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BIFF Co-Director On Jury Duty At The Most Prestigious Film Festival In The World

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Fashion-forward as always, I wore no fewer than three hats at the Cannes Film Festival last month – simultaneously, and for the full ten days of my sojourn. Fortunately (a) my head is a large one, and (b) the titfers in question were metaphorical, and therefore both invisible and weightless.

I paid my second visit to the world’s most ballyhooed cine-jamboree partly in my spread-the-word, spread-the-love, hand-out-the-catalogues capacity as Co-Director of the Bradford International Film Festival – all the while keeping a weather-eye out for anything worthy of emulating La Playa DC (Cannes 2012… Bradford 2013).

I was also part of The Hollywood Reporter‘s six-strong reviewing team, supplying copy for the trade-publication’s daily magazine, while chapeau number three was less pecuniary than honorary: I was one of five jurors responsible for awarding the Nespresso Grand Prix, top prize in the Critics’ Week section.

The Critics' Week Jury (l-r): Dennis Lim, Alex Vicente, Charles Tesson (Critics' Week Artistic Director), Alin Tasciyan, me, Miguel Gomes

The Critics’ Week Jury (l-r): Dennis Lim, Alex Vicente, Charles Tesson (Critics’ Week Artistic Director), Alin Tasciyan, me, Miguel Gomes

As first-timers quickly learn, by the way, ‘Cannes Film Festival’ is a misnomer.

This isn’t the place for me to start ranting about the festival projecting almost entirely from digital rather than celluloid these days (quelle honte!) Rather it’s the term ‘festival’, singular, which doesn’t really coupez the moutarde.

The inner workings of the Cannes Film Festival(s)

There’s the headline-grabbing, paparazzi-stoking ‘Official Selection’, which includes the main Competition: 20 or so movies vying for the Palme d’Or, Grand Prix, Best Actor, Best Actress, and so on.

This year the jury, headed by Steven Spielberg – and including within its ranks such eminences as Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, Christoph Waltz and Britain’s own Lynne Ramsay – delivered a home win by honouring Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour Blue is the Warmest Colour (which I didn’t manage to catch myself).

But the Official Selection also incorporates various sub-sections, most prominently Un Certain Regard: another 20 or so movies, but a slightlier edgier, more eclectic selection (plenty of documentaries, lots of debuts, a decent representation of female directors). This year Alain Guiraudie’s gay-flavoured noir thriller, Stranger By the Lake was the buzz movie of UCR – and, yes, I contrived to miss that one too.

I’d have loved to have caught both “the Kechiche” and “the Guiraudie” (on and around Cannes’ seafront boulevard, La Croisette, it’s de rigueur to refer to movies by director’s name rather than by title). But my Hollywood Reporter and Critics’ Week jury duties kept me far away from the Palais du Cinema, the sprawling 1980s complex where Competition and UCR movies are screened and which operates as a casino for the rest of the year.

Instead, I was generally to be found lurking around the smaller screening-rooms at the other end of the Croisette, dedicated to the two main ‘parallel’ sections, as they’re known. While not ‘officially’ part of the festival proper, Directors’ Fortnight (Quinzaine des Realisateurs) and Critics’ Week (Semaine de la Critique) are rather more fringe (Edinburgh-style) than marginal.

The atmosphere at the far end of the Croisette is rather gentler than the agoraphobia-inducing chaos around the Palais, and it’s also much better for star-spotting: I clocked Eric Cantona, Beatrice Dalle, Agnes Varda and Peter Greenaway in or around the Miramar building where the Critics’ Week screenings are held. The best I could manage on the Croisette proper was a fast-walking, ridiculously tall, stern-looking David Hasselhoff.

The Critics’ Week winners

The Semaine has been going since the early 1960s, and always has just seven films in competition, each of them first or second outings for their directors. Not, it must be said, the most taxing of workloads for my four fellow jurors, including our genially collegiate president Miguel Gomes (the Portuguese critic-turned-auteur whose Tabu was perhaps the best-reviewed arthouse movie of 2012).

Our Grand Prix went to Salvo, an ambitious, Palermo-set story of a Mafia hitman and the blind sister of his latest target, from newcomers Fabio Grassadonia et Antonio Piazza. And we gave a Special Mention to another writing-directing debutant duo, Argentina’s Agustín Toscano and Ezequiel Radusky for sharp-eyed social comedy-of-unease The Owners (Los dueños).

I’m hopefully not breaking jury-room omertà, however, if I reveal my personal vote went to the corrosively cynical Russian thriller The Major, a second outing for the scarily versatile Yuri Bykov – who as well as co-starring as the main heavy (scary), wrote, directed, edited and composed the music (versatile). Did he keep the samovar boiling too?

A prize for The Major would certainly have been poignantly topical, as it was on the middle Sunday of Cannes that sad news emerged from Russia: the country’s maverick maestro of film, Alexei Balabanov, had died from a seizure at just 54. I’ve been an ardent admirer of Balabanov for several years and was delighted to mount a three-film showcase of his recent provocations (Cargo 200, The Stoker and Me Too) at BIFF in April. ‘Спи спокойно, дорогой товарищ’, as they say in St Petersburg.

On a happier note regarding BIFF 2013 and Cannes, it was nice to bump into festival alumni Ico Costa and Olmo Omerzu in between screenings. A compatriot of Mr. Gomes, Ico won our Shine Shorts competition for Four Hours Barefoot; Olmo, a Czech-based Slovenian, received a Special Mention from the European Feature Competition jury for A Night Too Young.

Ico’s film was screening as part of a shorts programme during Critics’ Week, while Olmo was in town with his collaborator Jakub Felcman to raise awareness of and funds for their next project (this is a festival that’s as much about dealmaking as it is actual viewing), and both Ico and Olmo enthused fondly about their April sojourns in Bradford.

From West Yorkshire to Cannes

If they’d wanted to re-immerse themselves in our distinctive West Yorkshire vibe, however, all they had to do was head to the Directors’ Fortnight cinema, located down in the basement of the five-star Marriott Hotel (built on the site site occupied by the festival’s Palais from 1949 to 1979.)

This glitzy venue was the somewhat incongruous venue for screenings of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, a hardscrabble tale of poverty set in and around Bradford’s Buttershaw estate. The “Quinzaine” has long been a welcoming haven for British cinema – the second renewal, in 1970, included the spiritual godfather of Barnard’s movie, Kes by future Palme d’Or laureate Ken Loach.

Last year Ben Wheatley’s terrific Sightseers was a rousing success in the section, but wasn’t eligible for official prizes and so had to be content with the much-coveted ‘Palme Dog’, bestowed upon the best canine performance. Twelve months on and The Selfish Giant, Otley-born Barnard’s eagerly-awaited followup to a previous Buttershaw chronicle – the BAFTA-nominated docu-fiction hybrid The Arbor (2010), based on the life and work of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar – was very much in contention for gongs.

And this believably hard-knock story of two pals drifting into the orbit of a venal scrap-merchant proved one of the word-of-mouth successes of the whole festival – at the screening I attended I overheard a veteran festival-director, a chap seldom given to public shows of emotion, confessing that even he welled up in the final stages.

So it came as little surprise to hear that The Selfish Giant, loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the Oscar Wilde fable of same name, had landed this year’s ‘Label’ prize from the Europa Cinemas network. This award, for the best European production in the Quinzaine, opens the door to the network’s 1,036 moviehouses across the continent and includes support for promotion and distribution – so isn’t just another trinket for Ms. Barnard’s groaning trophy-shelf.

The jury were unanimous in their choice, hailing,

“A supremely well judged film – delicate, powerfully emotional, and brilliantly acted with remarkable editing and photography. It is a tough subject but there is hope in this moving story of the friendship between two boys.”

The lads in question are superbly played by newcomers Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas – a 13-year-old from Buttershaw and a 15-year-old from Holme Wood respectively. Both were present in Cannes to bask in the extended ovations that greeted each screening and schmooze with the stars. Quizzed by The Guardian for his impression of the town, Conner pulled no punches: “expensive. A bottle of Coke cost €16.”

In the words of the paper’s reviewer,

“The film contains a passionate political subtext. The setting… is a post-industrial landscape of looming pylons, barely functioning estates and gloomy semi-rural wastelands where the spectre of unemployment and poverty glowers over the children.”

Maybe not music to the local tourist board’s ears, but that didn’t stop the city’s Telegraph & Argus crowing “Film about copper thieves is toast of Cannes” while The Times announced “Cannes has a reality check from Bradford.” The highbrow Paris paper Libération’s Bruno Icher praised ‘Le Géant égoïste’ as a “Dickensian tale” about a kid “not afraid of anything or anyone,” and who “flaunts a perfect mastery of foul vocabulary – two essential qualities to survive in this environment.”

International interest in The Selfish Giant has been unsurprisingly brisk, with US rights snapped up during Cannes by an offshoot of Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival. The UK release via Artificial Eye has been announced for November 15th – check the Museum’s cinema listings for details nearer the time.

Barnard’s rapid emergence as an internationally-recognised new voice in cinema isn’t just good news for Bradford. The lack of women directors in competition at the major festivals – just the one at Cannes this year, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi with A Castle In Italy – is a sore point with many.

And, while “our” Critics’ Week septet did feature a UK production (Aberdeenshire-set For Those In Peril, part-funded by Screen Yorkshire), there wasn’t a single British director in the Palme running – it’s seven long years since Loach took the laurels with The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Barnard’s ascent to the “front ranks”, joining Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Joanna Hogg, is therefore a real cause for celebration – from Cannes to Buttershaw, and beyond. Raise your glasses… and your hats.

Written by Neil Young

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