Last year, the three-part, six-hours-and-twenty-two minutes long epic Arabian Nights by Portuguese director Miguel Gomes rejected a slot in the Cannes Film Festival’s second-rung Un Certain Regard section, opting instead to be premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs ), taking place in the same French Riviera city at the same time. Why wasn’t Arabian Nights in Cannes’ official competition? Gomes’ previous film, Tabu, won two prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, finished 2nd Sight & Sound’s and Cinema Scope’s polls of the best films of 2012, 10th in the Village Voice’s, and 11th in both Film Comment’s and Indiewire’s; he was exactly the kind of rising art-house star who should have been competing in the most prominent part of the official festival. But organizers balked at the idea of offering such a lengthy film a slot in competition where two or three others could be chosen, and given the stigma of Un Certain Regard films as not being up to the same level of quality, Gomes opted for Directors’ Fortnight. At polling time, its length was less of an issue. Film Comment named it the 5th best film of the year, Sight & Sound the 4th, and Cinema Scope the 2nd.
Arabian Nights’ story is the perfect case study for the rumblings you hear every year, always growing stronger, that the Cannes competition is a place for the same handful of already established, respected, and successful directors to debut their films, which, for all their “art” pretensions, follow their own conventions that will inevitably lock up distribution and receive a good deal of acclaim. The real excitement, adventurous cinephiles might argue, lies across the Croisette.
Directors’ Fortnight, which began in 1969, was originally conceived as an alternative to the Cannes Film Festival. The year before, a group of filmmakers, rock-star auteurs Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut among them, prevented the festival from screening its opening film in a show of solidarity with the students and laborers on strike in May ‘68. The next year, the Cannes Film Festival was back on, but with competition across the Croisette, the main boulevard that runs down the town’s beachfront: the Directors’ Fortnight, “by filmmakers, for filmmakers.” Rather than having its slate determined by what film export agencies had approved, as the Cannes Film Festival proper had at the time, the newly formed Société des Réalisateurs de Films (SRF) networked its way to good films. Among the directors who took a place among the inaugural 62-feature lineup: Robert Bresson, Roger Corman, Nagisa Oshima, Susan Sontag, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Humberto Solas.
In 1974, the Fortnight introduced the world to Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and also premiered Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God. The following year, Chantal Akerman’s landmark feminist, structuralist epic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles changed cinema forever before the eyes of patrons of the Rex and Olympia theaters (Akerman would remain a favorite of the SRF for decades). Were that not enough, the 1976 selection saw the buzz over Oshima’s controversial In The Realm of the Senses take it from five screenings to twelve, overshadowing Jacques Rivette’s Duelle and Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile. The Fortnight also launched the career of one of independent’s cinema’s towering figures when Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise won the Camera d’Or for the best first feature in 1984. The list of names—Dušan Makavejev, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Spike Lee, Michael Haneke, Jafar Panahi, Sofia Coppola—stretches on.
But the Directors’ Fortnight is about more than names. It’s a space for alternative cinema, films too abstract or experimental in some cases, too “specific” in others. Films from countries whose cinema is under-seen in the West or from persons whose views are underrepresented flourish at the Fortnight. Egypt’s most noted director, Youssef Chahine, screened The Sparrow in the section, saving it from censorship in the days when Cannes was beholden to the will of submitting nations; Lizzie Borden’s Working Girl found an audience there in 1986 but needs one still today; Djibril Diop Mambety was a favorite and still fights for due recognition; the lengthy, experimental works of Wang Bing and Raya Martin also found their first homes in the Fortnight’s headquarters in the Palais Croisette, and even Rivette, undergoing a popularity resurgence following his death in January, needed the Fortnight to find an audience for Celine and Julie Go Boating and the aforementioned Duelle. By a similar token, the Fortnight has screened and respected genre films in a way the art cinema crowd may have refused: THX—1138, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Blair-Witch Project, among others. This is to say nothing of the countless films and filmmakers who have not been so lucky to be picked up by a distributor (or, for that matter the Cannes Film Festival), mostly unseen since.
Certainly much has changed over the Fortnight’s 48 years. It moved six times before settling into its current home on the site of the old Palais Croisette. More significantly, it is on its fifth artistic director since Pierre-Henri Deleau, who stepped down after the 1998 festival, and it is no longer precisely separate from the Cannes Film Festival, which allows its badge holders to attend Fortnight screenings. Despite the integration, however, the SRF continues to head the financially independent Fortnight section, and it elects each artistic director from its own ranks. Location, recognition, even tastes, may shift, but the “spirit of independence,” as managing director Christophe Leparc describes it, remains the same.
Since the departure of artistic director Olivier Père, who served from 2004 - 2009, “there’s no longer a sense that a [Jean-Marie] Straub short or five-hour Raya Martin film will find its way into the lineup,” admitted Blake Williams, a critic and filmmaker attending Cannes for the 9th time this year. “But the trade-off is that you are more likely to see an hour-long doc about a feminist programmed next to a grisly thriller from India next to an hour-long animated French film. There’s an obvious effort there to sample from as many of the major or budding trends in world cinema as possible, whether independent or studio-driven.”
Case and point: look at 2014: Whiplash, Kim Seong-hun Kim’s crime thriller A Hard Day, the animated A Tale of Princess Kaguya, and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July joined films by Frederick Wiseman, Celine Sciamma, Bruno Dumont and John Boorman. The next year showcased a diverse group of hits that received traditional distribution in the United States, with Dope, Green Room, My Golden Days, Mustang, and Embrace of the Serpent accompanying Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women and Arabian Nights—again, this is to say nothing of the films not lucky enough to have reached eyes outside the Fortnight’s theater. Even so, the festival denies checking boxes. The decisions made by the Cannes Film Festival likewise have no relationship to what the Fortnight does. Perhaps the two sections may want the same film, or perhaps the Fortnight will offer a slot while the official competition mulls over the same title, but these are coincidental; the day the Fortnight vies for too many of the same films as Cannes, it will have lost something.
“We are freer than the official in the sense that we choose the films we love,” Mr. Leparc told me via email. “As we love all kind of cinemas – comedies, animation, genre films, etc – our selection can be very eclectic.” He added later, “If the [artistic directors] of the official and the one of the Fortnight have the same tastes of course we will be in competition. But, by experience, the competition between us concern a very few number of films.” Not among them, despite appearances: Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, whose place in the Fortnight last year drew considerable comment.
Leparc’s wording is telling: “eclectic,” “the films we love,” and in separate correspondence, “the spirit of the Fortnight,” alongside an emphasis on scheduling and making the filmmakers feeling welcome. Fortnight films are eligible for the Camera d’Or, but the SRF itself does not honor films with awards. The Fortnight is utterly uninterested in Cannes tiered selection system or in distinctions of “best” films. Its validation of animated, avant-garde, genre and lengthy art films as equal, so unlike the official competition, would be compromised by such a change.
This year, Fortnight graduates Jarmusch, the Dardenne brothers, Kleber Mendonça Filho, Xavier Dolan, Ken Loach, Bruno Dumont, Brillante Mendoza, compatriots Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu and Sean Penn will compete to receive what is perhaps the most prestigious award in cinema. Many of these films could be great, and as they make up 10 of 21 competition films, the odds suggest at least one will win a major award, possibly even the Palme d’Or, and snatch headlines. But a look at each director’s history in the beachside resort town, and very possibly the polls that greet the end of each year, will remind cinephiles of discoveries, excitement, and possibilities being heralded across the Croisette.