Films follow you everywhere at Cannes — into the crowded 8:30 a.m. press screenings, through cramped alleys leading to hush-hush market screenings, and further down the Croisette with lesser-known entries in Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week, two standalone festivals that unofficially exist as extensions of the broader programming. Time is precious in Cannes, and anything that takes critics away from the immersive experiences of cinema itself is difficult to prioritize. That was why, when Critics’ Week program manager Remi Bonhomme and artistic director Charles Tesson invited me to join the jury in early February, I hesitated to commit.
The potential of diving deeper into the section certainly intrigued me: Critics’ Week, a 56-year-old program designed to champion first and second features, has been a terrific platform for emerging filmmaking talent in recent years, bolstering the careers of directors ranging from Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”) to David Robert Mitchell (“It Follows”), Julia Ducournau (“Raw), and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy (“The Tribe”). Those movies alone speak to the sheer range of cinema showcased in the programming, and the way it stands out from the A-list auteurs that dominate the Cannes Official Competition.
At the same time, that competition demands so much attention that the idea of committing an ounce of my brain to another seven titles sounded like an ideal way to destroy the productivity that Cannes demands of any hardworking journalist. Once I canvassed some friends, however, the decision became clearer. A colleague who served on the Critics’ Week jury in recent years called it “the most stressful Cannes I ever had, and “a total time drain,” but added, “If I were you, I would totally say: Do it. How often do you get to be on a jury in Cannes?”
That clinched it. Cannes isn’t just an elite program of international cinema that has, over seven decades, been the foremost showcase for the medium’s greatest achievements. It’s a living symbol of the continuing vitality of movies as an art form, and the value in discussing their quality on a global scale. The opportunity to play a small part of that was too exciting to turn down. I confirmed that I would take part in the jury.
I was joined by a range of industry figures, each of whom brought a unique perspective. Jury president Kleber Mendonça Filho, from Brazil, came to Cannes in 2016 to screen his competition entry “Aquarius,” a vibrant look at a defiant woman facing middle age that starred Sonia Braga in one of her greatest roles. But years earlier, he worked as a film critic and attended the festival as a member of the press. As such, he was both deeply sympathetic to the filmmaking process and versed in the discipline of critical discussion.
The rest of the jury was comprised of Cartagena International Film Festival director Diana Bustamante Escobar, Hania Mroué, who runs a cinematheque in Beirut, and actor Niels Schneider, perhaps best known for his roles in Xavier Dolan’s first two features. That gave us a range of cultural journalists, curators, and artists, ensuring that all of those skillsets would come into play as we assessed the seven films in Critics’ Week competition.
The Critics’ Week prize has only existed since 2012 (when it went to “Take Shelter”) and has steadily become an essential piece of the festival narrative, as it plays a considerable role in elevating at least one major discovery from outside of the heavily scrutinized Official Selection. Filho, our amiable, soft-spoken president, knew exactly how daunting the odds of standing out in that mass could be: While “Aquarius” was warmly received by the press at Cannes, it went home empty-handed. He knew the stakes.
From the start, our jury was a relaxed bunch, but never at the expense of taking the job seriously. If you care about cinema, this gig matters a lot: The movie that wins an award expands its profile in the hectic Cannes environment and instantly lands an additional selling point. We had to get it right. And I believe that we did.
I’ll refrain from detailing the path we followed to achieve that goal — which movies immediately excited us or left us unmoved — because that much remains a sacred aspect of the festival jury process, one that can anger the losing parties and diminish the effect of the final outcome. But make no mistake: It was a process. When we first started to discuss our options over a series of dinners that stretched on for hours, we circled around questions of themes, storytelling devices, intentionality and politics in relation to virtually every film we saw, disagreeing enough that we needed the bulk of the festival to figure out our game plan.
The Official Selection jury doesn’t always meet until the end of the festival, but we had the opportunity to sit down for a cozy outdoor dinner after watching our first five features. One juror confided to me at a party two days earlier that it was hard to get a read on how other people reacted. Most of us wore poker faces after every screening. Would we see eye to eye on anything? That anxiety slipped away as we began to assess what we had seen in piecemeal, finding common ground in various movies’ narrative sophistication even as we diverged on details. Discussing these little-known features from filmmakers at early stages of their careers quickly became the most satisfying experience in my 11 years of attending the festival.
It took me away from the noisy Croisette to engage in a constructive dialogue about international cinema that I never anticipated. While the 2017 Cannes Film Festival generated plenty of debate about the future of the movies by including two TV programs and a virtual reality experience in its lineup, our jury discussions felt like a window into the survival of the art form. As we spent days digging into the value of these films, they took on tremendous weight, and it was clear that the capacity to have substantial conversations about cinema was key to keeping it alive.
We had spent a week on this process and the awards date was just around the corner when the final competition movie screened. It turned out to be the best of the bunch.
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