Cannes 2017: Where political films meet the politics of cinema

Netflix, Kimberly French | Bong Joon-ho's "Okja" is one of two Netflix productions competing for the Palme d'Or this year.

There’ll be politics aplenty on Cannes film screens this year. But the run-up to the 70th edition of the world’s most glamorous festival has been overshadowed by a very French fracas over the inclusion of streaming upstart Netflix.


It’s the kind of festering polemic Cannes organisers were hoping to avoid as they prepare to celebrate the festival’s 70th anniversary. Cinema's most prestigious gathering appeared to be embracing modernity last month when it included two productions by streaming behemoth Netflix – Bong Joon-ho‘s “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories” by Noah Baumach – in its competition line-up, as well as welcoming TV series by David Lynch and Jane Campion. Its main competitors having already taken such new directions, it seemed only natural that Cannes would adapt to the changing times.

Except the digital upstart, with its 100 million subscribers, is fiercely resisted by exhibitors in France, the country that invented the art form. They – and the festival itself – regard Cannes as the guardian of the big screen, and the glitzy showcase of an elaborate system designed to finance France’s cherished cinema industry, theatres included. Netflix, however, isn’t interested in the theatres. It won’t put a cent into financing the country’s myriad screens. According to the French Federation of Film Distributors (FNDF), its presence at Cannes “is endangering a whole ecosystem”.

In a bid to stem the furore, the festival said it would lobby Netflix into striking a deal with French distributors – in vain. The streaming giant reportedly offered a maximum of six theatre screenings, under a temporary licence. Peanuts. Predictably, the offer was spurned by angry exhibitors, who slammed Netflix’s “intransigence”. Responding via Facebook, the company wrote: “The establishment closing ranks against us. See Okja on Netflix June 28. Amazing film that theatre chains want to block us from entering into Cannes film festival competition.”

Festival organisers subsequently denied rumours they would drop the two films. Instead, they announced new rules, starting next year, that require all films running for the Palme d’Or to be distributed in French movie theatres. Referring to Netflix, Cannes said it was “pleased to welcome a new operator which has decided to invest in cinema, but wants to reiterate its support to the traditional mode of exhibition of cinema in France and in the world".

Now big politics is expected to step in to find a more durable solution. France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, is notoriously a fan of digital upstarts and a critic of innovation-stifling “corporatism”. This could play into Netflix’s hands, and lead to a loosening of French legislation that requires distributors to wait 36 months after a film’s theatrical release before making it available on streaming platforms. But Netflix will certainly have to give some ground. And Cannes will need to play hardball too, lest it be accused of complicity in the death of the big screen.

A message for Trump

All of which has diverted attention from the politically charged line-up Cannes’ huge screens will be showing as of Wednesday, when the festival kicks off. The 70th anniversary edition comes on the heels of an extraordinarily politicised 12 months in the West, marked by the double whammy of Brexit and Donald Trump, and recently wrapped up by France’s rollercoaster presidential election. Films on refugees and climate change will inevitably be seen as an explicit message to the new White House incumbent, while other weighty topics addressed in and out of competition include religious violence, AIDS and animal exploitation.

The latter theme is tackled in Netflix’s “Okja”, the latest directorial effort by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho. Starring Tilda Swinton, it follows a young girl’s attempts to protect a mysterious and friendly creature from greedy corporate hands. Also in the main competition is “120 Beats per Second” by France’s Robin Campillo, which follows the establishment of advocacy group Act Up at the heart of the AIDS crisis, and Lynne Ramsay’s sex-trafficking drama “You Were Never Really Here”, starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Veteran director Claude Lanzmann, aged 91, has brought a new documentary back from the land of the Kims. Photo courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival
Veteran director Claude Lanzmann, aged 91, has brought a new documentary back from the land of the Kims. Photo courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival

Another Palme d’Or contender, Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s “Jupiter’s Moon” is one of several films to tackle the current migrant crisis, a topic also explored in Michael Haneke’s “Happy End”, albeit from the point of view of an affluent family in the French port city of Calais that would rather not see what is going on around it. Also from a European helmer, “Out”, by Slovakia’s Gyorgy Kristof, takes the travails of marginalised migrant workers to the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Out of competition, veteran British actress Vanessa Redgrave will be screening her refugee-themed directorial debut “Sea Sorrow”, starring Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes, while Al Gore is back with “An Inconvenient Sequel”, the follow-up to his climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. It features both Barack Obama and the current US president, whose “daily fits” were amply commented on last month when the festival line-up was unveiled.

A special screening of “Napalm”, by the legendary “Shoah” director Claude Lanzmann, will offer the Trump administration a little historical context on the use of chemical weapons. Filmed in North Korea, it investigates the poisonous legacy of the Korean War. And then there’s “The Venerable W”, the last installment in Barbet Schroeder’s “trilogy of evil”. Set in Burma, it promises a searing exploration of how religion, in this case Buddhism, can be manipulated to whip up hysteria and hatred of the country’s Muslim minority, with catastrophic consequences.

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