For me 2013 has become ‘the year of the film festival.’ In February I attended my first big international film festival, the Berlinale, as part of the Berlinale Talent Campus. Bitten by the festival bug I immediately arranged to cover the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which was happening upon my return. Then I heard that Nisi Masa were running a workshop in Cannes, which required a team of young writers to produce a magazine (Nisimazine) on young filmmakers with new features and shorts showing at the festival. I applied and was selected, and so we began planning under the guidance of the very organised (and busy) Fernando Vasquez.
The team was comprised of critics from around Europe, which was then split into two teams; one to cover the first week of Cannes, the other to cover the second. I was part of the second group, working alongside great young critics from France (Melanie and Elisabeth), Germany (Patrick and Sophie), the Netherlands (Kris) and the UK (Piers). Also writing were Fernando himself and Luisa from Columbia.
I woke up at the reasonable hour of 2.30am (BST) on Monday the 20th of May, after a robust four hours sleep and made my way to Gatwick airport where I bumped into Taylan, a friend from film school. We arrived in Nice just after 9am (CET) and promptly met with Kris. Tired, but enthusiastic, we made our way to Cannes via a train that we caught by a matter of seconds. After meeting with Fernando outside Cannes station we went to collect our festival badges (and were introduced to the festival badge caste system), before heading to the apartment to meet with the team as they arrived and discuss our plans for the week ahead.
That night I caught my first film of the festival, it was British film The Last Days on Mars, which was showing in the Director’s Fortnight (the Director’s Fortnight is one of three ‘festivals’ that exists within the Cannes Film Festival. The other two are the Critics Week and the Official Selection.) It is a low budget sci-fi feature that managed to make its way to Cannes on the strength of an impressive opening scene and a strong ending, topped off with a number of good performances and some great design. However, I could not help the feeling that I was watching a b-movie and, given that this was one of the few British films appearing this year in Cannes, I felt a sense of bewilderment as to why my native film industry was not more daring when represented somewhere so prestigious.
On Tuesday (21st) I went to see my second film of the festival, the French wrestling drama Our Heroes Died Tonight (Critics Week.) It is a tremendously bold piece of work, which probably shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Combining stylistic traits of the Nouvelle Vague and Béla Tarr, a historical backdrop of the Algerian war and 60’s French wrestling, director David Perrault has successfully made a memorable and entertaining work that will surely develop a significant cult status.
Following Our Heroes… I went to the short film corner to see The Opportunist (Critics Week) by American director David Lassiter. Since I was interviewing David later, it was important to find plenty to discuss in the film and I was very fortunate to discover an accomplished short full of nuance and ideas. In the film a young man blags his way into a party and then proceeds to take advantage of the hedonistic pursuits available to him. It is a deeply unsettling short film, but it never steps into extremes, allowing the tension to bubble beneath the surface.
On Wednesday morning (22nd) I caught Até ver a luz (Director’s Fortnight), which was screening in the critics week. I was there to review the film for Nisimazine and was impressed by the naturalism achieved by director Basil da Cunha. The loose script however, which was slackened considerably by heavy improvisation, was a problem as the narrative failed to grip me. Clashing with the screening of Até ver a luz was Only God Forgives, which my colleagues enthusiastically went to see (before enthusiastically berating the film.) Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for me, I failed to catch the film a further two times; this became a running joke. However, that evening I did experience one of the festival’s pleasant surprises: My Sweet Pepperland (Official Selection) by Iraqi-Kurdish director Hiner Saleem. Like a Leone western, set in Iraq following the demise of Saddam Hussein, My Sweet Pepperland is a bold and stylish satire that will make viewers grimace and guffaw equally.
When Thursday (23th) arrived I way particularly excited, as Jodorowsky’s Dune (Director’s Fortnight) was on the cards for 22:00 that night. Prior to that I had plenty of writing to grapple with and a bunch of short films to watch and review. I lined up shorts from China (Butter Lamp), Israel (Babaga) and Argentina (All The Things) respectively. They were something of a challenge to review, given their varied cultural backgrounds, but this made for a particularly fruitful day. I broke up my intensive writing session with a trip to the Turkish pavilion with my colleagues, where we drank Turkish beer, took amusing group photos and chatted with a man who reassured us that Ryan Gosling is a nice guy.
When Jodorowsky’s Dune finally arrived my expectations were high. I had been waiting for this film for two years. The film more than delivered, brilliantly exceeding my expectations. Director Frank Pavich has created a film that is a testament to Jodorowsky’s vast imagination and ambition in trying to film Frank Herber’s epic sci-fi. He also captured Jodorowsky’s unique humour, combined with his frantic passion unlike any previous documentation (including The Jodorowsky Constellation and Jonathan Ross Presents for One Week Only: Alejandro Jodorowsky.) After a brief exchange of Jodo-enthusiasm with Pavich, I left the theatre completely ecstatic; yet this was only half of the Jodorowsky/Cannes experience.
On Friday (24th) I did something strange for a film festival: I did not see any films. That isn’t to say I didn’t try. I attempted to gain entry to the Only God Forgives market screening. Alas, the badge caste system was not in my favour and it was fruitless. Nevertheless, it was a good day, because I had a meeting with Lee Marshall (Screen International, Sight & Sound), in which he advised me on the writing I had done over the past few days. Lee’s experience writing for important trade magazines and critical outlets was invaluable and I greatly appreciated his enthusiasm for the unusual titles that I was covering. Later in the day we also met with Dana Linssen, who put me on to the Nisimazine in the first place. Dana is a real idealist among film critics and a great inspiration for young writers, who face the challenging and sometimes cynical world that is film journalism. It is critics like her who continue to make film criticism a truly worthwhile endeavour.
Saturday (25th) was my last day of film watching, and it was the best one. Kris, Melanie and I queued early for Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur (Official Selection). When I realised that the film would take place within one confined theatre space I was filled with despair. Yet, Polanski managed to win me over, with a film reminiscent of his classic The Tenant. However, it was Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality (Director’s Fortnight) that completed my week. Returning to the Director’s Fortnight with Patrick, I saw a film that was everything I expected from a Jodorowsky film and more. The film is an emotional, surrealist, occasionally hilarious critique of the way that ideology contorts the human soul. It features an absolutely extraordinary, operatic performance from Brontis Jodorowksy as Alejandro’s Stalinist father. The film moved me unexpectedly, perfectly concluding an exciting, intensive week of hard work, great people and vibrant cinema.
Of course there were films that I really should have seen, but didn’t. Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour, Camera d’Or winner Ilo Ilo and Mark Cousins’ A Story of Children and Film too. But I will see them when the time comes. Regardless, my first experience in Cannes was truly a great one. I hope to return to the festival in years to come to encounter wonderful, familiar faces and more inspiring cinema. It may be a lot to ask, but I sense that Cannes can deliver.