Cannes International Film Festival, 2018: A Focus on the Marginalized

A report by Robert K. Johnston
Award Ceremony of the Ecumenical Jury, Cannes 2018

The members of the Ecumenical Jury in Cannes 2018 at the award ceremony, with composer Khaled Mouzanar of "Capharnaum" (© Claire Zombas/Daniel Beguin)

The 71st Festival International of Film was held from May 8 - 19 in the beautiful town of Cannes on the French Riviera. A combination of business and art like perhaps no other, the Cannes festival had its usual share of controversies. Netflix was absent after theater owners pressured organizers to disqualify all films not projecting theater releases in France. Wim Wenders and Spike Lee were both present for the first time since 1989 when Lee and Wenders clashed over Do the Right Thing. Having previously been banished from Cannes for incendiary comments regarding the Holocaust, Lars von Trier was nevertheless invited back for the out of competition screening of his film about an amoral and sinister serial killer of women entitled The House that Jack Built. Some walked out. More should have.

More significantly, perhaps, eighty-two women, including jury president Cate Blanchett and eighty-seven year old legend Agnès Varda, walked together up the red carpet steps of the Grand Lumière Theatre and then stopped, turned around, and read a statement protesting the festival’s historic marginalization of women. 82 was the number of women directors whose movies had been screened over the history of the festival, compared to 1645 men (less than 5%). This together with a challenge at the closing ceremony by one of the victims of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein, a traditional Cannes powerhouse, served as a wake-up call loud and clear. Addressing the audience, Asia Argento challenged the Cannes’ male hegemony that has allowed women to be victimized. “Even tonight,” she said, “sitting among you, there are those who have still to be held accountable for their conduct against women. You know who you are, but most importantly we know who you are, and we’re not going to allow you to get away with it any longer.” The 72nd festival will need to redress both its inequities and its sins.

The festival also had its serendipities, most related to the movies themselves. It would simply be inaccurate to imply that movie-going was derailed by politics or protest, no matter how important these were. Though the competition films started off slowly, we as jurors found ourselves transported to new worlds where images, sounds and words helped us focus on realities previously unexplored. Significant, especially, was the focus of many of the movies on the “marginalized,” “the stranger at the gate” to use a biblical phrase (Ex. 20:10). But more of that below.

As it does each year, SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication and INTERFILM, the international, inter-church film organization of mainly Protestants, joined together to appoint an ecumenical jury to choose that film in the festival’s competition which best portrayed “human experience that is in harmony with the gospel,” or which best sensitized “viewers to spiritual, human or social questions and values.” What this award seeks to honor are cinematic works of the highest quality that bear witness to the power of film to explore the spiritual dimensions of our existence.

I was privileged to be part of the Ecumenical Jury this year. Co-members of the jury included a professor of film from Lisbon as chair, a Jesuit priest and film scholar from Australia, a Reformed pastor from Zurich, a French executive for a large helicopter company who has been the President of Pro-Fil and identifies his “real vocation” as being a film buff, a French media professional who organizes film clubs and has been on several other juries, and myself, who teaches theology and film at an American seminary. As is typical of jury make-ups, three of us had professional training in theology and film, and three had long standing involvement with film and the church. As one might expect from such a group, discussion of each film in the competition was both spirited and insightful. We learned from each other and became friends while sharing our insights.

In a ceremony prior to the closing gala and announcement of the grand jury prizes, we awarded our ecumenical prize for the best film of the competition, as well as a commendation for a second movie that we believe invites deep spiritual reflection on the nature of the human. The two films chosen could not be more different, whether in genre, tone, nation of origin, or focus. But what both share in their stories is a brilliance in filmmaking, a concern  for the “marginalized,” an inventive spirit that captures the audience’s imagination, a particularity to their narrative that nonetheless opens out to the universal, and a profound, spiritual depth in portraying the nature of the human. We, as jurors, were unanimous in our praise for these movies.

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 “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due to an alien, orphan and widow.” (Deut. 27:19)


Our prize for best film went to Nadine Labaki’s drama Capharnaum, a movie about an undocumented street child in Beirut, Lebanon. Receiving our award was her husband and the film’s producer, co-screenwriter, and music director, Khaled Mouzanar. The film’s title was suggestive to some, for it is a commonly used French word meaning “a disorderly accumulation of objects”. Certainly this story about Zain, a street child fighting for life in the slums of Beirut has that backdrop. But the title also suggests its namesake in Jesus’ day, Caperneum. In Matthew 11, Jesus curses the city for its failure to respond to his loving invitation. Nevertheless, it is a place of healing for those who do – for the paralytic let down on ropes from the roof by friends, for the centurion who pleads for his servant, even for Peter’s mother-in-law. There is no significant healing for the immigrants and “outcasts,” the women and children in Labaki’s story. But perseverance and ingenuity, love and courage can also be found, as the full possibilities of the human spirit are explored.

The movie begins as twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Alrafeea) sues his parents for giving birth to him and then not adequately providing life for him. Though bordering on being a gimmick, the plot conceit works, allowing viewers to re-live this young boy’s life as he makes his case before the judge. Growing up in abject poverty, Zain sees his eleven year old sister and best friend, Samar (Haita Izam), sold into marriage to their landlord’s son. The last straw in a wretched childhood, Zain flees. Streetwise, ingenious, and winsome even given his underlying anger, Zain provides movie goers their perspective for seeing Beirut. Soon making friends with another outcast, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a young Ethiopian cleaning woman who has a small baby boy, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), Zain becomes the “babysitter” for the child.

When Rahil fails to come home, however, having been arrested as an undocumented immigrant by the authorities, Zain must decide what he is to do as a twelve year old boy. Should he sell the toddler to a human trafficker, or become the child’s de facto guardian? And so the movie transforms into an inventive “buddy movie,” the unlikely twosome traveling through the streets of Beirut. And as with any “road movie,” it is not so much the plot that carries the movie’s importance, but the relationships that the characters have on the journey. The plot includes child marriages, Syrian refugees, human trafficking, ill treatment by employers, and the plight of the undocumented. The portrayal is of a city’s cruel poverty where there is little hope. Zain is simply invisible in the eyes of society.  But this is not the focus of the movie. Rather, the movie’s power and meaning resides in its portrayal of the human spirit – its focus on Zain’s tenacity and integrity, his cleverness and compassion, as he both seeks to survive and to care for another.

Adding to the movie’s verisimilitude is the fact that the child actor whose name is also Zain, was an undocumented street child, who only through the filmmaker’s efforts was able to obtain papers by the end of the film. In fact, most of the lead actors have stories to match the fictional movie narrative. The woman playing Rahil was arrested for not having papers. The real life parents of Yonas were actually arrested and deported while the shooting was going on and the casting director needed to care for the child for three weeks while legal matters were attended to. The girl cast as Samar had to drop out of grade school to sell chewing gum on the street in order to help her family survive. In her casting, Labaki was convinced that only those children who had lived through similar circumstances would be able to portray her characters. Asked by the press how she got the children to act, she said, “I just had to ask them to be themselves because their own truth was sufficient.” In this movie, fiction and reality conjoin, adding to the movie’s power and meaning.

Because the movie used amateur, child actors, the shooting extended for six months and eventuated in 520 hours of film rushes, an unheard of amount for a low budget film. But the patience and perseverance of the filmmakers paid off. The final edit of these children is simply captivating. Earthy in his language, angry because life’s bare necessities have been denied him, yet tender and compassionate to others in need, Zain is the embodiment of the human spirit --  a person created in God’s image whose dignity is given by his birth. It was not a surprise to our jury that the Cannes competition jury also honored Caphernaum with its jury prize.

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“You shall love the stranger as yourself.” (Lev. 19:34)


Our jury awarded its commendation to Spike Lee’s movie BlacKkKlansman. Having what some might consider an outlandish plot, the movie would be hard for some to believe or accept, except that it is both based in an actual event and made shockingly and tragically contemporary by television footage of more recent events. At his press conference, Lee, an African-American, said he hoped his film “shakes people from their slumber.” Purposely filmed to give it the low-budget 1970’s look consistent with its time frame, the film is a humorous, yet horrendous, drama in the service of social commentary, dangerously but effectively playing with racist epithets for laughs. Based on the memoir of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American policeman in Colorado Springs, the movie narrates the story of how Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of the iconic American actor, Denzel Washington) infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, even duping over the phone David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard, into providing him a strong recommendation that he become the next chapter president. Unable, for obvious reasons, to attend chapter meetings in person, Stallworth sends his fellow policeman, the Jewish Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in his stead, learns of a potential terrorist attack, and helps thwart the crime.

If a novel, the plot would prove a page turner – something so unexpected that readers would want to know what happens next. And the characters in the KKK seem almost cartoonish in their redneck stupidity. But the terror of this film is that IT HAPPENED. And to make matters worse, as preproduction was finishing, The Klan’s march in Charlottesville also happened, giving the movie a new ending, sobering and undeniable. When the Klan’s “Unite the Right” rally took place in Charlottesville in 2017 resulting in the murder of one counter protester, Heather Hoyer, and when David Duke praised Donald Trump who said, “both sides” were to blame, Lee knew he had his ending.  (The film will be released on August 10th, the one-year anniversary of the mayhem.) Finishing with ten minutes of newsreel footage - of Hoyer being run down, Trump refusing his moral leadership, and David Duke being interviewed – the movie shockingly reveals that the racial hatred and stupidity of Stallworth’s story is still part of the horror of America today. Even more sobering, as Lee said at his press conference, this moral dilemma is “all over the world.” BlacKkKlansman screams, how long will we continue to deny people their full humanity?

In his press conference at the festival, Lee took on Trump. “The m*****f***** did not say we’re for love and against hate…. He had a chance to say we are better than that. He didn’t.” ”We look to our leaders to give us direction, to make moral decisions.” With BlacKkKlansman, Lee has directed his best film in years, returning to that combination of stylized storytelling and social critique that has been his trademark. And again, our ecumenical jury was not the only one to recognize the film’s excellence. Later, at the festival’s closing night awards ceremony, the competition jury also gave Lee’s film one of its top awards, the Grand Prix.

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Both of our ecumenical jury awards went to movies about those that our societies have made “outcasts”. Both films are ringing indictments of cities and countries that have closed their eyes to the inhumanity in their midst. There are, of course, both similarities and differences in these films. With both movies, for example, their power and meaning is deepened by being rooted in real life. Ron Stallworth actually did infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and Charlottesville is a bloody stain on America. Similarly, Zain and his fellow child actors actually lived their fictional stories in real life. However, rather than simply document the pain and horror inflicted on those society is bent on marginalizing, both filmmakers chose, instead, to use humor as their “weapon.” As Lee said in an interview, the movie is funny, but it is not a comedy. Tragedy continues. Again, given the need to accurately portray their respective contexts, a society filled with hate and neglect, both films fill their dialogue with vile language. These films are not for the squeamish, even if their larger meaning is uplifting. The language is necessary, however, conveying the anger, hatred and hurt in our world today that both movies portray.

There are also differences in these two movies. In Caphernaum, the power and meaning is conveyed through the movie’s characters. Zain, despite the odds, perseveres. He is winsome, even if his situation is heartbreaking. In BlacKkKlansman, on the other hand, meaning in the movie is conveyed not through the characters that seem somewhat stock, but by the film’s plot. As viewers we sit stunned as the hatred unfolds. It is the incredible absence of humanity in the movie’s storyline that echoes through the movie theater, shocking viewers alive. Scholars might call this the via negativa. But whether by a positive characterization or a negative plotline, viewers of both these award winning films walk away with a new appreciation of the value of human life – all human life. We also come away recognizing the intractable nature of our corporate sin, and the need to confess our duplicity while working for change, however difficult that will be.  

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Cannes 2018 will be remembered for its focus on the “outcast,” the stranger at the gate, the marginalized. Here was a central theme, not only of our two award-winning films, but of many of the other best films as well. Among those movies, the following might be noted:

Yomeddine was written and directed by the first-time, Egyptian filmmaker A. B. Shawky. It is a road movie that follows the travels of Beshay (played by Rady Gamal, a nonprofessional who plays “himself” – a cured, but deformed leper who has lived in a Christian leper colony his whole life) and Obama, a young orphan boy who has befriended Beshay, as they seek to find Beshay’s family. A highlight of the story is the travelers’ encounter with a group of beggars who, despite severe physical limitations and their own fight for survival, have joined together in a community – a “family.” When Beshay finally locates his family, he realizes that “blood” is less important than commitment and love, something Obama has given him.

Ayka is a Kyrghyzian/Russian collaboration that won the best actor award for Samal Yesyamova, given her heart wrenching performance as an immigrant with no papers in Moscow. As the movie opens, we see her tragically abandoning her new born baby in the hospital, trying to survive the dead of winter. Having been raped, needing to pay back a loan or suffer potentially life-threatening harm, unable to get a job and taken advantage of because she is undocumented, Ayka is an “outcast” with no resource. The film is hard to watch, but important -- a horrific reminder of our need to care for the stranger in our midst.

Burning. Not all “strangers” in our society are as obvious as Ayka. The annual Screen International Critics poll gave its highest rating at the festival to Lee Chang Dong’s Burning. Lee, the Korean director of Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010) said that in making this film, he tried to “pay attention to the anger of young people,” the growing number who “don’t understand why they don’t have a future or hope.” I am writing this review while living for three months in Spain, where few if any high school or college graduates can find any job. Life seems to be passing them by. Here is Lee’s focus in Burning, the film revealing slowly but compellingly the pervasive sense of meaninglessness and with it the growing anger of many youth who find themselves excluded from life for no clear reason.

Three Faces is written, directed and produced by the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. It is his fourth film since his passport was confiscated by Iranian officials, and he was forbidden to make films! Despite its modest technical qualities, given the filmmaker’s circumstance, the film continues Panahi’s defiance toward the authorities. As the film opens, we see a rural girl’s video plea to help her take acting lessons, a video that ends with her seeming to hang herself. The actress Behnaz Jafari (playing herself) recruits Panahi (also playing himself) to travel with her to this village in hopes the girl is alive. But this plot, such as it is, quickly gives way to conversations. The plot is simply the pretext for an exploration of Iran’s patriarchal and chauvinistic attitudes that span three generations of women. There is a certain melancholy, as well as a fierce anger, directed at his country’s marginalization both of artists and of women.

Shoplifters (an unfortunate English title for this Japanese film) won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest award for Hirokazu Kore-eda, its director, screenwriter and editor. Like Caphernaum and Yommedine, Shoplifters portrays an alternative “family” as a human response to society’s marginalization of people. Bonded by their life as petty criminals, in order to scrape out an existence, Osamu and his son come upon a little girl out in the freezing cold. Not wanting to abandon her they take her home. Despite their having barely enough to survive, she too becomes part of the family. Shoplifters is not really about shoplifting or child abuse or spouse abuse though all of these are plot points. Rather, like several of Kore-eda’s other movies, the film explores the meaning of family, and more particularly of being a father.

Cannes 2018 was a feast of storytelling. Like all good cinema, it not only portrayed the stories of others, but these stories became our stories as viewers. Moreover, at their best, we also heard through them God’s story: “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due to an alien, orphan and widow.” (Deut. 27:19)  “You shall love the stranger as yourself.” (Lev. 19:34) As I write this review, my government is separating children from their parents at the USA/Mexican border. The festival’s films speak directly into this crisis – a crisis not primarily of politics, but of humanity. Here are movies for Christians to view, to discuss, and to respond.

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A final footnote: Shown outside the competition was Wim Wenders’ film, Pope Francis – a Man of His Word. Pope Francis offers the beginning of a Christian response to the plight of the stranger amongst us. Not so much a biography as a documentary highlighting his message, viewers hear the Pope reflect on today’s global issues. Central for him is our world’s inequality of wealth and with it the plight of the poor. Central as well is a call for social justice.

Some progressives at Cannes believed the movie was too “soft,” lacking a necessary criticism for the Pope’s response concerning feminism and sexuality. Others thought the film failed to provide personal insight – who is the man behind the robe? But neither were Wenders’ goal. Instead his focus in the film is on the Pope’s public theology – on how the church should address the rights of the migrant, global poverty, environmental destruction, lack of opportunity for youth, employment as a human right, and so on.

Wenders was given access to the Pontiff for several sit-down interviews which are effectively presented with the Pope centered, staring directly into the camera. These interviews are combined with Vatican news office footage from Pope Francis’ trips – whether they be a Brazilian street mass, a Central African Republic hospital, a Philadelphia prison, a Greek migrant camp, a Jerusalem holocaust memorial service, or a speech at the United Nation. Central throughout is the Pope’s call to take care of the stranger at the gate.

Perhaps the film is too laudatory, particularly given our cynical age. But given film after film at the Festival that evidenced a widespread melancholy and hopelessness present in society today, a film highlighting Pope Francis’ desires for humankind brought hope, at least to this Cannes participant.