The Evolution of Film Festivals - Back at the 76th Cannes Film Festival

May 16, 2023

76th Cannes Film Festival

Tonight in the lovely beach resort town of Cannes, France, the 76th Cannes Film Festival is kicking off with the world premiere screening of Maïwenn's Jeanne du Barry after the opening ceremony. This is my 13th year attending and covering Cannes, starting back in 2009, and I am always happy to return. I skipped the opening film because it's just not my jam, but I am excited to watch plenty more films over the next 11 days in France. I come to Cannes year after year, spending more than I have in my bank account to be here, because I am here for the films. For the love of cinema. For the spirit of discovery and for all the hours of watching and discussing new films with my friends and colleagues. This is why I always come back. Yes, it can be annoying and frustrating to deal with. Yes, it the festival has problems like EVERY festival does. But I come anyway and make the most of it. It makes me happy that we're ALL here together to celebrate cinema.

The Cannes I attended in 2009 is not the same Cannes in 2023. The festival has been evolving and growing and changing, in good and bad ways. The pandemic caused a major disruption which lead to major changes which each & every festival is still dealing with. The biggest problem is the digital ticketing system – which every festival adopted in 2021 after the pandemic forced them to get rid of physical box offices and tickets, and shift entirely to tickets we scan from our phones. It doesn't always work well: the site had errors the first few days, then they fixed the problems. Many colleagues have been having difficulty booking tickets for most screenings, but that's unfortunately what happens when a festival outgrows itself. Thanks to Parasite winning all the Oscars after premiering in Cannes in 2019, they're the indisputable #1 festival in the world – which means more people (press + industry + cinephiles) come to this festival than any other. Their venues haven't changed, and they can only seat so many in each cinema. There's no easy solution to this dilemma…

The prominent question at this festival is: what is cinema? Is this what cinema looks like, or is that? Or is it all of this? Perhaps the more pertinent question is: what can cinema be? Has it evolved again, and if so, can we appreciate what is has become now? Cannes prides itself on programming and premiering the best new films from anywhere they come from – innovative, edgy, fresh, groundbreaking work from old and new filmmakers alike. That means that there can be thrilling, rollicking adventures from Hollywood like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny screening alongside of contemplative, slow burn three hour dramas from the other side of the world. Some people appreciate new cinema that is slow, while others prefer films that are more energetic and lively. Some prefer films that are abstract and artsy, while others are more engaged with traditional narratives that have great performances and vibrant storytelling. All of this is cinema, and all of it can be exciting, and now we get a peek at where cinema will be headed next. Which filmmaker will make their mark, which films will emerge from France and find their audience everywhere else around the world?

Documentaries have been winning the top prizes at major festivals recently (All the Beauty & the Bloodshed at Venice last fall, and Sur l'Adamant at Berlinale a few months ago) and this has been shaking up the film festival world. Of course, everyone knows documentaries absolutely are cinema but it is not often they win the top prize. For years, Cannes was known as a place where they never showed docs in their main selection – especially in the competition. Nowadays, a few are playing. In the festival this year they have Wang Bing's Youth (Spring) playing in the main competition, plus The Mother of All Lies in the Un Certain Regard category. There's also an intriguing new film called Four Daughters that apparently blends narrative with documentary by casting two actors to play the two daughters who have disappeared from a Tunisian family. Cannes describes this one as "a unique cinema experience that will lift the veil on Olfa and her daughters' life stories." Will it be any good? Only time will tell… But this is what we are all here for – to dedicate our time to watching what they've decided to show us and find out what will change cinema forever. At least I hope this will get more people to start watching more documentaries, no matter what they might be about.

The other question on everyone's mind this year – what about all of the protests? In addition to the Writers Strike in Hollywood (which I fully support), there are also ongoing protests in France – which began earlier this year when the government attempted to increase the retirement age. At the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut lead a protest at the start of the festival. They showed up with an impassioned argument that because students and many other people in France were out protesting, it wouldn't be right to ignore that and let the festival go on as normal. They were successful. The festival was cancelled that year (the Criterion Channel is featuring a selection of the films that were chosen that year but never got their chance to play) – along with 2020, it's one of the only times in the festival's 76 year history it has been cancelled. There's now a number of major protests and progressive movements all over the world, and with the spotlight on Cannes for the next two weeks, they might want to borrow some of that attention as well. I'm all for it! But clearly the festival isn't – and doesn't want any disruptions to their event in 2023.

The spirit of Cannes is to be edgy and disruptive and progressive. I wish they'd embrace that more, but now it just seems they want to show to go on with all the celebrities and red carpets and premieres. They don't want anything to get in the way of that glitz & glam, which is what matters the most to them. I'd prefer if festivals would focus primarily on the films and filmmakers instead… I rarely go to parties much anymore anyway, and I don't have time for casual dinners – I just go to films all day, then come back and write. I just want to enjoy all these films and talk about how amazing the discoveries are. The best moments in Cannes are those when you watch something amazing, and emerge from the cinema to ecstatic people that want to chat about how amazing it was for hours & hours. I fondly remember emerging from screenings of films like Drive, Parasite, You Were Never Really Here, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Lighthouse, The Florida Project, Jodorowsky's Dune, Inside Llewyn Davis, Burning, and many others. I'm ready to queue up and watch and see what Cannes has in store for us this year. Follow all my updates on FS here.

Find more posts: Cannes 23, Editorial, Indies



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