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‘The Square’ wins big at Cannes Film Festival awards

By Shaibu Husseini (who was in Cannes, France) 11 June 2017   |   4:15 am

Some Nigerians and foreign participants at Cannes International Film Festival… in Nice, France


• Lean Outing from African Filmmakers, Nollywood

Call it a jaw-dropping finish. Indeed, that was how things panned out for the 70th edition of Cannes International Film Festival, which closed last weekend in Cannes, Nice, South of France. Jaws literarily dropped when the Swedish comedy drama by Ruben Ostlund, The Square, which, in the estimation of critics, was the least favoured to win the festival top prize Palme D’or was announced winner by the Pedro Almodovar-led jury.

The 10-day festival had only tracked a week when filmgoers started tipping films like Okja, produced by Netflix, but directed by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, and 120 Beats Per Second, directed by Frenchman, Robin Campilo, as ‘sure contenders’ for the Palm d’Or. Okja, which almost upset festival rules, as it did not secure theatrical distribution in France, a requirement for all films that are selected in main competition, narrates the story of a young girl’s attempts to protect a mysterious creature.

On the other hand, Campilo’s 120 Beats Per Second puts the spotlight on the establishment of an advocacy group called Act Up at the heart of the AIDS crisis. There were as many as six Palme d’Or contenders considering the daily reviews in some of the industry publications like Hollywood Reporters and Variety that were freely distributed at the festival. For instance, Lynne Ramsay’s sex-trafficking drama You Were Never Really Here was another film that was tipped as a contender for the top prize; same for Jupiter Moon, one of the many films in and out of official selection that tackled the crisis on migration by Hungarian director, Kornel Mundruczo.

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But another top contender for the Palme d’Or, something of the audience’s choice at the Cannes, was Happy End. The movie is also about the migrant crisis by Cannes film festival laureate, Michael Haneke. Most filmgoers and critics looked forward to Haneke winning the top prize for the third time, but last Sunday’s verdict by the international jury spoilt the fun for Haneke and his huge fan base. Haneke won in 2009 with his film The White Ribbon and, in 2012, he was listed among nine directors who had won the Cannes top prize twice when he was named winner with his well-helmed film Amour.

So, The Square did not make the bookmakers’ wish list. Which is why it was something of a huge surprise when its director was called up to received the top prize. Even jury President, Pedro Almodovar, affirmed that it was indeed a surprise choice when, just before he announced the awards, he said, “We have our first surprise of the night.”

However, Ibrahim Samad, a film critic from Morocco, said he was not surprised at the performance of The Square, adding, “Cannes has had an unpredictable journey from inception. It is one festival that generates more attention and excitement. You never know what the jurors will come up with. There is always a shocker for every edition. So, I’m not at all surprised by the decision of the well-peopled jury.”

Other winners at the Cannes award include Nicole Kidman who got the 70th anniversary award; Sofia Coppola, who received the best director award for The Beguilded and Nelyubov (Loveless) by Andrey Zvyanginstev, which got the jury prize.

It was not a particularly good year for African cinema at the Cannes, as none of their offerings featured in and out of competition. Although Cannes does not discriminate in terms of country of production of movies, observers say that from 1946, only about three percent of films that have featured in competition at the Cannes have been African films.

Notable African film specialist and member of the jury of the Africa Film Academy Awards (AMAA), Keith Shiri, recalls that only 14 African films have won prizes at the Cannes from 1946 to 2013 and that so far only one African film, the 1975 Algerian film by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, Chronicles of the Year of Embers has ever won the Palme d’Or ‘and this was as far back as 1975.

However, Shiri, long standing international programmer and curator, acknowledged that many African films including, Heremakono by Abdherrahmane Sissako from Mauritania in 2002, La Genèse by Cheick Oumar Sissoko from Mali in 1999, Kini et Adams by Idrissa Ouedraogo from Burkina Faso, Le Silence de la Forêt by Didier Ouenangare and Bassek ba Kobhio from Central African Republic and Cameroon in 2003, and Podi Sangui by Flora Gomes from Guinea Bissau in 1996 were in contention.

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“But the big prize winner of the Palme d’Or has remained Chronicle of the Years of Fire, while the Malian director, Souleymane Cissé, received the coveted jury prize at the 1987 edition of the Cannes. Mahamat Saleh Haroun was the other jury prize-winner in 1990 with her film A Screaming Man, while the great Burkinabe filmmaker, Idrissa Ouedraogo, who received the Grand Prix in 1990 with his film Tilaï. So, Africa has had a good showing in the past until as recent as 2014, but not in recent history,” Keith said.

But there was a large presence of African filmmakers, including practitioners from Nollywood, just as most African countries had pavilions at the Village International. Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Chad, Morocco, and South Africa had well-laid pavilions, where their filmmakers had meetings and sealed deals. Nigeria had no pavilion. The last time it did was in 2011. Since then, practitioners from Nigeria attending the Cannes mostly milled around the South African pavilion. If they have to schedule meetings, it was mostly done in bars or coffee shops. But filmmakers from Nollywood didn’t have to loiter around this year. The Lagos State Government hosted pavilion 0228 at the Cannes International Village, which the state government primarily used to promote brand Lagos as an investment, tourism and film destination.

Located close to the Cannes Producers Network pavilion, it served more as a melting pot for Nigeria’s practitioners and journalists, who attended the long festival. It was therefore convenient for most Nollywood practitioners to schedule meetings with prospective collaborators and investors at the Lagos Pavilion, which some people referred to as the Nigerian pavilion. The Lagos pavilion was busy. It hosted the formal unveiling of the annual magazine on the motion picture industry, Cinema in Lagos, and it was venue for a small reception in honour of the former President of Association of Nollywood Core Producers (ANCOP), Alex Eyengho, who was re-elected as Vice President of Federation of International Producers (FIAFP). It is the world assembly for film producers and Eyengho was the first elected Vice President for Africa in 2013.

Although Nigeria has no film in or out of competition, some of the filmmakers who made it to Cannes said they always attend the festival as it provides them the platform to network and enter into new projects, including international co-production. Managing Director of FilmOne Distribution and Cinemas, Kene Mkparu, who led a team to Cannes on a prospecting mission for a production, hinted that they were able to open talks with some prospective investors, with some deals that took them several years of attending festivals and markets to seal.

“I think we need to educate our filmmakers back home on the process of networking, discussing collaborations, partnerships and the general need for a global exposure,” he said. “We should not just sit down at home and think we have arrived. We need to seek additional funding and collaborative opportunities and where else can you find it except at markets and festivals like this that attract producers, financiers and niche investors.”

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Notable filmmaker and Chief Executive Officer of Four Screams Studios, Chris Ekejimbe, who was also in Cannes, agrees with Mkparu, but he argues that there should be a deliberate policy on the part of government to facilitate a more formalised process of networking. Ekejimbe said that while attending annual festivals such as Cannes, Berlinale and Toronto were encouraging, government, through the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC), must deliberately show enthusiasm for the industry by facilitating its connection with the broader industry.

According to him, “The Federal Government should be more interested in promoting Nollywood brand. It is not what you allow a state government to shoulder. I commend Lagos State for the idea of this pavilion. I commend Governor Akinwunmi Ambode. In fact, I witnessed how people trooped in here to make enquiries about how they can come and work in Nigeria and all that.

“But this should be sustained and the support should be holistic. We should have a pavilion here yearly and at every important festival and market. We should also support any effort at putting the brand on the map. I mean, look at the re-election of Eyengho, for instance, the government should be interested because Alex (Eyengho) is well positioned to forge partnerships that will maximise our exposure as an industry and connect us with potential collaborators. But the NFC does not even know that Alex is here even though I am aware that he wrote to inform them. So going forward, we must move ahead with meaningful strategies that will put Nollywood on the international map.”

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