At about 60 minutes into Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa's world premiere of Schastye Moye (My Joy) at 10:30pm yesterday evening, festivalgoers hiked up gowns, gripped toes to hug high heels, snapped off bowties, and powered up cell phones as flash lights to make their way out of the steep balcony of the Palais to escape a movie that started off strong and engaging, and then, somewhere, between a thwack on the head to the gentle main character that rendered him seemingly deaf, mute, and menacing, and difficult to follow jumps in time, had audience members scratching their heads and wondering where the movie went and what movie replaced it.
After the endless thievery, death, betrayal, blood, and sadness, my friend leaned over and deadpanned, "This is doing wonders for tourism in Russia" (where the movie was shot). I know how painstaking it is to make a movie, to make any art, so I suffered through the 127 minute experience in the hopes there might be a final reprieve, all the while wondering exactly where the joy the title of the movie talks about was to be found.
Contrasting last night's experience with this afternoon's of Doug Liman's Fair Game, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, in which the cinematic condensing of the Valerie Plame story serves up one slick and frightening snapshot of the many falsehoods and miscalculations fed to us under George W. Bush's presidency, and you have two vastly different movie going experiences.
"Producing is like a conversation, and you need to make sure there is somebody on the other side of that table," says Jean M. Prewitt, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA), from her booth in the Riviera, in which the stands are starting to empty out as companies pack up and head home. She's referring, of course, to the audience a filmmaker and producer need to think about if they want to make a movie people want to see.
And with the Internet bringing the world closer together than ever before, the entertainment landscape is shifting rapidly under everyone's feet before firm footing can be found again. It's this shift of the celluloid tectonic plates that is paving the way for countries like Vietnam to have a large booth and posters advertising films with high production quality in the Cannes market. And it's also paving the way for directors like Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and his film Un Homme Qui Crie (A Screaming Man), to be the first ever film from Chad selected for official competition.
Isabelle Stead, a producer from Human Film, a Leeds/Netherlands based production company she runs with Mohamed Al-Daradji, is in Cannes on business and in the midst of a very busy year that has included the screening of Al-Daradji's film Son of Babylon at the Sundance Film Festival. Son of Babylon tells the story of a young boy, Ahmed, who follows his grandmother across Iraq to discover the fate of her missing son, Ahmed's father, who never returned from war. Human Film is "committed to furthering understanding on critical human issues to worldwide audience through film."
"The film recently screened at Istanbul Film Festival," Stead shares behind gigantic Jackie O sunglasses from the deck of the British Pavilion, her long braid wrapped around her shoulder. "There are a lot of countries who still believe Saddam (Hussein) was a great leader. So as soon as the Q & A started after the screening, a lady jumped up in the audience and said 'How can you make these lies?' and then another person jumped up and said, 'Be quiet! How do you know? What's up there is the truth!' We didn't have to do anything. If you can leave something with the audience, then you've done your job," shares Stead.
"That's the power of cinema -- where someone who didn't know what was going on in their own country then goes, 'Oh My God...' There are two cinemas in Iraq at the moment. We screened at one -- it had a projector from the 1960's that couldn't read the 5.1 Dolby sound. It was crazy! It's important to have voices within these countries, talking about what's going on, where they're documenting the history themselves, so that they can present the history how they see it, and not from a different perspective. It can sometimes take maybe10 years after war and occupation stop to get to a point where a country can have the retrospect it needs to start making fiction films (about their experiences). We've got to start making films in these countries for the people themselves, and also the (rest of the) world," Stead continues with passion, as her hopes for a filmmaking industry in Iraq and the power of cinema to affect positive change climax.
How do we make sure that all of this new content told from different perspectives is able to have a dynamic dialogue on the platform of worldwide cinema? The Internet is cross pollinating our cultures across the globe, but in the United States, the struggle for survival of independent content remains vital. Americans are pawns in the game of consumerism. In our materialistic, celebrity obsessed, advertising ridden culture, where Mom and Pop shops on Main Street have given way to Targets, Costcos, Wal-Marts, and Spider-Man 1, 2, and 3, the variety of our selection is being threatened, often without our conscious cognizance.
"Historically, particularly from the early '90s on, when there ceased to be any regulation on vertical integration within the industry, we've seen independents completely displaced from the broadcast sector," Prewitt explains. "Other than some reality stuff, you can't find truly independent programming anywhere on an American broadcast network today, whereas it was about 50% in the early '90s. The explanation or the excuse for that at the time was, 'Don't worry about this, you're going to get 500 channels on cable.'"
"And look at cable," Prewitt continues. "There is no independent programming on the premium channels. There is relatively little on any basic cable channel that pays enough money to actually contribute to budget. You see it on the Sci-Fi channel, Lifetime, Bravo, Oxygen -- off the top of my head." Prewitt recognizes there are a few more she is unable to list in the spur of the moment.
"But the USA network, which actually pays a substantial amount for rights, had only one independent film last year. So what you see as the integration spreads is that only store brand programming is being circled around. It's all filled with Law & Order and CSI."
Not that there is anything wrong with either of these programs, it's just that there is no diversity in the selection of content on the menu. "So, you look at the Internet and you see that they're increasing alliances between the big broadband providers and the major studios and networks. A site like Hulu, for example, that is actually putting professional content out, is putting out virtual American television. So you're taking the exact same programming from the network, and moving it all the way through the cycle to the disadvantage of any other kind of content. Our concern is that without some set of net neutrality principles, that will just continue -- people will look at it and say well, the Internet has unlimited capacity, why can't you just stick your program over there?"
"Well you could, but if you just invested $15 million dollars in that programming, you don't want to stick it over there on a site that has no ability to market it. You want to be able to make sure it remains in the top tier. We're concerned that without some principles, the Internet will be increasingly chopped up the way all other platforms have been," Prewitt concludes her crash course sound bite of hot topics in the combination of "Filmmaking, Independent Content, the 'Net, TV, and Their Trickle Down to 'What to Watch 101.'
Years ago as an undergraduate in school, a scholarly professor explained how the evolution of moving pictures can be traced all the way back to the transformative escape of "window shopping" -- the fantasy course your mind would rollercoaster through as your eyes gazed at the mannequins, tools, and more through the glass panes of Main Street. One day that became silent films, and today we have selections from all over the world, celebrated by established and developing cultures, as well as here at yearly festivals such as Cannes.
Like the people that snickered through their chant of "Movie! Movie! You suck!" at the screening I saw of Showgirls in West Philadelphia in the 1990s, whether entertainment be mindless fun fodder or politically gripping and illuminating truths, we should care about the option that anything and everything we choose to watch be 'fair game.'
Follow Ashley Wren Collins on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@wrenashley