The Cannes Film Festival, the two-week long celebration of cinema in southern France, attracts novice filmmakers, industry big-leaguers and studio execs from every corner of the moviemaking universe each year. Though Cannes screens an array of submitted feature-length and short films like Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), it is foremost an industry-driven networking event for buyers and creators. Therefore, pedestrians cannot literally or metaphorically purchase an admission ticket to the festival’s sights and sounds. Even Cannes-goers cannot purchase admission tickets. Rather, one can only request screening invitations through the online accounts they receive after applying to attend the festival. Those requests are either approved or ignored entirely.
Two weeks ago, I attended the 73rd annual Cannes Film Festival. I was pretty stoked about this. What could be better than a week of warm fuzzies: watching, gabbing and thinking about the glory of filmmaking alongside other enthusiastic cinephiles? However, something I’d failed to fully internalize prior to attending Cannes was the fact that film is, above all, a highly lucrative business. After all, films don’t get made without studio backing and investor capital. Business is not necessarily the enemy, but when profits are prioritized over artistic expression, human stories take a backseat to box office interest. Therefore, crucial stories go untold and filmmaking becomes a means to financial end.
In the early afternoons, teenagers strut down the Palait in prom-like attire with notebook paper and permanent markers, holding signs that read, “Invitation for [insert film name], please.” Gaggles of suit clad filmmakers run from pitch meeting to pitch meeting with hopes to gain funding for creative passion projects. In the long lines that wrap outside theater doors, enthusiastic chatter can be overheard betwixt invitation holders about the film they are about to see, the boat party they plan to go to promptly after the screening or the beach party they were begrudgingly denied admission to. All of this is Cannes.
Cannes is self-promoting elevator speech conversations and late-night bar hopping. Cannes is imposter syndrome. Cannes is French soldiers marching at all times — assault rifles strapped against their chests — to secure the premises.
Industry producers, screenwriters and up-and-coming actors whip out business cards from suit jackets and purse pockets with the swiftness of samurai unsheathing newly branded swords. Cannes is intrigue via exclusivity. It is pomp and circumstance. It is endless.
At first, I was surprised and slightly turned off by all this. Where was the connective tissue and the conversation? Where were the nerds and the art kids? Then I realized that I was not looking close enough — they were all around me, bedecked in business etiquette and attire. Cannes certainly oozes a tangy sludge of self-importance and elitism. For example, paid badge level (3-day pass, press pass, etc.) determines festivalgoers’ ability to step onto the red carpet, frequent pavilions dedicated to countries around the world and enter parties. One literally must pay to play.
But the soul spinning, the churning communal appreciation for filmmaking and humanity, flitters through the air nonetheless. To be able to do anything with that artistic passion, people simply act the part. Elevator speeches and business cards are not fugazi emblems of status, but brief information tools used to connect potential film partners and help blossoming creatives gain access to what is the massive, nearly impenetrable entertainment industry.
Physical representations of the industry’s inaccessibility popped up at every turn. Festivalgoers spent hours in line, waiting for films to which they were invited but to which they would ultimately be denied entrance. Most prominently, the premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s latest picture, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” received thousands of invitation requests. More people were approved than the premiere’s designated 800-seat screening theater could hold. Some filmgoers speculated that this was done purposely to boost the film’s allure. (Nothing increases chatter about a highly anticipated film like a hoard of disgruntled international film reps donned in tuxedos and floor-length gowns, complaining about their inability to gain admission to the Grand Lumiere or the after-party at Leonardo DiCaprio’s house.)
To enter a building that held the festival’s panels, I regularly walked by a row of private yachts docked on a private walkway that sat opposite a strip of expensive restaurants. Outside these restaurants, refugee families often asked strangers for spare Euros. Walking inside the world of Cannes for a week exemplified the extreme wealth and casual cruelty of the film world and the world at large. What offered the greatest glimmers of hope, the stuff that fulfilled my candy-eyed daydreams, were the affinity gatherings within the pavilions and the community of young artists that romped throughout the festival. Events like the student film showcases formally organized young people, but they and other niche groups tended to drift together anyway.
The Pavillion Afriques gathered African storytellers, filmmakers and fans from across the diaspora. It was the first year that all African nations shared a single tent, as opposed to the multiple scattered tents of the past years. While I was initially wary of chucking all of Africa into a single base at the festival — especially amid efforts from African creatives to demonstrate intercommunal nuance and individuality — I was delighted at the level of warmth and communal support in the pavillion. World-renowned Zimbabwean author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga was present, as were famous actors, including Nigeria’s Hilda Dokubo, and screenwriters like South Africa’s John Barker. Daily panels showcased different artists from around the continent who provided insight on how to gain funding for a project, how to pitch and how to effectively share new stories. Mira Nair, the director of Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” attended an intimate late-night screening of her film and graciously answered audience questions. It was not uncommon to attend a country’s Pavillion mixer and hear a mesh of conversation about failed business meetings that had happened earlier in the day, the difficulty of finding capital to fund fresh projects and the importance of filmmaking regardless. To say the least, making the film industry internationally accessible and ripe for diversity is an ongoing, uphill battle.
Programs like the Creative Mind Group internship gave up-and-coming screenwriters, actors and directors the opportunity to showcase their work, make films at Cannes and network with other creatives. Joseph Akwasi, a Ghanaian filmmaker based in Cologne, Germany, screened his film “Home” in front of an enthusiastic audience. The film is a compelling psycho-drama that explores and complicates ideas of belonging and blackness abroad. Benjamin Sarprong-Broni gives a powerful performance as Samuel, a black man struggling to reconcile the emotional violence he faces and exudes in his varied environments. In a similar vein of budding brilliance, Victor Munoz shines in Tayo Amos’ “On the Clock.” This University of Southern California graduate thesis film examines how the “cost of menstrual products affects low-income girls” and follows the journey of a construction worker as he strives to find his sister period products during his lunch break. All in all I requested invitations to 10 films, I was accepted for two and saw one film.
Late-evening chats with German actress Lioba Grunow and Ugandan mockumentary makers Malcolm and Alim Karmali exemplified the transcendent, international desire among young artists to make it in an industry that appears ready for fresh faces and meaningful storytelling.
While Cannes at first glance appeared to be an exclusive commune of sparky Hollywood elites, the festival was, in fact, a playground for people who care about movies. Like anywhere else on planet Earth, Cannes had its pockets of unpleasantness. For example, members of Scandinavian pavilions intermittently denied entrance to members of the African pavilion, and the Women of Color in Short Film showcase screening was only given a 20-seat theater.
But there was also room made for glittering fellowship and good art talk. It is easy for events like Cannes to become verbally swaddled in this sanctimonious cloth, and for people to feel they must pretend or constantly be on to belong in those so-called holy places. However, the best parts of the festival were the quiet moments in the middle of screenings and the pauses between exchanged sentences, when people palpably made room for one another and participated in the ongoing story.