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Cannes Confronts the Age of Trump, Brexit and ISIS

The Cannes Film Festival, for all its moneyed bustle and aristocratic glitz, represents something grand and orderly in the world of cinema. The ritual promenades taken by movie stars and directors along the red carpet are as stately as papal processions. The carpet itself, with its 22 steps leading up to the Grand Theatre Lumiere, symbolizes more than celebrity — it’s an artistic stairway to Heaven. The whole spectacle is saturated in reverence, awe and old-meets-new tradition.

Given that, it takes a lot to roil the Cannes Film Festival. Yet this year, as the fortnight approaches, there’s a sense that Cannes could be like a castle built on storm-tossed seas — subject to the turbulence of everything happening in the world around it. The election of Donald Trump and the early months of an administration that so many have viewed with unprecedented alarm.

The fracture in the edifice of Europe that was, and is, Brexit. And the recent presidential election in France, the outcome of which was greeted by many with profound relief, though it’s not as if the forces represented by the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen are going anywhere. All these phenomena add up to a larger disruption, the sense of a Western World in limbo.

Directors Claude Le­louch, Claude Berri and Francois Truffaut sit with students and strikers in 1968. Fornezza/AP/REX/Shutterstock

So what does that do to a festival like Cannes?

“I think people are going to feel a responsibility to raise their voice,” says John Sloss, the entertainment lawyer, producer, talent manager and film sales agent of Cinetic Media. Sloss believes the film industry “represents the opposition,” but he also says that the instability created by Trump and Brexit have coincided with market forces. “[It’s] the greatest moment of uncertainty about storytelling and how it’s created and where it’s watched and the destabilization of all of the systems that Cannes is our highest evolution of,” he says. He thinks there’s going to be “a lot of conversation about this stuff going on in Cannes. Much more than usual.”

Announcing this year’s lineup of films, the festival’s president, Pierre Lescure, made the statement, “Since we have a new surprise every day from Donald Trump, I hope Syria and North Korea will not cause a shadow on the festival.” Speaking more recently with Variety, Lescure struck a lighter tone, saying, “We’re hoping festivalgoers will be eager to take a much-needed break from politics and have fun.”

Yet politics may be hard to escape. This will be the second edition of Cannes held under the state of emergency put in place by Francois Hollande’s government in the wake of the Paris attacks in November 2015. For the second year in a row, people may approach Cannes with a heightened awareness of terrorism, which is why Lescure and his team will be meeting each morning with the antiterrorism squad, police and local and regional authorities to discuss security protocol.

“I think people are going to feel a responsibility to increase their voice. I think the film industry, and certainly that end of the film industry that is most prominent at Cannes, represents the opposition.”
John Sloss, Cinetic Media

Cannes was founded in a state of disruption (the festival was originally set to launch in 1939, but a certain world war got in the way), and there have been occasional intrusions by outside events. On May 17, 1968, in the midst of the now-legendary uprisings of French students and workers, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Lelouch got up onstage to announce that Cannes would close, out of solidarity with those protesting throughout the country. (Not everyone felt that way; the festival didn’t shut down until two days later.) Godard’s view was that Cannes had become part of the problem rather than the solution. But in the brave new world of 2017, where the most powerful insurgencies are coming from the right, many feel that the turbulence of the moment will only energize the festival.

“I think there’s going to be heated conversation,” says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “And I think in times like these, where so many questions are being asked and there are so few solid answers, it’s a perfect moment to see films that deal with current events from filmmakers who have something to say.”

Richard Abramowitz, president of the independent production and distribution company Abramorama, agrees that Cannes has the potential to act as a panacea. “The presence of the festival, and the opportunity it provides for people to watch and talk about movies, is a welcome relief from the drumbeat of watching civil liberties and human decency deteriorate,” he says.

Nancy Buirski, director of the documentary “By Sidney Lumet” and one of the producers of last year’s Cannes sensation “Loving,” thinks that Europeans will be game to hear Americans’ responses to all things Trump. “They will probably ask us about things that we’ve gotten used to. Like, you know, what’s going to happen to culture?”

Cannes, in 2017, could be a festival that creatively channels the turmoil around it. The overwhelming majority of the films shown were conceived well before the triple-whammy of Trump, Brexit and the rise of Le Pen. But this is also a place where deals are made and dreams are born.

Security forces were beefed up at last year’s festival.
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

“I think Cannes is a reactive creature,” says Richard Lorber, president of the art-film distribution company Kino Lorber.

He thinks the last thing the independent film world needs now is a wall between co-production partners. “There are more and more global players uniting territories,” says Lorber, “like the Netflixes and Amazons that are spanning the globe. I think what we’ll see at Cannes is a more forceful reach for the uniting of countries, in opposition to the destructive forces of nationalism. More and more countries are realizing that the most valuable export they can possibly have is a movie.”

The buzz at Cannes this year is likely to touch on the effect movies can have in the real world. Last year’s Palme d’Or winner, “I, Daniel Blake,” became a startling agenda setter in Britain, its vision of the country’s fraying welfare system passionately discussed everywhere from Parliament to local pubs. And while this year’s festival includes such hot-button documentaries as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” Claude Lanzmann’s “Napalm” (about North Korea) and Vanessa Redgrave’s “Sea Sorrow” (about the immigrant crisis), it includes scripted dramas, too, that have the potential to emerge as powerful tools of empathy.

Todd Haynes is the director of “Wonderstruck,” one of the most eagerly anticipated films at Cannes this year. It’s set 40 and 90 years ago and traces the dual paths of two children searching for salvation. Haynes is fervent about the current state of political entropy. “I’ve been praying that some portion of the steaming Trump debacle might actually tarnish the drive toward global nationalism,” he says.

Yet Haynes believes that art can be part of the answer. “‘Wonderstruck’ is a movie that looks back for its relation to the current moment,” he says. “It’s a film about how pluralist meccas like New York City have always made homes for its orphans and natives of its immigrants.”

What just about everyone in the industry seems to agree on is that with so much hanging in the balance, Cannes may, in fact, be the perfect place to try to figure out what comes next. For as Haynes puts it, “Cannes will endure.”

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