), for The Exchange.  Based on a true story of a boy who disappears from a working class neighbourhood in Los Angeles in 1928, the mother is confronted, months later, with both the LA Police and a boy insisting that he is her missing son, against her protest that he is not. 

Additional competition films

In my view, two additional competition films deserve comment.  Waltz with Bashir (directed by Ari Folman) opened to rave reviews at the festival but didn’t receive a prize.  An innovative documentary, this series of interviews was transposed into animation to allow the visual representation of memory, visions, and dreams reported by Israeli men who fought in the 1982 Lebanon war.  The director was part of this offensive, and began to explore his complete loss of memory about the events of this war when a friend told him about a recurring nightmare of being chased by 26 dogs—as it turns out, the number of dogs he killed during raids on Lebanese villages.  The film explores the long aftermath of war on the perpetrators, the sick terror and useless destruction of war, as well as questions of memory, truth, and responsibility.  From the sepia tones and dark contrasts of the animation, the film concludes with documentary footage of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Phalangists, which the Israeli soldiers controlling the area did nothing to prevent. 

24 City, directed by Jia Zhangke, is a documentary style fiction film about the shutting down of a state owned armaments factory in Chengdu, China, to be replaced by luxury apartments.  Eight characters, spanning three generations of factory workers, are interviewed about their roles in the factory, the final two speaking about the blend of communism and capitalism in China.  The most striking thing about this film is the lovely images of unlovely things, for example, images of empty factory rooms, a burning wheel, and a factory demolition, the cloud of dust creeping toward and finally engulfing the camera.  Almost static portraits of families recur throughout the film which is divided into chapters, each one signalled by poetic fragments by Chinese poets as well as Western poets like Yeats.  Many common sayings cited by the characters lend a varied emotional tone to the film, ranging from heavy irony to pathos to celebration of life.

“Un Certain Regard”

The Ecumenical Jury judged only competition films, but we had the opportunity to watch a number of films in the section “Un Certain Regard.”  The winning film of this section was Tulpan, directed by Sergey Dvortsevoy, about a man who joins his sister and husband in their life on the Kazakh steppe after completing his military service.  The film creates a fiction with an ethnographic documentary feel.  As Margrit Froelich writes, the film evokes a “buoyant and pulsating rhythm as well as an intensity that brings the viewer in touch with the elementary powers of life.”  The Prize of Hope in this section went to Johnny Mad Dog, an intense, vivid film about child soldiers in Africa. 

The Caméra D’Or was awarded to a film screened in “Un Certain Regard,” Steve McQueen’s Hunger.  This film traces the intensification of protest by Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland from the Blanket and No-Wash Protest to hunger strikes, starting with Bobby Sands, the first prisoner to die.  As in 24 Cities, languorous shots create beauty in terrible circumstances: the abstract art of a shit smeared wall, the falling snow as a guard smokes at the prison wall, the repetitive sounds as a man sweeps up puddles of urine directed out into the hall by prisoners.  The film’s aesthetic and narrative calibrates the ambiguity of the situation from the perspective of both guards and prisoners.