Cannes Xpress 2024: Thierry Fremaux: We want to put cinema back in the spotlight

Straight from the heart of Cannes, our writer brings you updates from one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world
Thierry Fremaux (Courtesy: Cannes Film Festival); still from Payal Kapadia's All We Imagine As Light
Thierry Fremaux (Courtesy: Cannes Film Festival); still from Payal Kapadia's All We Imagine As Light

Despite a robust independent film scene, spearheaded by a bunch of talented young filmmakers, it has taken 30 years (since Shaji N Karun’s Swaham in 1994) for an Indian film to find a place in the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival. This has been so when our films have played and competed consistently at other festivals the world over. What took so long for Cannes to come around? What is it about Payal Kapadia’s debut feature All We Imagine As Light that has helped break the dry spell? Does the fact that it is an Indian co-production with France (as well as The Netherlands and Luxembourg) bolster its chance beyond its own intrinsic artistic merit?

At the interaction with the international press, which sets the ball rolling for the festival the day before the formal opening, the General Delegate of Cannes, Thierry Fremaux, preferred not to throw much light on the Indian selection nor on the lack of it in previous years. “It’s not we who choose the films. It’s the films that get themselves selected,” he says. A line that he went on to repeat when asked about the strong presence of China and Brazil this year as opposed to the lack of Israeli films.

While waxing eloquent about the “beautiful, wonderful” Indian films and expressing happiness to see Indian cinema back at the French Riviera, he also wondered why so much is made about being in the 22 films in the competition section and not the 65 others in the official selection. Indian films have been well represented in Un Certain Regard, Cannes Classics, Midnight Screenings and in the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics Week sidebars, he says.

“Film festivals speak through films,” says Fremaux, while dwelling on Cannes’ support for Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof’s The Seed and the Sacred Fig, in the light of the difficult conditions under which it was made and the consequent “acrobatic feat” of having been able to programme it well in time. “It’s about Iranian dictatorship creeping into the families,” he says.

Minutes after the press interaction, Cannes was abuzz with the news of Rasoulof managing to flee his country to an undisclosed destination in Europe after having been sentenced to eight years in prison and flogging last week. It is unclear if he will be able to make it for what will be a historic Cannes premiere—and the festival’s high point—towards the end of next week. When asked about how conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza impacted the programming, Fremaux says, “Films speak to us, reflect geopolitics and upheavals. That’s what artists do.”

He spoke affectionately about Francis Ford Coppola’s return to the festival after 45 years with Megalopolis, comparing the comeback to the homecoming of John Huston and Alain Resnais to Cannes years ago.

He expressed a sense of pride in having Greta Gerwig as the head of the jury, appreciating her indie sensibility and Barbie, and having turned an essentially “indie arthouse film into a blockbuster”. He reveals that he discussed the history of cinema with her the night before. “She said that she didn’t want to be seen as a judge but being on a voyage together with the other jury members,” he says.

On whether Ali Abbasi’s competition film, The Apprentice, about Donald Trump’s ascent to power, would impact the upcoming elections in the US, he brushed it aside as a “theoretical, utopian question” and says the film was picked up because it is “riveting”, adding, “When we gave the Palme d’Or to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, did it impact the re-election of George Bush? No.”

When asked about rumours that new MeToo allegations against some of the participating filmmakers might come to rock Cannes, he dodged it by saying that “polemics” had nothing to do with the festival. Ruing the fact that the journalistic discourse on Cannes had turned polemical, while earlier the talk would be about cinema and cinema alone, he says, “We want to put cinema back in the spotlight. In Cannes politics should be on screen.”

Incidentally, one of the highlights of the festival this year is a short film about the MeToo movement by actress Judith Godreche called Moi Aussi. Godreche had filed complaints against two directors, Jacques Doillon and Benoit Jacquot, for alleged rape. Subsequently, thousands of sexual abuse victims had contacted her, calling out the widespread sexual abuse inside the French film industry.

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