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Memo to Distributors: Buy These Cannes Film Festival 2017 Titles

The 70th edition of Cannes is behind us, but these highlights still don't have U.S. distribution. Here's our plea to change that.

memo to distributors cannes 2017

“Gabriel and the Mountain,” “Makala,” “Tesnota”

Cannes 2017

While the Cannes Film Festival lineup is consumed by thousands of audience members over the course of 10 days, much of the dealmaking takes place elsewhere. Buyers are less likely to dig through the official selections than they are to spend time in the market, watching clips and presentations for unfinished work. As a result, it’s rare for many big deals emerge from the world’s most glamorous film festival, and the 2017 edition was no exception. Though Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” sold to A24 after a fierce bidding war that lasted several days, it was in the minority. Still, there were plenty of first-rate movies from this year’s Cannes that have yet to land U.S. distribution. Here’s a look at some of the ones we think deserve audiences far beyond the Croisette.

“Gabriel and the Mountain”

Few outside of Brazil know about Gabriel Buchmann, the young Brazilian who grew frustrated with society after being rejected by academia and went on a freewheeling journey through Africa in 2009; it was there that he got lost on a mountain trail that local guides had cautioned him against, and eventually died alone in the wilderness. “Gabriel on the Mountain,” directed by Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa, is at once a tribute to that plight and a subtle indictment of the recklessness that led to it. Carried by Joao Pedro Zappa’s extraordinary performance, the movie follows Gabriel through his journeys while sprinkling in documentary voiceover narrative from many of the people he encountered along the way. The drama echoes the fates of the protagonists in “Into the Wild” and “Grizzly Man,” but takes a formally ambitious approach; it never explicitly lays out Gabriel’s backstory, and constantly wrestles with the morality of his decisions. It’s a gorgeous movie, shot in the real locations where Gabriel explored in this final stage of his brief life, and directed by a man who identifies as his friend. But it also pits the beauty of the setting against Gabriel’s Westernized gaze, suggesting that it led to his undoing more than any practical decision. American distributors wary of foreign-language titles may want to note that “Gabriel” is mostly an English-language drama; more than that, even as it adopts an innovative narrative technique, the emotional core of Gabriel’s journey is universal. —EK

Sales Contact: Films Boutique

“I Am Not a Witch”

Rungano Nyoni’s feature-length debut follows a young Zamibian girl forced into a “witch camp” where she’s placed on display for eager tourists. The movie is at once a gorgeous, solemn look at the way a society’s rituals can lead to hysteria, and a scathing, at times almost shockingly funny satire of national corruption. Forced on television programs and into the center of outlandish rituals, the character becomes a vessel for the witch camp owner (John Tembo) in his shameless attempts to turn her into his property. With its risky tonal balance and unpredictable plot, “I Am Not a Witch” is unquestionably one of the most striking debuts of the year, a parable-like indictment of the tourism industry and the destructive effect when tradition runs headlong into capitalist desire. It’s a movie bound to get people talking about the contradictory world at its center, one both in touch with its roots and more than eager to exploit them. —EK

Sales Contact: Kinology

“Makala”

Emmanuel Gras’ experimental documentary won the Critics’ Week section this year for good reason: It’s an ambitious experiment with film form that also resonates on a powerful emotional level. The movie follows the plight of a Congolese coal salesman through every step of his process, from chopping down trees to journeying across a sun-baked landscape in a grueling trip to support his family back home. The poetic imagery and elegant sound design all contribute to a mesmerizing, lyrical descent into this cycle of survival, which ultimately embodies a universal struggle. While Cannes 2017 was dominated by conversations about Netflix and the future of the moviegoing experience, “Makala” makes the case that some cinematic achievements demand the big screen experience, and on some level contribute to its continuing relevance. It’s a movie that should get audiences talking — about capitalism, economic hurdles, personal ambition — and for that reason alone, deserves to be seen around the world. —EK

Sales Contact: Les Films du Losange

Promised Land

A documentary as sprawling and brilliant and flawed as the country it traverses, Eugene Jarecki’s “Promised Land” is a fascinatingly overstuffed portrait of America in decline. In the process, it’s also: a road trip in which the director drives Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V across the United States, a biography of the 20th century’s most famous musician,; a story about how a man became king of a democratic nation; a nuanced analysis of cultural appropriation in a multi-racial society; a southern-fried rock n’ roll performance piece; a horrifyingly sober look at the rise of Donald Trump; a closed-casket funeral service for The American Dream; the best recent film about how the hell we got here; and more. So much more. But the more it strains to get there, the more it seems to all make sense. Elvis was so many different things to America that the film’s exhaustingly kaleidoscopic attack proves more revealing than a straightforward approach ever could. Whether arguing the degree to which Elvis stole (and profited from) black culture, or contrasting his cushy military service against Muhammed Ali’s refusal to fight, or offering a sympathetic take on how easily the King was ruled, Jarecki paves the last 70 years of American history so that every road leads back to a poor kid with black hair and high cheekbones. The result is the most insightful and comprehensive profile of the icon ever been captured on camera, one that refashions the past to give it fresh relevance for today’s audiences. — DE

Sales Contact: UTA

“Tesnota”

Set in 1998 Nalchik, a harsh region in Southern Russia rife with ethnic strife, Katemir Balagov’s Un Certain Regard kitchen sink drama “Tesnota” follows a close-knit traditional Jewish family whose tomboy daughter loves fixing cars with her father. She’s enjoying a hidden romance with a non-Jew, knowing the relationship has no future. After a celebratory engagement party, her brother and his fiance are captured by a ring of kidnappers who hold them for ransom. Gruesome videos reveal the stakes: no money equals certain death. The parents must figure out how to save their son, selling just about everything they own, asking help from their neighbors; their sacrifices are devastating — and unrecoverable. Balagov is a director to watch — and if Russia opts not to reward Russia critic Andrey Zyagintsev for his Prix du Jury winner “Loveless,” they could go with this one instead, which also does not paint a pretty picture, but at least is set in the past. —AT

Sales Contact: Wild Bunch

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