Rebel sidebar fetes Jarmusch with career kudo

PARIS — Cannes sidebar Directors’ Fortnight will be in full nostalgia mode this year as it celebrates its 40th edition.

Festivities will reach a high point May 18, with the gala screening of a documentary about its history, from its heady beginnings in the wake of May ’68, through to present day.

Jim Jarmusch, whose “Stranger Than Paradise” received its world premiere in Fortnight 24 years ago, will be on hand to receive a Carosse d’Or for his filmmaking career. Other helmers expected to put in appearances include Sean Penn, whose “The Indian Runner” preemed in Fortnight in 1991 and who will be in Cannes this year heading the main festival jury; and the Dardenne brothers, Cannes regulars who first came to public attention in Fortnight with “The Promise.”

Over the decades, Directors’ Fortnight has brought a roll call of world-class helmers to the Croisette. Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” are among classics that first showed in the sidebar.

“We often upstaged the festival, even though we weren’t able to compete with its means, and couldn’t accommodate our guest directors in a luxury hotel,” says Pierre-Henri Deleau, the sidebar’s artistic director from the first edition in 1969 through to 1998.

Rivalry has defined relations between the festival and the sidebar since the latter’s creation in the months that followed May ’68. That month radical French New Wave directors including Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut brought Cannes to a halt in solidarity with nationwide worker and student protests (see story, page 48).

It wasn’t over when the curtain came down. Back in Paris, they went on the warpath, demanding reforms in time for the festival’s next edition. Rather than let them have their way with Cannes, the French authorities gave the directors a modest budget to stage their own event at the old Rex movie theater.

“It was on a shoestring but we made our mark — reaction on the Croisette was incredible,” recalls Deleau. “At that time, the Cannes Competition consisted of films that had been selected by countries they came from — it was all very official and stuffy — whereas we could program whatever we wanted. Our movies played to packed houses every night.”

But over time, the festival evolved and, with the arrival of Gilles Jacob in 1978, it came to occupy the terrain once held by Directors’ Fortnight.

An independent selection process was put in place at the big Cannes fest and Jacob followed up by creating the noncompetitive Un Certain Regard section and the Camera d’Or prize for best first film (the only official prize open to films in Official Selection, Critics Week and Directors’ Fortnight).

In more recent years, the growing influence of film sales companies has become a challenge for programmers. One of the key requirements of current artistic director Olivier Pere’s job is the ability to persuade sales agents that the sidebar is sometimes the best place to launch a film commercially.

And sellers do rate the sidebar as an important platform.

“Outside the Competition, the Official Selection is so wide that there is the danger a film can get lost in it,” says Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, whose Paris-based company Films Distribution has three titles in Directors’ Fortnight this year, and one in Cannes Competition. “Directors’ Fortnight is a small boutique, so a film there is more visible.”

And so, Directors’ Fortnight is still giving the main Cannes festival a run for its money, four decades after it first came into being. “It’s a necessity,” asserts Deleau. “Cannes is a democracy that needs a credible opposition.”

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