Utpal Borpujari

June 7, 2009

The Cannes experience: The cinephile’s pilgrimage

By Utpal Borpujari in Cannes

By the time you read this, the madness would have died, and Cannes would have returned to normalcy. Or would it? Cannes, it seems, is in its “normal” elements only during those 12 days in May every year when it hosts the world’s biggest and arguably the most-prestigious film festivals. It is during these 12 days that the Southern France town along the Mediterranean coast plays host to 30,000 delegates and 4,000 media personnel (these are the official figures) who swarm the Riviera chasing cinema and its people.

Officially, it is the third largest congregation of media persons for a single event, after the Olympic Games and World Cup Soccer, and being one of them, covering the festival for an Indian newspaper when there is no Indian film in any of the official sections or the prestigious unofficial sections like Director’s Fortnight or the International Critics Week is certainly no joke, that too when you are doing that for the first time.

The cine-zing in the air can be felt as soon as one deplanes at Nice, the airport nearest to Cannes. The very first thing you confront is numerous printouts pasted at various locations in the airport, reminding people about the Swine Flu outbreak in some parts of the world, and warning them to be careful. Among the advice doled out is: not to be in crowded places, and not to mingle with too many people. But as soon as you get out of the airport and get into the bus for journalists arranged by the festival authorities, you forget all that. You are bound to, or else how will you be amidst those thousands attending the festival, interacting with and meeting people, attending screenings in the Theatre Grand Lumiere (capacity: about 2,300) or Debussy (capacity: over 1,000) or many of the other smaller theatres which have screenings of films in official, unofficial and market sections?

You plonk your luggage at your hotel and rush to the basement area in the local tourism office, sandwiched between two of the festival venues, to collect your accreditation card. It is the “Rose”, or the Pink card, that you get. Later, someone more experienced in covering Cannes explains to you that there are several categories of media accreditation, with “Blanche” or White being the highest category, followed by “Rose Pastelle” (Pink with a big, yellow dot), “Rose”, “Bleu” (Blue) and “Jeune” (Yellow), with descending order of importance. So, if you are in the White category (which means you either represent the really big international publications or are a film critic of high repute), you get the highest priority in entering theatres and press events, while those with Blue get the least priority. The Yellow is for photographers. Later, you are informed that a few legendary critics are given an even more important categorisation, above all these categories. An Indian colleagues mutters “casteism in accreditation” but for the organisers, it is one way of keeping things under control.

As May 13 arrives, and the early morning press screening of the opening film, Disney-Pixar’s Pete Doctor-directed “Up”, is about to begin (the press screenings are always in advance of the festival screening and exclusive for the media, while in the official programme screenings, media people can enter with an invitation card, but formally dressed with a Tuxedo), you realise you are becoming part of Cannes history. That’s because for the first-time ever,  a digital 3-D animation film is opening the festival. Thierry Fremaux, the Delegate General or director of the Cannes Film Festival, is so excited about it that he hops on to the stage, whips out a small digital camera, and captures the theatre-full of critics in Debussy with special Polaroid goggles on their eyes. Even the festival logo film played out is in 3-D!

If with the screening the 12-day cinema carnival began inside the theatres, taking all delegates through a roller coaster ride of emotions (from feel good to extremely violent), outside it was an exhibition of the power of cinema – and stars – to draw people out. This time, Cannes really suffered from lack of star power, with only a handful, like Brad Pitt (with Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’) along with Angelina Jolie, and Penelope Cruz (with Pablo Almodovar’s ‘Broken Embraces’), being part of the festival, while some like Jim Carrey to promote their upcoming films (not to speak of our own Hrithik Roshan, who promoted ‘Kites’, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who walked the Red Carpet as a Brand Ambassador for L’Oreal, one of the official sponsors of the festival, with hubby Abhishek quite a few steps behind). But that did not deter the multitudes, who thronged the stretch opposite the Red Carpet in front of Theatre Grand Lumiere, and the areas outside official hotels Carlton and Martinez, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars.

You hurry past all of them, as you rush from one screening to another, from one press conference to another, and from one futile attempt to fix up an appointment with a bigtime director or star to a successful one to meet somebody lesser, and in the evenings trying to catch a few parties (the biggest this time, some said, was the one organised by Vijay Mallya at his villa at Island St Margueritte, while the one by S P Hinduja at his Villa Paradisiaque was also no less). The one lesson you learn is that here, all the appointments for interviews are fixed must in advance, through the agents of the directors and actors, and you have to be referred by the respective film’s country distributor (in this case, Indian distributor) before your request will be considered. But then, you get to speak to the biggest of them – from Tarantino to Pitt to Ken Loach to Cruz to Almodovar to Eric Cantona – at the media interactions, provided you are lucky to get in. The Tarantino-Pitt press conference was the one everyone wanted to get in, and since it was immediately after the screening of the film, hundreds of journalists, including yours truly, could not get in. But not to despair – there are enough video screens showing each press conference live, so that journalists from all corners of the globe can take notes, and then file their reports from the media centre or the Wi-Fi centre provided gratis.

The Marche du Film, or the Film Market, spread in the basement area of the gigantic venue and also a significant stretch between the Croisette and the beach, is another world where cinema is pure business, unlike the art it is treated as inside the theatres, or glamour as it is treated by the fans on the streets. Here, filmmakers and production companies from all over the world come thronging with the hope of sealing one or more deals to sell their films for territories outside their country. The Chinese, the Koeran, the Taiwanese are visibly aggressive, and so are the Iranians, while a number of Indian companies this time tried selling their Bollywood and non-Bollywood films. The only success, though, was The Indian Film Company-Studio 18’s Dev Benegal-directed, Abhay Deol-Tannishtha Chatterjee-starrer Hindi film “Road, Movie”, which became the first-ever Indian feature to be picked up for global distribution by the legendary Fortissimo Films of the Netherlands. Though such bigtime deals do happen at Cannes, the market is also a place for forging long-time partnerships, which are taken forward to develop future markets. It is this aspect that Indian companies do vigorously explore. The country pavilions, on the other hand, are focused more on promoting their respective film industries, shooting locales, coproduction avenues and so on. The India Pavilion, set up by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry and industry body ASSOCHAM, did their bit, but some of the neighbourhood pavilions by even smaller film producing countries looked more neat and organised, while the big daddies like the United States and the UK do their business at a different level altogether.

The city of Cannes, during these 12 days, eat, drink and breath cinema. The hotel and apartment rates are officially hiked several times so that the city earns the maximum during the period – probably enough to sustain it through the rest of the year. Cinema is the soul of Cannes, as is so apparent from the gigantic collage of frames from the first-ever movie – the Lumiere brothers’ arrival of a train at a station film – that adorn the outside walls of the train station at the heart of the city. Every shop displays a poster of the festival, and apart from the official festival boutiques, other shops too make a killing selling souvenirs of all kinds. It’s pure celebration of cinema – be it the art, commerce, science or glamour part of it – here in Cannes, and there is nothing elsewhere that can beat the mastery of the organisers in combining all these to make it the biggest in the game. That’s what has made Cannes the biggest pilgrimage for any cinephile.

And if you look like a zombie after these 12 days, thanks to lack of sleep, erratic intake of food and ending up walking several km in the vast festival area, you actually don’t give a damn. After all, there is nothing like it that you will come across anywhere else!

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 07-06-2009)

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/6628/cannes-inside-story.html

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