By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Forty years ago this week, the Cannes Film Festival ground to a halt. At an impromptu press conference held on the morning of May 18, 1968 — nine days into the festival — a rebel insurgency of filmmakers led by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut proposed that Cannes cease operations as a show of solidarity with the violent student demonstrations that were, at that very moment, erupting on the streets of Paris. By the afternoon, in one of the most mythologized moments of that much-mythologized time, Godard and others hung from the curtains covering the screen in the Palais des Festivals in an (ultimately successful) attempt to prevent the scheduled screening of Spanish director Carlos Saura’s competition film, Peppermint Frappé. Less than 24 hours later, as filmmakers withdrew their films and jury members excused themselves from service, Cannes festival head Robert Favre le Bret announced that the festival would proceed no further.
The following year, two festivals emerged from that revolutionary chaos. At one end of the Croisette, there was the 1969, interruption-free edition of Cannes. At the other, there was the first installment of an upstart festival, the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (a.k.a. Directors’ Fortnight), built upon a single, simple principle: by filmmakers, for filmmakers. The non-competitive Fortnight was the creation of the Société des Réalisateurs de Films (or Film Directors’ Society), a union of French cineastes formed in the immediate aftermath of May ’68 to “defend artistic, moral, professional and economic freedom in filmmaking, and to participate in the development of new cinema structures.” At the time, the official Cannes programmers based their selection largely on those films that had already passed muster with (and been submitted by) the film-export agencies of the world’s film-producing nations. When certain reforms to that process proposed by the SRF were rejected, the Fortnight was born. Think of it, if you will, as the original Slamdance.
“Now, it’s ‘the Cannes Film Festival presents,’ but back then, it was ‘the USSR presents’ or ‘Great Britain presents’ — it was always the same directors coming from every country,” says Pierre-Henri Deleau, the former cine-club programmer chosen to become the Fortnight’s first artistic director — a position he would hold for the next 30 years. So, Deleau circumvented things by going directly to the filmmakers themselves. “For example,” he says, “I knew the German director Volker Schlöndorff because he had been working in France, and I called him and said, ‘Volker, do you know of some interesting new German directors?’ He sent me some details, and it started like that.”
In its first year, the Fortnight screened more or less everything that came over the transom: a whopping 68 features that included films by Bernardo Bertolucci (Partner), Robert Bresson (A Gentle Woman), Roger Corman (The Trip) and Nagisa Oshima (Diary of a Shinjuku Thief); the directorial debuts of Bob Rafelson (Head), André Téchiné (Pauline S’en Va) and the American writers James Salter (Three) and Susan Sontag (Duet For Cannibals); and two films, Manuel Octavio Gómez’s The First Charge of the Machete and Humberto Solas’ Lucia, from an island nation itself quite familiar with revolutionary gestures — Cuba. Deleau recalls: “A guy just showed up two days before Cannes with the films and said, ‘We Cubans have made a revolution, we’re a democracy’ — democracy, what bullshit that sounds like now — ‘and you directors have made a revolution, so I bring you these movies.’ And they were both masterpieces. So I was lucky.”
It was the beginning of an extraordinary run. In the ’70s alone, the Fortnight was responsible for presenting the first Cannes screenings of films by Werner Herzog (Even Dwarfs Started Small), Dusan Makavejev (W.R. — Mysteries of the Organism), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets) and three future Palme d’Or winners: Greece’s Theo Angelopoulos, England’s Ken Loach and Italy’s Taviani brothers. In one of the Fortnight’s historic coups, the 1976 edition opened with Oshima’s hugely controversial In the Realm of the Senses, at a time when films of explicit sexuality were verboten in the Official Selection. (The demand for tickets ended up such that seven additional screenings were scheduled.) Showing a willingness to screen science fiction, horror and other genre films considered too déclassé for respectable festivals, Deleau programmed George Lucas’ THX-1138 for the Fortnight’s 1971 edition, followed by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1975. All the while, he continued to use Fortnight alumni as “spies and informers,” helping him to scour the world for new filmmaking voices. (THX-1138 had been recommended by Herzog after he saw 30 minutes of it in Lucas’ editing room.)
“It’s very simple to understand,” Deleau says with a chuckle. “If Picasso said, ‘This painter is a great painter,’ and if he seems maybe even a little bit jealous of him, you can be pretty sure he will not be bad.”
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