Dennis Broe reports back from Cannes 2018.
There are three big stories at the festival and in each the work of the artists, the film directors featured at Cannes, is countering or deepening the official story.
The first is the MeToo anti-harassing and women’s rights campaign which two extraordinary films, one contemporary, Woman At War, and other a progressive blast from the past, Blow for Blow, take beyond its sheltered confines and open up to women in general.
The second is the move to revalidate traditional movie going with the forbidding of Netflix, countered by Godard and the Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s embracing of cinema in its multi-formats and distribution patterns.
Finally, the presence of Saudi Arabia as a purveyor of money and a new, supposed modernity as a means of erasing its part in drawing the Middle East region into a war with a supposedly terrorist Iran, contrasted with the plethora of Iranian directors and their humanist concerns utterly giving the lie to this characterization.
MeToo and the real Wonder Woman
On the part of MeToo Kate Blanchett the jury president led a delegation of women onto the red carpet at the premiere of the female director Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun about a group of Kurdish women fighting ISIS. They were calling attention to the fact that of the 1866 films in competition over Cannes’ 71 years of existence only 82 of them, the number of women on the red carpet, were directed by women, and only two female directors won the Grand Prize, the Palme D’Or. One of them was Agnes Varda, who was on the red carpet for the protest and co-wrote the women’s statement which urged gender equality not only in the film industry but in all industries. The Cannes Festival prides itself on being a director’s fest so this was the place to make this statement.
In the past Cannes had its part to play not in promoting but in condoning and ignoring sexual harassment. Harvey Weinstein’s reputation was made at Cannes with films such as the Palme D’or winner Sex, Lies and Videotape which his company distributed and Quentin Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction which he produced. (By the way Spike Lee was always astounded that Sex, Lies and beat out his Do The Right Thing that year and he has finally returned to Cannes this year in competition with Blackkklansman.)
Asia Argento was harassed by Weinstein at Cannes as was Blanchett elsewhere, a factor perhaps in her being chosen as jury head. Cannes needs to make up for its ignoring this behavior, and its director Thierry Fremaux was called to task this year by the women for claiming that though only three of the films in the main competition were directed by women, he had no control over this since the films were chosen for their artistic merit – though by a selection committee that was predominantly men, unlike this year’s jury which is majority women.
So far though, MeToo has remained for the most part a white, upper or upper middle class movement, with the idea being that these women are more vocal and will speak for working class and third world women, an idea that is classist and colonialist in its own right. It is important that MeToo does not become merely “I’m Getting Mine” for a set of privileged women.
Extending the boundaries of the movement were the Icelandic film A Woman at War about a choir teacher by day but an environmental activist by night, who with her bow and arrow is shown in the opening segment slaying power companies in an attempt to keep Rio Tinto and Chinese developers out of Iceland’s rural highlands, one of the last bastions of nature in Europe. She is quickly attacked by American CIA and Israeli monitors but is savvy enough to put her cell phone in a microwave while talking to a co-conspirator in a ministry office.
This is the real Wonder Woman who battles for justice for the world’s climate victims, and in the film’s concluding segment visits the Ukraine where she will adopt a girl orphaned by a war that is seen as having caused untold devastation on that country – a war provoked by U.S. and NATO aggression in the region.
Even stronger is a revival in the Cannes Classics section of Coup Pour Coup or Blow for Blow from 1972, about female workers in a garment factory who rise up against their male foremen, factory owners, and union leaders who all conspire against them. The opening sequence has the women chained to their sewing machines, unable to take even a bathroom break, while also having to fend off the unwanted touching of the foreman who restricts their movement.
The film details the women’s occupying the factory and as such recalls Salt of the Earth, a film from the Hollywood blacklist period where women win a strike. This is the one of the best films on labour ever made and hopefully, in the age of the French president Macron’s attacks on the railroad, plane and academic workers, will soon be revived in France and be able to be seen in the U.S. as well.
The forbidding of Netflix
The second major story is a turning away from the experimentation of last year in terms of formats and distribution patterns toward a more standard theatrical emphasis, with the forbidding of Netflix films, which often do not open in cinemas, from being in Cannes competition. That meant this year no Jeremy Sauliner with Hold the Dark and whose Green Room was one of the great surprises of the festival two years ago, no Alphonso Quaron with his film Roma, and no original Orson Welles whose unfinished Other Side of the Wind had been restored by the streaming service.
France’s distribution system forbids showing other than in a cinema for three years after release though this is suspended for Canal Plus which can show after 10 months. It would surely be much better to tax the Netflix films and, as is done with Canal Plus, use that money to finance French film and television production which is currently suffering from depleted funds because Canal Plus is losing French subscribers to Netflix. The motto here should be if you can’t beat ‘em, tax ‘em.
Virtual Reality was also not highlighted here as it was in last year’s Venice Film Festival though there is a Virtual Reality cinema in the market section of the festival, an indication that that form is gaining credence. Also struck this year is television, a place where at least in Hollywood and increasingly across the globe, what used to be mid-level more intelligent film production has migrated.
There has as well been a doubling down on the rules surrounding the festival in another effort to turn back time. There are no selfies allowed on the red carpet this year, though in a way taking a selfie on the tapis rouge diminishes the glow of the event and says anyone can be a star. Press screenings this year have also been altered, with no screenings before the red carpet opening, on the idea that with the speed of the internet, a film that is seen by critics in the morning may have already generated bad press by the time it premieres in the evening. The American digital critics were upset claiming this was censorship while the French critics instead were opposed to the ban because it did not give them time for reflection, since the red carpet screening review at night was due immediately for the next day’s newspapers.
Cannes though in attempting to keep the aura of the red carpet premiere and retain the emphasis on the director as creator also scored two coups. Terry Gilliam’s Death of Don Quixote, over a decade in the making, was ruled by a French judge able to close the festival, over the protest of its producer Paulo Branco, who probably because of a previous Cannes snubbing, did not want the film to show. The judge specifically cited the need of the artist to have his film seen and Gilliam who had a brain haemorrhage the weekend before, will likely make it to the festival to walk the red carpet.
Also stunning is the new career of Martin Scorsese, who was here to open the Director’s Fortnight section of the festival with a talk and a screening of Mean Streets. Scorsese’s producing company Sikelia last year accounted for three of the most outstanding indies in cinema I Ciambra, The Witch and Patti Cake$, all of which harken back to and recall Scorsese’s own initial energy and verve in Mean Streets.
Two filmmakers belied the pure film ideal in their work. Jia Zhangke in Ash is Purest White traced the history of a rapidly capitalizing China by also shooting in the various formats Jia has followed in his path from independent, outlawed filmmaker to world cinema icon. The film opened in digital video, then switched to High Def video and then to film which marked the change in the prosperity of the country, though he returns in the end to primitive security camera footage to show that that prosperity also has a price as his lead female character in the shot finds her world now emptied of fellow feeling.
Godard in The Image Book also mixes or collides a variety of film and video styles and formats in a film that will also become a travelling museum exhibition and where the rapid clash of formats also figures a chaotic world moving rapidly towards its own destruction.
A third major story is Saudi money attempting to conceal and paper over the kingdom’s aggression in the region and instead emphasize its modernity with a 35 year ban on cinema and theatre construction lifted by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has also allocated 10 billion dollars, more than the yearly allocation of Netflix, to entertainment.
The Saudis have already cut a deal with Imax to install cinemas and are promising a 35 percent location rebate for shooting in the country, and a 50 percent rebate for employing Saudi personnel, a sign the country also wants to develop its own industry. Of course all this is happening as the kingdom rains death and destruction down on Yemen, promotes Wahabiism, the most virulent strain of militant Islam, and readies itself along with its U.S. and Israeli allies for a potential war with Iran.
Meanwhile Iranian directors are present at all levels of the festival, and are everywhere belying the state terrorist claim. It was impossible to miss the contrast, though it was nowhere emphasized in the press, that at almost the exact moment Trump was tearing up the Iran Anti-Nuclear Accord, Asghar Farhadi, who made a passionate plea for understanding and tolerance by the U.S. for Iran in his Academy Award acceptance speech for A Separation, opened the festival with Everybody Knows, about infidelity in a Brazilian family in Spain. There was also HBO’s Fahrenheit 451, an anti-fascist plea based on the Ray Bradbury Novel directed by Ramin Bahrani, Border a Swedish film about tolerance for The Other by Ali Abasi and Jafar Panahi’s Three Faces, the third of Pahahi’s films made under protest of his censorship by the Iranian state but featuring a complex portrayal of an ancient civilization.
There must be a revolution
The last word though went as usual to Godard. The last section of The Image Book is about the destruction rained down on the Arab World by the West, with the clips frequently returning to what look like atomic explosions after Godard in voiceover announces “War is Here.” His answer to this chaos and destruction is a title in this section that harks back to his work in the period of workers and student strikes in May ’68, 50 years ago to the day. The title reads: “There must be a revolution.”
This is Bro on the World Film Beat Breaking Glass at Cannes 2018. I’ll be back next week with a Polish masterpiece, Lars Von Trier’s return to Cannes, and a critical trip through contemporary Egypt.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.