The often stormy, sometimes downright crazy, history of what the Cannes Film Festival still refers to as a “parallel section” rather than by its actual name gets a warm 40th anni pat on the back from a battalion of big names in docu “40X15.” Anchored by an in-depth interview with the wry Pierre-Henri Deleau, head of the Directors’ Fortnight for its first 30 years, this makes required viewing for movie aficionados, especially with some trimming of its more discursive second half. Airing on French TV this month, this is a natural pickup for specialist webs worldwide.
Born from the chaos of spring 1968 — when Gaul’s filmers protested the firing of Cinematheque Francaise head Henri Langlois, and brought the Cannes Film Festival to a stop in the process — the Fortnight was explicitly set up, by the newly-formed SRF (French Directors’ Guild) to give a voice to auteurist cinema, which it felt was not repped by the stuffy, black-tie fest. (For the first 20 years of Cannes’ history, the majority of pics were submitted by national producers’ orgs, not selected by a committee.)
Cannes boss, Robert Favre Le Bret, was seemingly conciliatory towards the SRF, even renting it two cinemas (the Rex and Olympia) for the Fortnight’s first year in 1969. But behind the scenes, tensions and chaos reigned. As Deleau notes, the Fortnight had no catalog, just a poster, and unspooled an amazing total of 62 movies that year. When two titles didn’t arrive on time, he screened a couple of Cuban pics that had been hand-delivered by a Cuban rep out of political solidarity with the event; one (“The First Charge of the Machete”) became a classic, though Deleau claims he hadn’t watched either prior to their projection.
All interviewees warmly recall the relaxed atmosphere of those early years, with no red carpet, no competition and a kind of fraternal bonding between filmmakers. “We made films then for our own pleasure,” says Swiss helmer Alain Tanner. “It was a period of great excitement, of new cinemas being discovered,” remembers Werner Herzog, who publicly kissed the feet of Theo Angelopoulos when the Greek director’s “The Travelling Players” screened in ’75.
So much excitement, in fact, that directors more and more chose the Fortnight over the official fest to show their movies. In 1972, the empire fought back with Maurice Bessy taking over Cannes from Favre Le Bret and launching non-competitive sections to undermine the upstart. When Bessy’s assistant, Gilles Jacob, took over the top job six years later, and consolidated the sections into Un Certain Regard, it was the start of a 20-year Cold War between the ascetic, rigorous Jacob and the wily, combative Deleau.
Docu only refers between the lines to the personal battle between the two — Jacob is briefly shown in an unflattering archive clip but is not interviewed — which arguably led to some of the strongest years for both parts of the fest. (A similar animosity reigned in Berlin during the same period, but is also not referred to.) Deleau simply says that Un Certain Regard began as “a decompression chamber” and turned into “a war machine.”
Spike Lee, whose “She’s Gotta Have It” screened in 1986, notes how the Fortnight was the fest of choice for U.S. indie filmers, “the Sundance of its time.” Deleau calls it a cuckoo who went from one branch to another, before finally finding a respectable home in 1992 in the basement theater of the Noga hotel (now called Palais Stephanie).
Olivier Jahan, who worked under Deleau for many years, does a fine job juggling archive material, the core interview with his onetime boss and almost 40 helmers. Final half-hour, which follows current head Olivier Pere and his tiny team through the prep of the 2007 edition, is less enthralling, though Pere makes several honest points about how the Fortnight needs to adjust to new realities, both in the overcrowded fest scene as well as in the industry itself. Marie-Pierre Macia, who headed the Fortnight for three years after Deleau, says she even came to question the event’s need to exist.
Tech package, on DigiBeta, is of broadcast standard but looks OK on a bigscreen. A small number of movie clips is peppered throughout.
Official preem on May 18 featured almost 50 directors on stage prior to the screening, with a standing ovation for Deleau.