When organizers of the Deauville American Film Festival, which runs Sept. 4-13, forged ahead with this year’s edition, they knew they were running a risk. Though France eased out of lockdown throughout May and June, the national government maintained a summer-long ban on large public gatherings — thus sealing the fate of festivals including Cannes and Annecy.
Unlike Cannes, which rebranded as a label and put its market component online, and Annecy, which went entirely digital, the Normandy-set “Deauville fest sought to maintain its original vision, banking on the hope that the government would ease physical gathering restrictions by early September.
“In no case did we plan to go online,” says Deauville artistic director Bruno Barde. “I always said the festival would have a physical component, or would not happen this year. Cinema exists in the relationship between the film and the viewer. To only do virtual screenings is thus to sever the link. And in that case, you no longer have a festival.”
For many, the risk paid off. As it readies its 46th edition, the U.S.-focused festival has seen an uptick in industry attendees and press interest, and has developed new partnerships with pillars of the French media establishment.
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Part of that no doubt stems from the festival’s expanded slate. Alongside the 15 U.S. features in competition — which include Eleanor Coppola’s “Love Is Love Is Love,” Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” and Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize laureate “Minari” — the festival will screen 10 films from the Cannes 2020 label and three from Annecy. Among these are the animation festival’s top prize winner, “Calamity, a Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary,” and the latest work from popular animator and comic book artist Joann Sfar.
“The many cancellations have shifted a lot of desire and expectations onto Deau-ville,” says Barde. “We wanted to assuage those desires by [enlarging the scope of this year’s program]. We want to offer a wider selection of cinema this year.
“When you host the Cannes Film Festival, you host it as it is,” Barde continues. “We’re not looking to host Cannes’ American selection, we’re looking to present from the full spectrum. That means American, European and Asian cinema, as well as several French titles.”
Though the Deauville organizers have managed to navigate this year’s tricky terrain to their advantage, the ground under them has continued to shift.
In July, the festival programmed the high-profile premiere of Francis Lee’s “Ammonite,” a 19th century romance starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan that was part of the Cannes 2020 selection. In early August, however, the project’s producers pulled the film, opting to give world premiere exclusivity to another festival.
On one level, the turn of events stems from the opacity inherent to the Cannes label; on a wider level, it reflects the ongoing uncertainty that has marked this festival year.
Indeed, the daily reverberations of the global pandemic have had a marked effect on the festival’s hospitality department. Because for all its expanded focus, Deauville is still primarily a showcase for American cinema. That makes Europe’s continued ban on U.S. travelers a huge challenge.
Though Deauville has invited all 15 directors with films in competition, organizers remain unclear as to how many will be able to attend. Leaving aside those stuck overseas, the daily changes in border policies have made even intra-European travel a dicey proposition as well.
“What’s true today might not be the case tomorrow,” says Barde. “One day the border with Spain is open, the next day it’s not. We have some directors who are already in Europe, only now the U.K. has announced a new two-week quarantine for anyone coming from France. That changes things.”
Instead, the fest has asked every director to record a brief video presentation that will play ahead of each socially distanced, limited-capacity screening, and will host daily Q&As on the Deauville social-media platforms, re-creating in the digital realm what they had hoped to hold on the spot.
As they ready the upcoming edition, organizers continue to monitor government health regulations, which in recent weeks have both raised and lowered screening room capacities, while looking to secure the festival’s three main sites. More than anything, they’re taking it day by day as they look to give France its first major festival in nearly six months.
“This crisis taught us something important,” says Barde. “That’s humility. You have to be humble when faced with such a situation. We have to adapt every single day, because every day is different.”