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Cannes 2008: A Brief History of the Directors' Fortnight

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.”

In the ’80s and ’90s, even as the Official Selection became hipper to the times (and, with the creation of the Un Certain Regard sidebar, more aggressive in trying to wrest films away from Deleau’s grasp), the Fortnight continued to flourish, presenting the Cannes — and, in many cases, major film festival — debuts of Sophia Coppola, Atom Egoyan, Michael Haneke, Spike Lee, and the Dardenne brothers. Then, Deleau announced he would step down as artistic director following the close of the 1998 festival, because, he says today, “I was a little bit tired, and I think my taste was maybe starting to change. And after 30 years, you have to give the power to a new generation.”

The ensuing period of transition, however, proved anything but smooth. The four-year tenure of Deleau’s immediate successor, former San Francisco Film Festival programmer Marie-Pierre Macia, was notable for a few important discoveries (including the debut features by Romanian New Wave auteurs Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu), but also for much internal fracas that included the departure of two longtime Fortnight publicists and accusations that Macia was trying to take the event in an unduly commercial direction. Upon Macia’s firing in 2002, one SRF official told Variety that Macia’s transgressions included an attempt to create a Fortnight prize co-sponsored by a French sausage manufacturer. Macia, in turn, sued for unfair dismissal. Faring little better, her replacement, François Da Silva, was sent packing after only eight months.

But since 2004, the Fortnight has been enjoying a widely acknowledged renaissance, thanks to Olivier Père, the 37-year-old Cinematheque Française programmer (and contributor to influential French arts magazine Les Inrockuptibles) who followed Da Silva into the Fortnight hothouse with a promise “to restore the singularity and audacity of this prestigious, world-class event.” Père got off to a strong start, with a 2004 lineup that included Jonathan Caouette’s mixed-media mindtrip, Tarnation; Asia Argento’s polarizing child-abuse drama, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things; and Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s dazzling sophomore feature, Los Muertos. Since then, notable Fortnight titles have included Bong Joon-Ho’s smash Korean monster movie, The Host; photographer Anton Corbijn’s Joy Division bio-pic, Control; Robinson Devor’s bestiality docudrama, Zoo; and Exorcist director William Friedkin’s return to independent filmmaking, Bug — the first Friedkin film ever presented in Cannes.

Some of those films have been more audacious and singular than others, and Père himself is quick to acknowledge that, at a time when Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady), Portgual’s Pedro Costa (Colossal Youth), and China’s Wang Bing (Fengming: Chronicle of a Chinese Woman) have all been chosen for Cannes’ Official Selection, the Fortnight is no longer the Croisette’s only destination for cutting-edge cinema. “But what is still true, I think,” Père tells me over coffee a few steps from the entrance to the Sorbonne (where, as a literature student in the early ’90s, he regularly skipped class to see old movies at the Cinematheque), “is that the Fortnight is the place for discovery, for taking risks, and still the place of freedom. It’s still the identity of the Fortnight to be independent, to be open to new forms of expression, and new directors — with a very specific editorial line. We have our own taste, and we are not necessarily influenced by what a lot of people are talking about. We prefer to fight for some films that are not obviously the ones that people will like and the media will defend, or that people will see afterwards in theaters.”

Père also dismisses the persistent rumors of friction between himself and current Official Selection head Thierry Frémaux, even if the two often find themselves aggressively in pursuit of the same films. In 2007, a movie Père had hoped to show at the Fortnight, Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales, ended up as a midnight screening in the Official Selection instead. This year, the Fortnight will open with Four Nights with Anna, the first film in 17 years by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, which was originally rumored to be part of the Official Selection (where Skolimowski has presented five previous features).

“We stay very cordial and friendly — it’s not war or a fight, it’s not contemptuous or disrespectful,” Père says. “But I don’t want to be dependent on the Official Selection. I just want to do my job, almost as if they didn’t exist — just to see films and to invite or not invite them. Of course, if I know a film is invited by another section, I have to talk to the producer and director to try to convince them to come to the Fortnight. Of course, I can lose a film I invite because it prefers to go to another section. But there can also be a film that is invited by two or three different sections and decides to come to the Quinzaine.”

Frémaux concurs that “the relationship is good because Olivier is a friend. Of course, there are challenges. The Official Selection has the first look at most films. So, with the Quinzaine, and also with the Critics’ Week, we have to pay the price for all our mistakes. If you miss a film, if you are tired, if you want to think about it for a little, they will take it.”

As part of its 40th edition (May 15-25), the Fortnight will premiere a feature-length documentary, 40 X 15, about its own storied history, as well as a new restoration of American directors Robert Kramer and John Douglas’ Milestones, an epic contemplation of the fallout of the ’60s radical movement, which first screened at the Quinzaine in 1975. Deleau himself will be on hand, despite a professed aversion to tributes and anniversaries. “You know, if I didn’t have esteem for Olivier, I wouldn’t be coming,” he says. “Because really, when you are getting old, it’s stupid to keep having anniversaries. When it’s 20 years, okay. But after that, it’s masochism.”

There are also planned Fortnight tributes and series scheduled for later this year in cities around the world, including New York, Buenos Aires, Athens, Seoul, Bucharest, Beirut and — with any luck — Los Angeles. But, true to the progressive spirit of the Fortnight, Père remains less interested in looking back than in moving forward. “I think the Fortnight has a very important role to play in the world of festivals and in the world of cinema, because, more and more, producers and distributors are becoming very shy,” he says. “They’re very afraid of making difficult films. And festivals have also become more shy, reluctant to show films that are too difficult, not commercial enough. That will be the end of the artistic cinema. So, I think we have this mission to follow, and of course the Official Selection does too.”

In Frémaux’s assessment, “Forty years later, the Quinzaine is still what we can call branché [trendy], and I think it will be forever. It’s fashionable, because it’s like a festival apart, and I think it’s good. It’s all part of the funny system of Cannes.”


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