The Return of Festivals - Cannes 2021 Was All About Films & Friends
by Alex Billington
July 19, 2021
"Cinema is not dead," proclaimed Thierry Frémaux during the announcement of the official selection for the 2021 Cannes Film Festival a few months ago. He was right, of course, but we already knew that. Cinema will never die! It just took a little break during the 2020 pandemic year, with cinemas closed worldwide. But filmmakers were still working on films - finishing up post-production from their homes, or even filming new projects when they were finally allowed to resume production (with masks required along with extensive safety protocols). Aside from the 2020 Venice Film Festival held last September, which still took place in-person despite no vaccines available yet, the 2021 Cannes Film Festival is technically the second major film festival to resume "normal operation" following years of shut downs and pandemic restrictions worldwide. They wanted to get back to how it used to be, with 100% full cinemas, and thankfully nothing bad happened.
One of my favorite memories at Cannes 2021 is emerging from the world premiere press screening of Julia Ducournau's Titane on Tuesday evening, and the first thing I heard was David Cuevas (attending for his very first time - follow him @ticktockanimate) shouting at me: "the movies are back!!" Hell yes they are!! I enjoyed this moment because I knew he was caught up in the glory of experiencing Titane with this crowd on this 8th day of the festival. And it was a rapturous screening, with the Debussy cinema full of film critics erupting into applause and cheers when it ended. I smugly responded to David, half-joking, that "they never really went away!" Perhaps true, but that doesn't matter. Cannes brought us back to that exhilarating feeling of "that was so amazing and we're all high on cinema!!" No coincidence that David Ehrlich also tweeted his review of Titane including the exact same line that David just proclaimed: "The Movies are back. I loved it."
There is a side of the Cannes Film Festival that is a bit too obsessed with the red carpet. Sometimes it feels as if Cannes would rather everyone focus on the outfits – tuxedos and dresses – and their famous red stairs more than the films. But, ultimately, I know deep down Thierry Frémaux does care about the films. In fact, it seems he cares so much that he programmed way too many of them. There were so many films in so many categories, including in the brand new out-of-competition "Cannes Première" section, that it's impossible to see all of them. But chatting with many of my friends and colleagues, we could sense that they bring these films to Cannes because they want to celebrate cinema and they want to share these films with everyone that is attending the festival. Most film critics dive in head first and watch as many films as they can every day for 12 days, despite exhaustion. That's what we're all there for – to watch as much as we can, while we can.
Being 100% real: I feel SUPER privileged and incredibly GRATEFUL to have been able to attend the Festival de Cannes. Thank you to @fullcirclecine for always having my back whenever I want to do something that's low key chaotic and to @TheJosieMarie for always pushing me to grow.
— Ileana "and I think that is cinema" Meléndez (@CaptainMelendez) July 17, 2021
Really great, last minute return to #Cannes: 7 negative covid tests, 9 movies on the big screen (plus a few pre-fest), countless friends seen and pints / vino consumed. Best movies: Red Rocket, Benedetta, Titane, Nitram, Souvenier II, Ali & Ava
— Tom Grater (@tomsmovies) July 18, 2021
Incredible result for Cannes – there must have been 500+ screenings of around 150 films here, and no distancing in cinemas. So much for the superspreader event https://t.co/9vhUErIxls
— Robbie Collin (@robbiereviews) July 17, 2021
I felt so lucky to be in Cannes this year and catch up with friends I hadn't seen for almost two years. Many of them I usually see every year at the usual film festivals, but everyone has been staying home since March of 2020. Cannes brings together one of the most diverse and international selection of cinephiles of any film festival all over the world. I've been to plenty of different festivals over the 15 years of running FirstShowing, and nothing compares to Cannes. Despite restrictions + safety rules / requirements, cinephiles flew in from America and Russia and Korea and Canada and Sweden and (almost) everywhere else. They had to be back. It seems we all needed this festival. We all needed to hug each other – safely, of course – and chat in person about films and life and anything on our minds. We desperately needed that ol' experience of watching films together in Cannes cinemas, laughing and cheering and crying… then debating and arguing and discussing.
There's also something unique about attending a film festival in-person – you can pick up on palpable buzz that often doesn't transmit well across the internet, change your schedule on the fly, bump into old friends unexpectedly, and have candid conversations that aren't possible on the web anymore. I was so glad to catch the film Hit the Road, the feature debut of Iranian filmmaker Panah Panahi, who just so happens to be (Cannes regular) Jafar Panahi's son. It wasn't on my radar before the festival began, I didn't even hear about it until someone mentioned it while Cannes was already underway. A few people were starting to say it's one of the best discoveries of the fest. Then I had to change my schedule, switch some screenings around, and luckily I was able to see it. They were right – it is one of the best of the fest. This kind of buzz does make its way around on the web, but it's thrilling to then catch the film at a festival screening while it's still playing.
Was it worth it to go to Cannes this year? Absolutely! Without a doubt. The film selection was as strong as I was hoping. Cannes is one of the top film festivals in the entire world because they continually bring in some of the best films from all over the world, and there's a certain exceptional quality to every film (give or take a few). I watched at least one instant all-time favorite (the animated mountain climbing film The Summit of the Gods) along with a bunch of other "best of the year" documentaries and features. Val, about actor Val Kilmer, premiered early on at the fest but remained one of my favorites. Discussing the film's premiere (via AP), co-director Ting Poo confessed: "Yesterday was so surreal. Just seeing the film with a full theater, and here at the most prestigious film festival… To go from not being around people to that experience in a day was incredible." I think everyone who was at the festival felt this way. We've all been cooped up at home, now we finally can get out and sit with a crowd and it's – it's impossible to describe how invigorating this is.
Why do I keep going back to film festivals? Because of the people. I've always said this. It's not just for the films, though I admit I do keep returning because I always want to watch new films. I can't deny that. I can easily sit at home and watch, but I think we need that experience of watching films together. Then catching up after: discussing the latest Apichatpong Weerasethakul film over dinner (what does it all mean?!?), or talking about why Benedetta wasn't that bad (it rules!) while waiting in the queue for the next screening, or arguing about whether the Sundance Film Festival is worth attending (it's really one of the best fests in the world!). Or just discussing what has happened with everyone over the last year and a half. I wrote a tribute in 2014 called Two Weeks: Making Friends on the Croisette: "I am happy making friends with anyone I meet who loves films and is happy to chat about them." 7 years later and it's still true – this is why I love Cannes.