Cannes 2018 opens up to unheralded film talent
2018-05-01 15:31:08 -
By Seamas McSwiney 

Serendipity and diversity in storytelling rule the roost this year’s Cannes selections. Indeed, the absence of some expected big names seems to have opened the door even wider to unknown talents. 

The lone debut feature in competition is AB Shawky’s Yomeddine, a tale of escape from a leper colony. It is the first film by its young Egyptian-Austrian director and is the fruit of a long and determined route that must have at times seemed as impossible an endeavour as for the story’s protagonists. 

In 2014 the film’s team raised $22,254 in a Kickstarter campaign for what they described as “a coming-of-age comedic drama, a road trip where two outcasts, Beshay and Shika, discover the harshness of the world outside the leper colony where they have spent all their lives.” Loosely based on characters he met while filming his short documentary Colony, Shawky uses his first feature to underline how in our times, leprosy – or Hansen’s disease – has become more of a social outcast issue rather than a medical one. 

On the same competition playing field, but at a quite different reputation level, we find Iranian maestro Asghar Farhadi with a new foray into the high end of the international arthouse market. 

Todos lo saben (Everybody Knows), a Spanish-language psychological thriller, is this year’s opening film. A Franco-Spanish production with a stellar cast in Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, it unspools a tale that follows Laura (Cruz), who travels with her family from Buenos Aires to the village where she was born for her sister’s wedding. But unexpected events lead towards a crisis which exposes the family’s hidden past. 

Farhadi, an multi-award winning Farsi filmmaker who took the Berlinale’s Golden Bear for The Separation and last year’s foreign language Oscar for The Salesman, makes his second foray into another language with Todos los saben, raising expectations on how convincing this dissector of the subtle shifts in relationships can be in a different tongue.

Another Iranian in competition deals with more politically pressing personal and national issues regarding his Cannes attendance. Will Jafar Panahi at last make the trip from Tehran with his new film Three Faces? Despite being banned from filmmaking —a  strange concept if ever there was one — Pahani’s films made during this prohibition have already in fact played in Cannes, notably the ironically titled This is Not a Film, an autobiographical documentary which suggests a certain fluidity in the autocracy of it all. 

Three Faces, by contrast, is a “feel-good Iranian road movie” about three actresses at different ages, which makes it sound like a shoo-in for next year’s Best Picture Oscar. As with the Trump-threatened nuclear deal, the French government are mediating in this soft-power zone.

Only two American films are included in 2018’s competition, including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. On his first competition trip to Cannes since his prime period with Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever in 1989 and 1991 respectively, Lee’s latest provocative film features Adam Driver and Harry Belafonte and is produced by the team that brought us Get Out. On screen, it is the unlikely but true story of Ron Stallworth, a black cop who goes undercover in the Ku Klux Klan. Off screen, look forward to spiky – or Spike-ey – comments about race politics.

Among the three women directors in competition, there is French filmmaker Eva Husson, whose Bang Gang-A Modern Love Story (2015), a tale of out-of-control teenage sexuality, exuded directorial confidence and calibrated control. Her new film Girls of the Sun features the soulfully magnetic Golshifteh Farhani as the commander of a squad of Kurdish women soldiers fighting to take back a town from extremist enemies, a stark contrast to her wistfully poetic role in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson at the 69th Cannes. 

From the same neck of the woods, as it were, comes Lebanese Nadine Labaki, with Carpharnaüm, a film set in the nightmare of an unknown Middle Eastern country in upheaval and concerning “the voice of a child” who, through legal process, demands a decent life for the disinherited in protest against injustices to children in a dehumanised world.

Cannes’ parallel official selection, Un Certain Regard, is similarly competitive and considered an ante-chamber for future competition cineastes. This year, six of the 14 initial films are directed by women, hailing from as far afield as Syria, Morocco and, for the first time, Kenya – the latter in Wanuri Kahiu’s first feature, Rafiki (Friend).

This taboo tale of youthful sapphic love set against a backdrop of local politics in a traditional society is a project that Kahiu developed at two previous Cannes industry events. It will be interesting to see how such a subject will be dealt with on home ground in a country where, despite the law, FGM prevails, LGBT+ debates are unwelcome and polygamy is legal.

An active militant in breaking the mould of stereotypical themes in African cinema, Kahiu’s celebrated short Pumzi (available on YouTube) was a suspenseful science fiction story on the ecological theme of water scarcity with a female lead. 

On a previous trip to Cannes, during the long gestation of Rafiki, Kahiu spoke to The Nation newspaper, declaring she is very clear in her mind that she is an African filmmaker but doesn’t subscribe to the idea that issues take precedence over story. 

For her, story is everything; she feels that African cinema has been “pegged to be very heavy-handed in the themes that we are trying to put across on social issues” and believes that “any film you make with real characters is politics, because people come from a social class, they have particular ideas, [and because] there is a political system, especially coming out of Africa, that goes against its own people. 

“So, just being able to tell a real story about a real person, for me, is enough of a commentary – especially if you are being really specific about who the person is and what they are trying to achieve.”

Seamas McSwiney is a freelance film journalist based in Paris, France
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