Séamas McSwiney previews the 49th annual edition of the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight section
“You’d have to be a complete idiot to go to Cannes this year, with everything that’s going on right now!” said a May ’68 demonstrator to Jean-Luc Godard as they marched. And there are echoes with the current political revolution happening in Paris, albeit a centrist one. The sequence appears in a teaser from Michel Hazanvicius’ competition entry, Le Redoutable, which tells the tale of Jean-Luc Godard’s love affair with Anne Wiazemsky. What happens next in the real life political story is that a group of young firebrand directors, including Truffaut, Godard, Polanski and Milos Forman, simply brought the revolution south to Cannes and shut down the Le Festival already into its second week. Spanish director Carlos Saura went as far as hanging on to the stage curtains to stop his own film Peppermint Frappé from screening. Cinema and politics coming to grips in a very hands-on way!
One of the upshots of this revolutionary verve was the creation in June ‘68 of the French Directors Guild (Le SRF), designed to protect the artistic and economic interests of film directors. In 1969 they launched La Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Director’s Fortnight) as an alternative to establishment Cannes. It has since been the launch-pad of luminaries such as George Lucas, Ken Loach, Michael Haneke, Spike Lee, the Dardenne brothers, and many others…
True to its original spirit of discovery, there are five first films in this year’s Quinzaine and seven directed by women.
I Am Not a Witch
Among them, we meet Shula, a 9-year-old girl convicted of sorcery and exiled from her Zambian village to a witch camp in the desert. Once there she discovers the strange protocols of the place and manages to derange the other inmates… Thus begins the tale of I Am Not a Witch, a present-day African satire about beliefs in witchcraft. This Zambian tale is director Rungano Nyoni’s first feature, but it won’t be her first trip to Le Festival. Born in Lusaka, she grew up in Wales and studied drama in London. Her first film, The List, won a BAFTA Cymru and, more recently, a Danish-Finnish short co-directed with Iranian-Finnish director Hamy Ramezan, Listen, was programmed in Directors Fortnight in 2014 and nominated for an EFA Award.
I am Not a Witch is a Franco-British-German co-production with an impressive array of institutions behind it. Nurtured by a series of development residencies, including Cannes’ own Cinéfondation and other European funding initiatives like Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund and the Hubert Bals Fund in Holland, it also has some choice UK investors in Channel 4 and BFI. Her British producer Emily Morgan of Soda Pictures says, “It’s been exciting seeing Rungano deliver on her truly original script with such emotive visual flair and her unique blend of fantasy and realism, amidst a variety of captivating Zambian landscapes.” Will the benevolently byzantine alchemy of European film funding be an inspiring bedfellow for sub-Saharan cinematic sorcery? We’ll soon see. One certainty is the media magic of nine-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) graces the Croisette with her presence.
Un Beau Soleil d’Interieur
Among the 19 features, there will be five films from France and five from the USA, with three from Italy. Claire Denis’s Un beau soleil intérieur will open. In a departure for her, it is a comedy starring an array of top French thespians including Juliette Binoche in the lead as a divorced woman’s philosophical quest for true love and a cameo from Gerard Depardieu as a fortune teller. The closing film will be Patti Cake$ by Geremy Jasper, a film that started a bidding war in Sundance this year. “You’ve never met a rapper like Patricia Dombrowski. Her best friend calls her Killa-P, while the haters call her Dumbo, but to us, she will always be “Patti Cake$,” an overweight white hip-hop artist who announces her force-of-nature personality from her very first song” said Variety.
Bushwick, by Cary Murnion & Jonathan Milott, tells a near-future dystopia set in the neighbourhood of the same name. It seems there is to be a new war of secession as bodies litter the streets of Brooklyn. Who is behind this new American civil war? Have the masked marauders mad dog Texans come to fix the Yankees? Is it a metaphor for what’s happening under the surface to today’s morally battered USA? Is it a B-movie masquerading as agitprop? You’ll get no spoilers here.
Imagine a jolly film from today’s Afghanistan that gives us more insight than 24 years of 24-hour news reports. That’s what we have with Nothingwood. Salim Shaheen is a filmmaker, he’s directed 110 films, ranging from Bruce Lee style actioners to Bollywood inspired rom-coms, complete with song and dance numbers and low-budget special effects. All were shot during the past forty years, a period when Afghanistan has been in a state of almost perpetual war, beginning with the Russian occupation and up to the current Kabul government-Western coalition war with the Taliban. He acts in his own films, so he is probably one of the most popular people in the country bringing a particularly Afghan blend of escapism to the fraught lives of the people.
Nothingwood is a documentary by French-Swedish director Sonia Kronland, a journalist who has been a regular visitor to Afghanistan for fifteen years. Despite her seeming reticence, the film becomes a kind of double act between her and Salim, filmmaker to filmmaker, as they and his band of Merry Men take a small UN jet to a mountainous region to shoot what appears to be his own fictionalised bio-pic. He’s a gregarious make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of director and helpfully chooses interesting locations for Sonia’s film as they work through his own shooting schedule, stealing images and improvising scenes here and there.
As well as being the story of an extraordinarily resourceful man, somewhat imbued with himself, the film, while telling his story, is a litany of revealing socio-cultural surprises: a masked Taliban who talks about his love for Salim’s films, though forbidden by his beliefs; Salim, himself an observant Muslim, brings us to his home where we meet his many sons, all of whom have acted in his films, but we will not meet his two wives or his many daughters. “I know them but filming them was out of the question”, says Kronland. Then there is the slow reveal of his favourite actor, Qurban Ali, a man who likes to dress up as women, who ostensibly demonstrates a queenly demeanour, whether in drag or not. We meet his wife and children in wry interview and realise that “as long as he does not come out as a homosexual, his taste for gender role switching and cross-dressing is tolerated and even appreciated in Afghan society” says Kronland. Asked how she was accepted as a woman, Kronland says, “It was easy, because to them, … I am a foreigner, I am not a Muslim and, above all, I am a director; So I cannot really be a woman!”
As this caravanserai of a film unspools, Nothingwood becomes an accommodating tango between two filmmakers, dancing to different tunes in refreshing harmony, as it reveals a mostly fun loving, sunny-side of the Afghan disposition. Thus it is also a two-tier tribute to cinema as a balm to appease the worst of human behaviour.
Séamas McSwiney is an Irish writer-producer based in Paris