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The 2018 Cannes Film Festival: A Personal Reflection
With Catherine M. Barsotti on July 30, 2018

As I open my laptop I see the date staring back at me.  How is it that we have passed the halfway mark of 2018? Every day the world seems to be “a swiftly tilting planet” as I fondly remember one of Madeleine L’Engle’s titles. Given the speed of technology, mass communication and social media, we hear, see and read many times the amount of information than any of L’Engle’s characters or the members of our own family tree. It can be dizzying—horrifying at times, but also incredibly beautiful and inspiring at others. 

Just one example for me took place from May 8-19 in Cannes, France. For twelve days the city almost doubled in size, including the 4000 international journalists attending the 71st Cannes Film Festival. Though not given press credentials, my cultural credentials allowed me to take in 26 films in ten days. Daily I was writing about my experience of the films in a journal. So here’s an inside look at some of the films at the 71st Cannes Film Festival.

The festival schedule includes multiple strands of film groupings, so I focused on four categories of films: “Compétition”--of the 21 films in competition, I saw 12; “Hors Compétition”/outside of the competition—I saw 6 of the 15 films; “Un Certain Regard”/new, innovative films—of the 18, I saw 7; and “Classic” films—of which I experienced a wonderful night screening, on the beach, of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Within the first three competition categories I gave my own ratings:

“¡Estupendo!”--films that moved or impacted me profoundly,
“¡Excelente!”--films that were brilliant examples of filmmaking,
“Está bien”--films which were OK; and
“Equivocado”/”wrong”--films that for whatever reason just missed the mark for me and my sensibilities. (As I have been living in Spain for the last three months, I thought it only appropriate to employ my second language for these ratings.)

In my “¡Estupendo!” category I include three films, which I list in purely alphabetical order. Though very different from each other, they each were achievements in filmmaking and shook me to my core.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of iconic American actor/filmmaker, Denzel Washington), the first African American police officer in the Colorado Springs police department. The movie was intentionally filmed with a low-budget 1970’s look to reflect the time period. The film is humorous but also horrific in the classic Spike Lee style of social commentary. It visually narrates how Stallworth infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, including duping the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone.  Unable to attend chapter meetings in person (you think?), Stallworth involves his colleagues, sending one in his place--Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish officer on the force(!). Through their joint investigations and infiltration they learn of a potential terrorist attack, and seek to derail it.

The film turns tragically contemporary by ending with television footage of more recent events. Lee shared at his press conference that as preproduction was finishing, the Klan’s “Unite the Right” rally took place in Charlottesville in 2017 resulting in the death of Heather Hoyer, a counter protester. When David Duke praised Donald Trump who said that, “both sides” were to blame, Lee said he knew that he had his ending (with permission of the Hoyer family; and which I won’t describe so as to prevent any spoilers). But suffice it to say that racial hatred is still part of the horror of America today. The film’s release date is August 10th, the one-year anniversary of the events in Charlottesville. Lee concluded his press conference by saying that this moral dilemma is “all over the world” and that he hoped his film “shakes people from their slumber.”  It shook this viewer, even miles and miles from home. At the festival’s awards ceremony, the competition jury gave Lee’s film one of its top awards, the Grand Prix. While the day before, the ecumenical jury had given it a special commendation for its visual craftsmanship employed to raise issues of human dignity and justice.

Another “¡Estupendo!” goes to Nadine Labaki’s drama Capharnaum (co-written with her husband Khaled Mouzanar and two others). It is about an undocumented Syrian child in Beirut, Lebanon. The film’s title was suggestive to many at Cannes, for it is a commonly used French word meaning “a disorderly accumulation of objects”. Certainly this story about Zain, a street child fighting for life in the slums of Beirut has that backdrop. But for others (the many Cannes Christians who staffed the ecumenical jury booth in the palais market hall) the title suggested the city center for Jesus’ ministry, Capernaum.  As in Jesus’ day, the city’s cruel poverty engenders little hope. Zain, like so many before him and with him, is simply invisible in the eyes of society. The filmmakers are trying to make Zain and so many others visible.

The movie begins as twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Alrafeea) sues his parents for giving birth to him and then not adequately providing life to him and his siblings. As he makes his case before the judge the viewer is allowed to review their lives of extreme poverty and social exclusion. After Zain, completely powerless to stop his parents, watches them sell his sister in marriage to their landlord’s son, he flees in anger and sadness. Though hardened by life, Zain is winsome, ingenious and loyally valiant.  While looking for work, Zain becomes friends with another undocumented immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a young Ethiopian cleaning woman who has a small baby boy, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).  Zain becomes Yonas’ “babysitter”. When Rahil fails to come home one day, having been arrested for not having documents, Zain must decide what to do. Should he sell the toddler to a human trafficker, or become the child’s only “family”? The movie transforms into a kind of “buddy movie,” as the unlikely twosome wander the streets of Beirut. Their “road trip” encounters all kinds of marginalized persons—Syrian and Ethiopian refugees, the homeless poor, the disabled cast aside, as well as dehumanizing practices—human trafficking, unjust employers, drug abuse.   And yet, the movie’s power and meaning resides in its portrayal of the full possibilities of the human spirit – its focus on Zain’s perseverance and ingenuity, his love and compassion, and his courage and loyalty, as he both seeks to survive and to care for another.

Because the director used amateur, child actors, the shooting extended for six months and 520 hours of film footage resulted. Asked by the press how she got the children to act, she said, “I just had to ask them to be themselves because their own truth was sufficient.”  But the patience and perseverance of the filmmakers paid off. The final edit of these children is simply captivating. Zain is the embodiment of the majestic human spirit -- a person created in God’s image whose dignity is given by his birth. The ecumenical jury gave this film their Ecumenical Prize, and the Cannes competition jury also honored Capharnaum with its jury prize.

My third “¡E!” goes to Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont’s, Girl. In his feature debut, Dhont as co-screenwriter and director shapes a beautifully understated narrative. The film traces a very tumultuous stage in the life of Lara (Victor Polster), a 15-year-old girl focused on becoming a professional ballerina. Even with the unconditional love and support of her father (Arieh Worthalter), not to mention that of her little brother and extended family, Lara faces all kinds of challenges to this dream. The most basic obstacle is that her body won’t bend as easily to the discipline demanded of a ballerina because she was born a boy.

Thus, the rigor of ballet training is used to explore adolescent frustrations and impatience only heightened by the journey of a transgender teenager to transition from boy to girl.  The viewer is not given much information about Lara’s (and her father’s) journey of transitioning up to this point. But we do know that they are being accompanied by supportive doctors, psychologists, friends and family in this life-giving but heart-wrenching process.  At times Lara exudes a peace and elegance about herself and her dancing.  At other times, her poise can be seen to keep the world at a distance, hiding her bleeding feet or screaming muscles from excessive ballet practice and her impatient and dangerous attempts to hurry the transition along.  This viewer wept at the yearning of this beautiful creature made in the image of God and the inability of her father to understand fully this yearning.  He fears she will push herself, whether it be in ballet or in the process of transition, to the breaking point.

This film hangs on the portrayals of a father and daughter. While the film focuses on Lara, her father is as inspiring. Arieh Worthalter brings so much nuance to his role. He never wavers in his support of Lara, even though his concerns are real. Victor Polster, a trained ballet dancer with a dancer’s slender body is totally convincing in the role. Even more compelling though is his understated portrayal of one in the midst of change on so many levels.  A first time actor, Polster won the award for best acting in the “Un Certain Regard” competition at Cannes. In addition, the international press association gave the film its highest award and the Cannes jury gave it the “Camera d’Or” prize in the “Un Certain Regard” category.

My “¡Excelente!” rating goes to films from Poland, Japan, Iran, Italy, S. Korea, and Egypt.

Zimna Wojna (Cold War) was directed by Pawel Pawlikowski who directed one of my favorites, Ida (2013). Again Pawlikowski uses breath-taking black and white cinematography to tell the love story of two very different people surviving the Cold War years in Poland and France. They can’t live with each other and ultimately they can’t live without each other. The Cannes grand jury gave Pawlikowski its “Best Director” award. 

From Japan, Hirokazu Kore-ada’s film Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters—a misleading English title) won the festival’s highest award, the Palme d’Or.  This small and beautiful film explores the meaning of family, portraying how family is formed even in the midst of society’s marginalization.

One of Iran’s most famous directors, Jafar Panahi, wrote, acted in, directed and produced Se Rokh (Three Faces), his fourth film since being put under house arrest in Iran and prohibited from making films(!).  While the plot is quite simple, it is the platform from which Panahi explores Iran’s attitudes towards women (using characters from three generations) and artists. The film received the “Best Screenplay” award from the Cannes jury.

Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro) is a delightful yet poignant film by Italian filmmaker, Alice Roherwacher.  Lazzaro, who’s loving goodness is often taken advantage of by those around him, seems willing and happy for it to be so. His sacrifices are given in love and transform those around him. (A Christ figure may be lurking in this film).  The film won Cannes’ “Best Screenplay” award (tying with Se Rokh).

Lee Chang-Dong is known for other great films (my favorites Poetry and Secret Sunshine), novels, and his time as South Korea’s Minister of Culture. This year he brought his film Beoning (Burning) to Cannes. A somewhat dark murder mystery that twists and turns, unfolding the general malaise of South Korea’s next generation (and other urban global youth).  Lee won the international press association’s award for the competition films.

Lastly, a first-time Egyptian filmmaker, A. B. Shawky, brought Yomeddine to Cannes. It is a beautifully different buddy story—between a mis-figured but cured leper, Beshay, who has spent his whole life in a leper colony, and a young orphan boy, Obama. They embark on a journey to find Beshay’s family who left him with missionaries so many years prior. While the journey is overwhelming, even frightening at times, they find other “family” along the road. Love, commitment and sacrifice make Beshay, Obama and the viewer question what really makes a family.

My “Está Bien” category includes: Todos Lo Saben/Everyone Knows (Farhadi) staring Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Ricardo Darín. Though the film falters in places, one conversation between two brilliant actors and their broken protagonists is theologically laden for rich conversation.  Rafiki (Kahiu) about Kenyan teens/young adults, Grans/Border (Abbasi) about outsiders (think trolls), O Grande Circo Místico/The Great Mystical Circus (Diegues) about generations of a wild circus family, Girls of the Sun (Husson) about women escapees from ISIS who form a military unit to protect their own children,  In My Room (Kohler) about how a man emotionally lost finds his identity and vocation after he is the only one “left behind”,  Leto (Serebrennikov) a film about Russian rock music and groups in the  80’s, and a documentary entitled The Pope: A Man of His Word (Wenders), all had narrative or visual issues that compromised their full power and meaning but they were worth seeing. Four other films: 10 Years in Thailand (4 short films by 4 Thai filmmakers), The Gentle Indifference of the World (Yerzhanov, a young Kazakhstanian filmmaker), My Favorite Fabric (Jiji, a young female filmmaker born in Syria) and Manto (Das, a young female Indian filmmaker) were also important offerings to the festival.

What is left of the 26 films that this critic saw represent the bottom of the barrel or “Equivocado”  and were: Under the Silver Lake (Mitchell)—Andrew Garfield sunk to a low here as compared to his impressive performances in Never Let Me Go, Hacksaw Ridge, or Silence; The House that Jack Built—though judgement for evil eventually comes, this is Von Trier consumed by his tedious penchant for the gruesome; and Farenheit 451 (Bahrani)—A fabulous director and two great actors, Michael Jordon and Michael Shannon, but this remake of a Bradbury novel just never came together for me. All three of these films were given considerable hype at the festival, but all three disappointed the professional critics and many of the folks with whom I stood in lines waiting for screenings. 

Ah yes, and standing in lines is one of the greatest experiences of any film festival, but especially Cannes.  It was there I had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and engage in quite deep conversations about film and many other things, including faith.

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