At the World’s Foremost Film Festival, Glitz, Glamour…

and the Maverick Spirit of Social Justice

(Report From Festival de Cannes, 71st Edition (May 2018)
Promotional Image, Cannes 2018

Festival de Cannes still holds court at the ripe old age of 71 as the world’s grande dame of film events, evoking age-proof Hollywood stars in haute couture promenading against a backdrop of superyachts and the stunning French Riviera. Inside, participants get the full sense of the film world -- the whole world even! -- holding its breath spellbound for those two hallowed weeks in May. Yet the glitz and glamour of this iconic event, like so many others the French have given us, also has the maverick spirit of social justice built into it from its founding. Bronx World Film came to life, in fact, at a Festival division where that spirit roams freest, i.e. the Short Film Corner.

I first attended this arm of the festival in 2009, as cast member of Suzanne Sitelman’s Normal Normal: An American Metamorphosis. We waited for our appointed screening in its home, the less-glamorous basement of Le Palais des Festivals. The many young filmmakers hawking their own screenings in a warren of small screening rooms lent it the air of a bustling marketplace. Suddenly my eye caught the Digital Film Library and I wandered over. It had 30+ computer terminals, each tethered to a central network and available for a 1-hour limit per person. You could sort and search the full program of shorts by country, genre, organization or academy, then view, comment, annotate and compile your own playlist. I spent every free second there for the rest of my stay.

No filmwatching experience can match the excitement of getting carried downstream on its dizzying rapids of high-caliber work in all genres, works made now by young filmmakers the world over whose boundless creativity and outsize passion compensate for tiny budgets. The French curatorial hand rewards artistry, character development and storylines. The works exude a strong sense of cultural idiosyncrasy, cosmopolitan verve and tech savvy. Most arrestingly, however, the entire program comes imbued with an unexpected undercurrent of social justice. That ultimately inspired me to start an organization in New York City that would carve out a new platform for world arthouse cinema, which has been steadily losing ground, and to bring pioneering programming to my home borough of The Bronx -- which with 1.5 million people had only a handful of movie houses then, all commercial-run, and which has even less now.

So, loaded with DVD’s (remember those?) and promises of a New York City premiere made to several filmmakers, I returned from Cannes and went to work. Over two years I designed the model for our unique flagship Cycle with its multiarts components, groundbreaking platform for the burgeoning Central American film movement and Bronx filmmakers, in addition to the core works from the Short Film Corner. Although no Bronx institutions would partner with us, good fortune lead us to the legendary La Nacional, on West 14th Street in Manhattan, which welcomed us with open arms and has nurtured us and helped us grow into an internationalist organization ever since. We burst onto the New York City scene in December 2011 with a 4-day event, the Cycle, comprising films, visual arts, crafts, music, performance and gastronomy. This event now draws young filmmakers from all over the world who come to New York City at their own expense to be present for their city premieres.  In 2017 we finally broke through in The Bronx with our first Summer Cycle, held in several borough parks, and will continue that program this year. Bronx World Film is determined to play a leading role in bringing quality world cinema to its home borough and filling the enormous vaccum in such programs both in our home borough and throughout New York City.

Critical Eye on Festival de Cannes:

Will Corporatization Kill Its Maverick Spirit?

Where does the maverick spirit of Cannes stand today? The Festival, in its own words, is …“a film festival for Europe in which art would no longer be influenced by political manoeuvring.” It was in part the French state’s response to the founding of the Venice Film Festival (or La Mostra) before World War II, of which fascist dictator Benito Mussolini appointed himself curator-in-chief. On the other hand, while Cannes has always partially embraced Hollywood, it has also stood as a firm counterweight to its all-pervasive commercialism. That underlying spirit gives hope to the art form and inspires our motto of “arthouse film for integral human development,” our vision of film as something far more powerful than mere entertainment.

 

Could this spirit be in trouble? Worrisome signs in 2018 herald a possible phasing-out of the Short Film Corner, which this year opened on the Festival’s second week, not the first week as usual. Organization heads, myself included, received no notification or we might have changed travel plans and saved on budget. The catalogue is smaller in size, geographical scope and diversity. The artisans and colorful characters that once populated Festival grounds have been replaced by souvenir stands. The murals of life in Southern France that once adorned the Cannes train station have disappeared, as if the city itself is undergoing a process of cultural sanitization that begins with the elimination of its peculiar character. Axing the Short Film Corner will devastate arthouse filmmakers everywhere, and kill the Festival’s soul. We hope to return next year and see it going full force.

Turning on a Dime; Feverish Frenzy and Grueling Behind-the-Scenes

The scale of Festival de Cannes is massive, labyrinthine and daunting. The unexpected scheduling change made it seem even more so, and forced us to adopt new strategies. With all these setbacks and developments driving the momentum forward, added to the chaos one encounter while traveling in France (my rich collection of travel anecdotes has helped me understand the wacky French sense of comedy), the first week actually turned out quite productive. It included exploring Marché du Film (the Festival’s business arm) and the white pavilions along the Riviera shores where national film commissions receive visitors, investors and film professionals, while providing free wi-fi and a meeting place for their filmmakers (minus the U.S. pavilion, the only one that charges its citizens for the privilege).

 

I met with 50 individuals from various national film commissions, festival representatives, independent producers, filmmakers and journalists from over 30 countries. Highlights included visits to the sumptuous pavilion of Kazakhstan – which is investing heavily in its nascent film movement—where a troupe of traditional musicians and dancers entertained and volunteers served culinary treats including camel-milk confections (I have never tasted anything saltier), Kazakh cognac and horse meat! It also heartened me to see that we are no longer the sole Central American voice at Festival de Cannes, as we had the opportunity to meet with the Costa Rican Film Commission, founded by independent businessman José Castro and assisted by the delightful actress Marian Li. The unforeseen shift in scheduling at Cannes ultimately brought unexpected and highly positive results.

Turning on a Dime; Feverish Frenzy and Grueling Behind-the-Scenes

Week Two: Return to our Birthplace at the Short Film Corner

The second week rolled around, and I once again strapped myself into a terminal at the Digital Film Library. I explained my mission to festival volunteers, who graciously let me sit at one terminal without moving to make my work easier.  This allowed me to watch over 100 short films, request 75 for our summer and winter programs and post-Festival viewing of 30 more for possible screenings in New York and elsewhere. The Short Film Corner has been instrumental in providing Bronx World Film with programming that you can’t find anywhere else. That gives us the advantage we need to continue to break new ground in New York City. We embrace this magical place for the opportunities it affords us to do the following:

 

• Absorb the “spirit of the times” expressed by young film artists through cutting-edge techniques

• Secure film programming for our range of local, regional and international constituencies

• Continue building our core constituency, the international filmmaker community

What Next? World Scope, International Megastructures and Local Impact

Bronx World Film is proud of its internationalist scope, which encompasses all cultures and regions, particularly those that have only recently begun to produce great arthouse and deserve acclaim in the international arena. As for Central America, it has taken its dedication to the isthmus a step further. The organization serves as the central pillar of an autonomous megastructure working in tandem with its counterpart organization in Honduras, San Pedro Sula [RESET], film and arts incubator founded in the country’s industrial capital. This structure provides a unique platform for artistic expression at a critical moment in the region’s history. Beyond that, the organization’s extraordinary commitment to women and young film directors has earned it praise from global Spanish media giant Univisión, which in 2018 called us “a place for young fimmakers.” This year marked the organization’s fourth trip to Cannes with full Festival accreditation. That is the film world’s gold standard, and constitutes hard-won recognition for its dedication to the art form and its track record as a signature New York City presenter. We look forward to breaking further ground as we bring Bronx World Film Cycle to Bronx parks again this summer.

Special thanks to Short Film Corner volunteers Denny Kellenbach and Stéphane Cesari for their graciousness and cooperation.