3 days in Cannes – and one step on the festival’s ladder

The Cannes Film Festival can seem like cinema’s impregnable citadel on a hill – but one of its modernising initiatives for 2018 was a special final-weekend pass for budding young cinephiles, 3 Days in Cannes. Naomi Obeng joined the raid.

Naomi Obeng

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Michel Toesca’s Golden Eye-commended documentary Libre (To the Four Winds) captured local scenes of immigration and detention in Cannes’s Alpes-Maritimes region

Michel Toesca’s Golden Eye-commended documentary Libre (To the Four Winds) captured local scenes of immigration and detention in Cannes’s Alpes-Maritimes region

The outside of the Palais des Festivals is packed with festival goers and people trying their luck, asking anyone with a pass around their neck for a spare invitation. Invitations are required for morning screenings and premieres in the two main cinemas at Cannes Film Festival. They’re assigned by random ballot to those with accreditation and I already know I’ve received one of my requests, for the Korean film Burning, competing for the Palme d’Or. I’ll be holding onto that ticket.

I enter the building and join a long queue to collect my accreditation. Others arrive at the information desk. “This queue? Oh, okay.”

It’s clear that this queue consists mostly of my fellow 18-to-28-year-olds who’ve successfully applied to get a taste of the festival through the new 3 Days in Cannes initiative. It also becomes clear that this isn’t a festival of equals. Security guards monitor exits and entrances off-bounds to those without sufficient clearance. We’re definitely at the bottom in this hierarchy, but we’ve been promised access to all the film screenings for the next three days, so that’s something to smile about as the queue moves along.

It’s the first time an accreditation for ‘young cinephiles’ has been offered. It’s a condensed version of the Cinéphile accreditations that are reserved for film-loving locals. Other than this group, the festival is usually only accessible to film professionals and journalists. Stepping out into the melee with my pass I’m suddenly aware of my new status. A woman asks me if I have any spare invitations. There’s still a hierarchy, but out here I’m a step higher up the ladder than I was half an hour ago. Thus the hectic experience of the festival begins.

 

Day one

This is the kind of event you have to prepare for. With five cinemas in the Palais building, as well as the screenings in nearby cinemas and two methods of gaining access, the programme takes some serious studying.

Burning (Beoning, 2018)

Burning (Beoning, 2018)

Burning, in the thousand-seater Grand Théâtre Lumière, is the first film I see. Lee Chang-dong has created a beautifully languid and creeping piece of cinema. Foregrounding the male gaze and introspective from a distance, it glides forward punctuated by jazz and deep unsettling orchestral drones. Its violent undertones, sexuality and ambiguity concerning what is real carries it forward in a dreamlike set of scenes where not much changes, but things are still undoubtedly happening.

The final film of my day is Libre (To the Four Winds), Michel Toesca’s documentary about farmer Cédric Herrou, who was convicted for assisting hundreds of refugees who started crossing the Roya valley from Italy into France in 2015. I didn’t expect myself to be jaw-dropped, mouthing expletives at the screen, but the scene that triggers me captures police violently restraining a young refugee on concrete ground outside Cannes train station just last year. This is very close to home.

The documentary, while not innovative, does a successful job of exposing a French departmental system that was breaking its own laws in order to deport migrants who it should legally have been helping. I’m wiping tears in preparation for the inevitable standing ovation. When it comes it lasts long.

The trailer for Michel Toesca’s Libre (To the Four Winds)

Herrou is standing in the middle row and feels he should offer words of wisdom as the claps go on. He briefly urges us to continue the fight for justice. It’s important to see what Cannes Film Festival does for France, and in particular for the Alpes-Maritimes region – I’m glad to have witnessed this unexpected political moment. The film receives a special mention for L’Œil D’or (Golden Eye), the festival’s documentary prize.

 

Day two

I realise I’ve been missing a whole thread of films being put on for us at the local cinema. It’s around this time that the frustration sets in with the little time we have here. With the necessary queuing for screenings and lack of guaranteed spots, the hours in a day speed by. It’s also a bit odd to spend so many hours in darkness when we’re right on the edge of the Mediterranean. Still, the darkness inside the cinemas is so satisfyingly jet (I couldn’t see my hands on my lap in the Cinema Lumière. Ironic!) that I feel almost vindicated about missing out on all that vitamin D. UK franchise cinemas have nothing on these beautifully maintained theatres.

The trailer for Marta Pajek’s III

The short films at Cannes don’t get much of a press mention, as they rarely do at other film festivals that focus on the feature length. I caught this year’s selection for this very reason. Despite the slightly tiresome theme of a character searching for an absent person shared by several films, and the continuation of a trend set up by Burning for wistful, impotent male protagonists, there are some gems in the selection, and two particularly breath-taking pieces of cinema.

III, the only animation in the selection, from Polish director Marta Pajek, is an unsettling convergence of pencil lines that represents a romantic relationship through time. It starts sensuous with heavy breathing and evolves into a disturbing entanglement of emotion and physicalised power-struggles. Fingers are pressed beneath skin, faces are removed to reveal other faces. It’s an idiosyncratic sonic and visual experience that would do nothing so powerful if it contained dialogue.

The trailer for Charles Williams’s All These Creatures

The Australian film All These Creatures, directed by Charles Williams, is another standout. Narrated by a schoolboy witnessing his father’s deteriorating mental health, it draws analogies between the insects that have invaded the family’s house and garden and the microbes inside us that are not quite us, but without which we wouldn’t be us.

The theme of parts and wholes mirrors the father slowly becoming someone else before a family’s eyes, a violent and erratic man. It’s a downward trajectory with a beautiful script, narrated by the boy throughout. It ultimately won the short film Palme d’Or.

 

Day three

The final day of the festival promises a rerun of all the films in Competition. In the queue for Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, I talk to a man who’s been here since the beginning with his Cinéphile pass. He unfolds a trainspotter-like annotated programme, telling me which few films he’s yet to tick off the list. His enthusiasm is irrepressible and he’s dressed in black tie at eight in the morning, like many others, ready for any last-minute red carpet opportunity.

The queue for Nadine Labaki’s Capernaüm, in Competition, stretches far across one of the Palais balconies – a parallel line to the blue sea of the Cannes bay behind.

Growing up in a poor and abusive household in Beirut, the film’s protagonist is 12-year-old Zain. After his sister, aged only 11, is married to the landlord’s son, he runs away from home, ends up homeless looking after a toddler, and decides to sue his parents for bringing him into the world. Whether taking his parents to court for his birth is a performative trial or a serious matter isn’t clear, the film being more focused on how events led him to the courtroom. It captures a touchingly detailed realism and is deeply engaging, but it’s difficult to ignore Labaki’s cameo as Zain’s lawyer Nadine, a confusing casting choice that upsets the tone of what would be my favourite film of the lot.

Capernaüm (2018)

Capernaüm (2018)

Speaking to others who navigated the last days of the festival with a 3 Days in Cannes accreditation, it seems that we had shared a similar journey. We ended the first day exhausted and overwhelmed by the amount of film we had seen, and the amount we would not have time to see. A sense of disappointment set in, too, in that very few of us seemed to have received more than one or two invitations for the screenings for which they were required. There was frustration that the films put on specifically for 3 Days in Cannes in the nearby Les Arcades cinema were only subtitled in French, hence inaccessible to a large number of attendees.

By the end of the festival, though, it’s difficult not to be grateful. For some, it was a huge task to fly to France and find scarce accommodation in Cannes or nearby relatively last-minute (the accreditation requests were processed in mid-April). I overhear the following summation from a conversation behind me: “I can’t believe it’s over. This has probably been the best three days of my life.”

There would always have been a huge benefit in bringing new young attendees to the festival. Without us the demographic would be far older than that of, say, the BFI London Film Festival, and for a festival that wants to celebrate new talents in film, that’s not a great look. This accreditation feels like a step to redressing an imbalance that, showered in ‘prestige’ as it is, the festival might have been in danger of perpetuating for too long. In opening doors even for a short time to more young people, film students, professionals and film fans, Cannes Film Festival has spread its celebration of cinema to more around the world.

Even from the low rungs of the ladder, the view is good.

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