Our senior critic Ben McDonald recently attended the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival as part of the brand new Three Days in Cannes program. This program, aimed at 18-28 year olds, grants accreditation to the globally renowned film festival for its final three days. Enjoy our discussion with Ben about his experience in Cannes.
Alex Sitaras: For those new to our website, Ben was able to attend the Cannes Film Festival this year as part of their Three Days in Cannes program. Those three days were May 17th-19th, but he arrived a bit earlier on the 15th to get acquainted with the Festival.
Ben McDonald: Yeah, so I flew into Nice on the 14th and then took a train the next day into Cannes. First day in Nice was rough as I pretty much know 0 French, but as soon as I got to Cannes it became a whole lot easier since it’s more of a tourist-oriented location with an influx of English-speakers.
With the Three Days in Cannes program, they pretty much tell you nothing beforehand except where to pick up your badge, so a couple people in the program set up a Facebook group for all of us to navigate the craziness of the Festival together. I happened to meet up with three other people through that, which basically became my “group” for the three days.
I believe I arrived in Cannes the day of the Solo premiere, so as you can imagine it was pretty hectic, but we still managed to all find each other that evening and get dinner somewhere. For those that don’t know, the Festival sets up a free classic film every night on Macé Beach, so we all went to see Vertigo (which happened to be interrupted by fireworks promoting Solo).
Kevin Jones: Wow that sounds incredibly chaotic. Maybe since it was the first year of the program, it was disorganized.
What was your first impression of Nice and Cannes? I don’t know if it was your first time in a foreign country, but I assume since you don’t know any French, it was a bit of culture shock?
Ben: I had actually been to Paris a couple years back, so I kind of knew what to expect, but I also wasn’t on my own for that trip. Both Nice and Cannes are beautiful, beautiful cities, but I definitely felt intimidated by Nice especially since again it’s less tourist-oriented. The area of Nice that I stayed in wasn’t touristy at all, and I definitely felt out of place just walking on the streets.
And I felt a little lost and nervous in Cannes too for the first day or so, but by the end I felt pretty comfortable with it as it is relatively small. It’s a lovely place to visit, and I can see why the Festival is held there.
Matt Schlee: I know the program you took part in was new. What kinds of people attended that way? Was it mostly aspiring filmmakers, other critics, or just young film enthusiasts? And were they mostly fellow Americans or was the program fairly international?
Ben: It was definitely very new, you could tell just by the subconscious attitude that veteran festivalgoers took towards us.
As for the types of people who attended, it’s hard to say. All the people in my group were into broadcasting or journalism, so I think they got in by being film enthusiasts. A lot of the people I talked to in line were aspiring filmmakers though. I’m a little bummed that I didn’t run into many other aspiring critics.
I remember especially on the second day, we were all standing in line for BlacKkKlansman and I just listened to a couple of them talk about various short film festivals they were a part of, what kinds of projects they’ve worked on, etc. One guy actually had worked on the set of several big blockbusters like The Last Jedi and the most recent Thor movie.
I’d say in terms of mix, it was mostly European. I met a few Americans, and pretty much everyone spoke English, but there was a sizable portion of British and French. It was certainly a very healthy mix of different countries. That’s what I loved about it so much, was that I got to interact with all these film lovers from all around the world and see their unique perspective on everything from cinema to culture to politics. It was truly fascinating.
Alex: The first day of the Three Days you saw Dogman, Burning, and Sofia. Can you tell us a little about your thoughts on Dogman and Sofia? You did a review of Burning, so your praise for the film has been well noted.
Ben: Yeah, so Dogman was the very first thing I saw as part of the Festival. So the way the festival works is there’s one big building called the Palais where all or most of the screenings are held. The largest theater is the Grand Théâtre Lumière. Two premieres are held there in the evening, and then the morning and afternoon are reserved for repeats of the previous night’s premieres.
With any screening in the Lumière though, you actually need a ticket, or an “invitation”, to get in. You request these invitations online, and then they choose who gets what based on some algorithm. But some people don’t pick up their invitations, so if you wait in the Last Minute queue right outside, you can actually get into the Lumière without one. That’s how I saw Dogman and later The Wild Pear Tree.
As for the actual film, I thought it was a great way to open my experience. It was kind of a hybrid between the Italian neorealism of de Sica and a western, following a dog handler who gets caught up in the criminal underbelly of his town and a violent drug addict. The actor for the main character, Marcello Fonte, actually won Best Actor for his performance.
Sofia was the only film I saw that was in the Un Certain Regard category, and I believe it was also a directorial debut. That one followed a young woman named Sofia living in Morocco who gets pregnant. In Morocco, apparently extramarital sex is completely illegal, so she has to find the father and marry him in order to prevent prison time. It was an interesting, brief film that explored how these institutions influenced the actions of Sofia and the other people in her life, but it definitely got overshadowed by the other great films I saw. That one actually won Best Screenplay in its category, and if you see it I think you’ll realize why.
Kevin: To skip ahead a bit, on the last day, you saw The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. At this point in its history, it hardly needs an introduction. What were your thoughts on the film? Was it worth the extensive wait?
Ben: Well I’m not particularly familiar with Terry Gilliam’s work, and I hate to say his sense of humor isn’t my cup of tea most of the time. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, and I didn’t really laugh a whole lot. Adam Driver was excellent, as well as Jonathan Pryce, but again I just didn’t “get” it, I guess.
That was also the very last film I saw, and I had other things pop up in my life that day, so both of those factors might have also contributed to my negative opinion of it.
Alex: It seems that a lot of people have been mixed on the film. Which is a shame, but if it isn’t his best work, it isn’t his best work. At the very least, we see Driver tackle another interesting role from a notable auteur.
On your second day, you saw BlacKkKlansman, Under the Silver Lake, and The Wild Pear Tree– all films that you reviewed very positively. Klansman and Under the Silver Lake premiered earlier in the week, so it’s awesome that you were able to see them in another screening. I remember we had looked on Cannes’s website when we found out you’d be going and the last day or two of the schedule didn’t have many films listed. How do they go about adding films to the schedule that weren’t previously announced and making sure festivalgoers know the updated schedule?
Ben: So the Festival actually rented out a local cinema across the street from the Palais just for Three Days participants, screening all the In Competition films on Thursday and Friday. That’s how I saw Klansman and Silver Lake.
The only problem with that theater was, it wasn’t equipped to project two tracks of subtitles. In all the official Festival screenings they have French subs on the main image, and then underneath on a separate track they have English subs. So all the ones in our reserved screenings only had French subs, knocking out any of the ones not in English or French for non-French speakers.
To answer your question though, the Festival does rescreen most if not all of the In Competition films on the final day before the Closing Awards Ceremony. They had brochure schedules of that available in the Palais on Thursday I believe, and I’m sure they updated the website’s schedule as well. And the schedule for the reserved Three Days screenings were given to us at accreditation on Wednesday.
Matt: Obviously a lot of big shots in the film industry attend the festival. Are you basically all in screenings together and if so, did you get to meet or see any major figures in the industry?
Ben: I’d guess that celebrities and other big shots, like famous critics for example, really only attend screenings in the Lumière. And the actual cast and crew only attend premieres.
The only premiere that I managed to get into was The Wild Pear Tree. I didn’t see any really big celebrities go in (probably because it’s a 3 hour film), but Nuri Bilge Ceylan was in my screening and he did walk right by me after him and the cast exited the screening.
I had some other minor celebrity encounters like I’ve said in prior conversation and on Twitter, but nothing really major. Other people in my group actually ran into several Jury members like Ava DuVernay and Denis Villeneuve, but I was sick in bed when that happened. Funnily enough, I’m pretty sure everyone in my group of four got to see and meet Steven Yeun except for me.
Matt: Are there a lot of areas of the festival that are segregated only for the “big shots”? I imagine all the filmmakers with entries and studio executives aren’t just rubbing shoulders with all the regular Joes for the whole festival. Were there a lot of spaces you didn’t have access to?
Ben: I wouldn’t say a lot of areas. Outside of press-only areas and whichever parties the big shots are going to at night, I’d say we had access to most of the Festival. It was my first time, so I may have missed something, but I didn’t notice a lot of “restricted” areas per say. I think the stars just don’t attend most of the screenings unless they’re involved with it.
Matt: Forgive my harping on one topic but… then what do they do all day? I realize that you may not have insight into it, but I’m just curious as to how the experience differs for a newcomer versus a filmmaker who has an entry in the festival.
Ben: No worries, I wonder about that too. I’d imagine they enjoy Cannes, work on acquiring a distribution deal if they’re a filmmaker, go to their post-premiere press conference the day after their premiere, stuff like that. Again, it’s all very chaotic and hard to discern while you’re there, but you do spot a few celebrities from time to time in the actual town of Cannes so they are there.
It would definitely be an interesting experience to come back some day as press and see how that experience differs. I believe they have more privileges and connections to the actual industry events going on as one might expect.
Kevin: So your first Cannes sounds like it lived up to expectations. Any regrets? Anything you would do differently the next time you go? Or any films you wish you had been able to see but missed out on?
Ben: It definitely lived up to my expectations, it honestly still feels like a dream and I can’t believe I was able to go. My only regret I guess is that I didn’t take better care of myself before and during; by the end, I was sooo sleep deprived and under the weather that I couldn’t bring myself to go out at night and enjoy Cannes as a city.
I wish I just had more time there, honestly. It probably sounds spoiled, but seeing three or four films every day is actually exhausting and you definitely don’t get as much out of it as say one or two a day. The three things I wish I saw the most were Christopher Nolan’s 70mm presentation of 2001, Shoplifters (the film that won the Palme d’Or), and Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built. That would have been cool to see on the premiere and witness the audience reactions.
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