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Cannes’ Gilles Jacob Remembers Turmoil of 1968 Festival and Changes It Brought

Cannes has always been a battleground for protesters, with women’s issues rising to the forefront recently, and expected to take center stage this year. But 50 years ago, France’s national strikes reached the festival, with filmmakers taking up the cause for widespread change. They managed to shut down the festival.

You have to remember that Francois Truffaut had not digested the fact that Henri Langlois, the fou nder of the French Cinematheque, had been put aside by the minister [Andre] Malraux under the pretense that Langlois was disorganized and that the finances were poorly managed. But Truffaut adored Langlois, and well before May, he had started leading with fervor the demonstrations to have Langlois reinstated. But then, a few weeks later, the “seditious” — as we called those acrimonious filmmakers who had come to Cannes to stop the festival — arrived in Cannes in the middle of the film celebrations, and it did not take long for [Jean-Luc] Godard to convince Truffaut that the Langlois case was old news and that the issue at stake, in reality, was the future of film and even the whole of French society.

In fact, despite those who resisted the protest, like Roman Polanski, who had had the experience of [Soviet communism] and considered freedom more important than anything, most filmmakers joined their colleagues.

Most of the French professionals wanted to continue the festival until the end, as did [Robert] Favre le Bret, the festival’s director. But we quickly realized that the never-ending discussions, the utopian projects, even the punches going back and forth, would lead to nowhere, and eventually Favre le Bret made the wise decision to stop the festival, faced with everything that was happening in a France where everything was stopping successively — the transportation, administrations, factories, universities, high schools, banks, gas stations — and where the turmoil had reached a peak.

Yes, it was worth it because filmmaking from this period continued to transform itself.

And the rise of wages followed, but not for women whose time had not yet come — they would have to wait a few more decades.

From the festival’s standpoint, the birth of Directors’ Fortnight in 1969 powerfully boosted the official competition … especially because at that time the countries themselves were choosing the films that were presented in competition. It’s only in 1972 that Maurice Bessy, my predecessor as artistic director, forcefully stepped up and required that the festival itself choose the films, which marked one of milestones in the history of film festivals.

Directors’ Fortnight, meanwhile, continued to discover important filmmakers in the ‘70s and that’s probably due to its success that the president of the festival at the time (still Fabre!) offered me, as a film critic and especially as cinephile, to replace Maurice Bessy, in 1978. That is the reason why you will forgive me for saying that the events of 1968 were worth it, and that even if it’s a way of considering history through a tiny keyhole, I handled the following, well or badly, until … 2014!

So vive May 1968, and merci!

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