Beyond the boulevard

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am


The 65th edition of the Cannes Film Festival officially draws to a close tonight (Hong Kong time) as its jury president for the year, Italian director Nanni Moretti, hands out the Palme d'Or and other awards at the closing ceremony. And after hosting 12 days of seemingly endless press conferences and celebrity-packed gala premieres, staff will roll up the red carpet once again at the Palais des Festivals et des Congres, the bunker-like building on the Croisette that is the centre of the action.

With the focus relentlessly on the stars, their clothes and the parties they go to, it's easy sometimes to lose track of the raison d'?tre of this annual bash on the Cote d'Azur. While still boasting the premieres of exciting and innovative fare in modern cinema - in the running for the top prize this year are audacious and defiantly non-mainstream outings by Austria's Michael Haneke (Love), Romania's Cristian Mungiu (Beyond the Hills) and Mexico's Carlos Reygadas (Post Tenebras Lux) - the media hoopla often overshadows much-needed discussions and exhibitions of cinema as an art form.

For cinephiles, hope springs from the other end of the Boulevard de la Croisette, where two organisations are behind the 'Other Cannes'. It's here that you'll find the Directors' Fortnight and the Critics' Week, two sections run independently of the main, 'official' festival. This is also where the legacy of Cannes as an exclusive, elitist activity ends. While most of the Palais screenings are off-limits to the public, the Cannois and film buffs can buy tickets to the screenings at the two showcases, and the directors and actors are available for meet-the-audience sessions afterwards.

Making his debut as the artistic director of the Directors' Fortnight, Edouard Waintrop has, over the past week, presided over four debates revolving around post-Spring Arabic cinema, new Latin American filmmakers, new trends for young French filmmakers, and the variety of non-Bollywood Indian cinema. This is in addition to the Fortnight's programme featuring, among others, cutting-edge films touching on themes ranging from Chilean politics (Pablo Larra?n's No), Colombian social unrest (William Vega's remarkable debut La Sirga) to Canadian rural life (Yulene Olaizola's hour-long Fogo), as well as a five-hour, two-part Indian epic about a three-generation feud between two rival families (Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur).

'People expect to be surprised every day,' Waintrop says as we meet outside the Malmaison, the quaint building that now serves as the headquarters of the Fortnight.

'That's the first thing I thought from the beginning - to make them believe that cinema is a really wide preposition of things, styles, people and stories. That's the first rule I have during the selection [of the programme]. It's to show the diversity of cinema, and to show people who are creative can also connect to the audience.'

The debates are part of an exercise to generate intellectual discussion of the art form. Waintrop, formerly artistic director of the Freibourg International Film Festival in Switzerland, came up with the idea of the debates by looking back at the origins of the Fortnight, a section established in 1969 by a group of French filmmakers who, a year before, had founded the Film Directors' Guild in Paris in reaction to what they saw as the conservatism of the French film establishment.

It was in 1968, in fact, that these directors brought the Cannes Film Festival to a halt in a show of support for the left-wing protest movement that engulfed France at the time.

'It's coming back to the origins of the Quinzaine,' Waintrop says, using the shortened name of the Fortnight, the Quinzaine des Realisateurs. 'It was built by the directors after 1968, and it's a great assembly of directors speaking together and building a new world. Maybe that successful age has gone, but the ideas are still here - and the idea now is to get back to these roots and make people speak about their work and what they're doing in cinema ... it's not just about the movies audiences will see, but to tell them about changes in the way of making films,' he says.

'I think one of the differences of the Quinzaine to the red-carpet festival [at the Palais] is to speak and show people they will be welcome.'

And just like the Quinzaine, the Critics' Week (or the Semaine de la Critique) has brought another batch of fresh directing voices to the Croisette. Argentinean Alejandro Fadel's Los Salvajes, for example, is a nuanced depiction of five delinquents braving the elements as they trek through forests after breaking out of a reformatory; Vasan Bala's Peddlers goes against the Bollywood grain with a suppressed, melancholic take on Mumbai; and Alice Winocour's Augustine, an audacious critique of the chauvinist tendencies of late 19th-century science as seen in Jean-Martin Charcot's study on hysteria. But the leader of the pack is Antonio Mendez Esparza's Aqui y Alla, winner of the Critics' Week grand prize; it subverts the conventions of Mexican immigration drama by looking at a man struggling to adapt when he returns home after an ill-fated stint in the US.

'Cannes is a schizophrenic film festival,' says Charles Tesson, in his first year as the Critics' Week's artistic director after a long career as critic, university professor and programmer.

'You can have 10 persons here and each person can have [his or her] own festival and never meet during the whole time - this one goes to the red carpet, the other goes to parties at night, and another goes only to films. But there are people who like cinema, and are ready to think, to see Cannes as giving an answer to what new cinema is like.

'What we like in a first feature is those which are not perfect - they are not meant to be. First-time directors] have to find their way ... if with the first film, a director arrives to say, 'This is my style, my cinema', and he tells us he has already found everything, it's not very interesting,' Tesson says.

Having being overshadowed for the better part of the past decade by the main competition and the Fortnight, the Critics' Week has enjoyed a resurgence of late, thanks to the breakout hits from the programme last year, such as Valerie Donzelli's Declaration of War, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, and Pablo Giorgelli's Las Acacias. This year, actress Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the iconic faces of contemporary French cinema, brought her directorial debut, Maddened by His Absence, to the Semaine. 'But we programmed her film [to be shown] on Monday instead of the weekend, to show we are not dependent on film stars,' Tesson says.

Then again, not everything back at the Palais is all about the glitter (which the A-listers bring to the red carpet) and the bling (which is what you hear when you head down to the film market, where production and distribution deals are inked). On the fifth floor is the Salle Bunuel, where the main festival's Cannes Classics section has, since 2004, unveiled a wide variety of recently restored old films. This year, the selection included the screening of a new print of Once Upon a Time in America, with nearly half an hour of new material edited into it; there's also the now-annual contributions from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation, with screenings of restored prints of Indian dancer Uday Shankar's only filmmaking attempt in Kalpana, and Usmar Ismail's treatise on post-independence Indonesia in After the Curfew.

According to Davide Pozzi, who presided over the restoration of the two Asian entries as director of Cineteca di Bologna's film conservation arm, the Cannes Film Festival became the very first A-list international film festival to 'promote the discovery of film heritage' thanks to the efforts of its artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who also heads Lyon's Lumiere Institute, which celebrates the pioneering brothers of filmmaking as well as organises annual festivals dedicated to cinematic classics.

Fremaux's move is the latest in which the official competition has sought to update itself beyond its elitist image. His predecessor Gilles Jacob - who is now president of the festival - established Un Certain Regard, a section devoted to films by younger filmmakers on their way up and also established directors making off-kilter material; special screening slots were also regularly given to first-time filmmakers.

Waintrop and Tesson say the official festival has caught up with their respective sidebar competitions in terms of showing cutting-edge work from the margins. Thinking back on his younger days of attending the Quinzaine as a film-goer, Waintrop says: 'In the beginning it meant a lot to me because I was sure I would find a lot of different movies there - 25 or 30 years ago, the festival was still very formal.

'But now it's more open to new cinema under Gilles Jacob and Fremaux. The challenge for us is to be quicker or maybe more direct. What's good about this job is to see a new director I admire in a new light - that's what I am doing now.'