You always know when you’ve arrived in Cannes because the station announcements are preceded by a breathy female voice singing four sad, whispery notes in a minor key. It could be the start of a Louis Malle film but it’s actually a train cancellation.
The first thing that feels quite different about this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the 70th edition, is the heavy security. Everywhere there are police or gendarmes,armed with machine guns, but stylishly turned out, obligatory sunglasses, chatting casually to their mates.
Otherwise it’s business as usual, and for a film festival director like myself (I’m the Chief Executive of UK Jewish Film), the unglamorous process of negotiating queues looms large; ie, predicting the length of queue for any given film (if it’s Woody Allen it will be a one-hour wait and still you may not get in), resisting the overwhelming temptation to join a particularly long and important looking queue (indicative of frenetic excitement about a movie), or trying not to shun unfairly a film that has no queue at all (sometimes that can be the hidden gem that will open your festival).
Yesterday I was hoping that one of the first two films I saw would be one of those hidden gems. Don’t Tell Her is a frothy, light-hearted Sex in the City-style relationship drama from first time French director Solange Circurel. The glamorous 30-something women at its centre have little on their minds other than romance, falling in love and finding a husband but their performances were so endearing that I found myself secretly won over. It’s the kind of film that the critics will hate but audiences, especially thirtysomething women and gay men, will love.
The second film, With Open Arms, is a slapstick farce, which feels deeply politically incorrect for a UK audience, and you can be sure that it will have British distributors running for the Provençal hills. The star is Babik (played by well-known actor/comedian Ary Abittan), an outrageously chauvinist Roma patriarch, who merrily confirms every racist stereotype about the Roma. His shocking but engrossing performance bears startling similarities to Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat and presumably is meant to be taken with a knowing wink and a huge dose of irony. Bearing in mind the current political situation in France (Marine Le Pen took 45% of votes in this beautiful part of France) this film sails very close to the edge.
Today I headed down to the commercial heart of the Cannes Film Festival — Le Marché. This is less Provençal market basking in dappled sunlight and more squat, brutalist 1970s bomb shelter facing menacingly out to sea. Inside this windowless warehouse are rows of garish exhibition stands punctuated by kiosks where the main food on offer is, unexpectedly, smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels or, as an alternative, pastrami bagels.
After a couple of hours of chatting with sales agents — the gatekeepers to securing the best films for our audiences — I escaped back into the sunshine and over to the national pavilions with their prime beachside positions. The UK pavilion occupies one of the most gorgeous spots, but the little tables are packed so close together that you get to hear pitches for at least four films at any one time. Within minutes of sitting down, the vivacious Charmaine leaned over to introduce herself from the adjacent table. According to her business card she is an “extremely versatile and talented femme extraordinaire”, and, of course, turns out to be Jewish and from Finchley. Her harassed looking film producer colleague was very keen to talk to me about Kabbalah.
Israel has enjoyed a great run of success at Cannes over the past three years so I was pleased to be able to squeeze into a packed house at one of the bijoux cinemas near the port for the world premiere of Scaffolding from the very nervous looking, young first-time director, Ya’ir Matan. This was a beautiful portrait of a working class Israeli teenager who struggles against the demands of a powerful father contemptuous of the benefits of education, and finds unexpected solace in his sympathetic literature teacher. There was real depth and sincerity and the film will kickstart the career of its young star, Asher Lax.
The Israeli movie that really grabbed my attention though was The Cakemaker. An incredibly intense and emotionally charged tale of a talented German pastry chef who falls deeply in love with a married Israeli working in Berlin.
In one of the strange juxtapositions that are so characteristic of Cannes I lunched in the street on a cheap sandwich and then rushed down to the spectacular Martinez Hotel to join our festival supporters, Anna and Simon, for drinks on the hotel terrace. It turned out to be an exclusive, invitation-only party, sponsored by a swanky Swiss jeweller. I unpacked my best French accent to get past the ferocious door guards, and found myself whisked through the door into the rarified world of the wealthy international set.
The working day ended more prosaically around 10pm at Cannes train station for my return commute. All the trains were on a “retard indeterminable”. It sounds lovely in French but it basically means you will never get home.
Pitching is a terrifying sport and all the more so in a second language and in front of key industry peers who are dangling the keys to the funding coffers. So I breathed a sigh of relief to be attending the Israeli producers' pitching session this morning without having to get up and pitch myself. As a festival director, this is my insider’s opportunity to find out what’s in the pipeline in terms of Israeli cinema for the two to three years ahead.
Whilst chomping on complimentary croissants I watched 20 mostly panic-stricken producers, including one or two very senior and distinguished producers, deliver their film pitches with widely varying degrees of skill. Some melted into a pool of sweat, others lapsed into tiresome long-windedness, and still others feigned zen-like calm by leaning casually on the bar counter. Some fascinating projects, most of them in search of foreign co-producers. It was just a shame that there weren’t more foreign co-producers present to hear them.
This morning I managed to catch Vanessa Redgrave introducing Sea Sorrow, her debut film as director. I think it’s fair to say that Redgrave is not much liked by a large section of Britain’s Jewish community. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the theme of her new film — the refugee crisis — it was important to find out if it might be relevant for the festival.
To my mind, the overall standard of Redgrave's filmmaking was disappointing. The most impressive sections are the erudite contributions of Lord Dubs, who was, of course, one of the 669 Czech-Jewish children saved by the English stockbroker, Sir Nicholas Winton. .
Cannes is a great meeting place and among many others I was delighted to bump into Damian Samuels, director of The Five Lives and Wives of Melvyn Pfferberg. I think he deserves an Oscar just for the name of that film. He has also just finished shooting his role as Reb Ya’akov in the winner of our 2017 Pears Short Film Fund at UKJF competition, The Master of York. We are all excited to see the first cut of this film, which is set in 13th century York, and which will be premiered at this year’s Festival.
After an exciting five days I’m pleased to be heading back to London late tonight, hugely inspired and energised by many fantastic new films and ideas for the 21st UK International Jewish Film Festival.
This year’s UK International Jewish Film Festival runs from 9-26 November 2017; www.ukjewishfilm.org. Michael Etherton is the Chief Executive of UK Jewish Film