Cannes 2007: the digital equation

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The 2007 Cannes festival started on May 16 with a conference on digital distribution and 16 screening-rooms were equipped with digital projectors, showing 31 films from the selection. In Africa, in the mean time, very ambitious operators are buying the rights of the films that were on the list in order to broadcast them through the new channels offered by this technology. Deep changes are occurring, which will modify our relationship to film; unless it is that relationship that is changing and film is simply adapting. Review of a festival where Africa was only visible on the margins yet nonetheless present, particularly with its digital productions.
More and more screens

There are in the world two billion cell phones and one billion people connected to the internet. 87% of Chinese people, 95% of Hong Kong inhabitants and 71% of those in the United States have a cell phone. Will the cell phone screen replace the big screen? Things are heading that way very fast. Add to that wifi connected computers, plasma televisions (on average, French people go the movie theater three times a year but watch TV 4 hours a day), computer games (the new Sony PSP has an excellent screen on which you can watch films). Soon, video players will be as small and thin as a credit card, etc. There are more and more screens: overproduction does not exist since all types of audience are thus targeted. Films will be more and more rarely distributed in theatres, as the figures confirm: of the 440 million French spectators in 1957, now, they are only 175 to 220 left. Yet, aren’t films a collective exercise? In the dark room, people can laugh, cry and be scared together. A society can thus relive and give a structure to what they share. That was film’s historic role when crowds used to mass in these arenas of modernity that took the names of ancient arenas: the Coliseum, the Caesar, the Alhambra, the Rex etc. Can the multiplication of personal screens replace the dark rooms’ magic where one is the closest to others and the most alone at the same time?
The cinema as a meeting point
« The movie theater is a place where people meet up », says Emmanuel Ethis, a film sociologist. If the word « cinema » refers to both cinematic production and the movie theater as well, it is because one goes to see one’s « own » film even though its broadcast has a universal vocation. One makes « one’s own » territory where one can meet his/her friends. The internet has also become a space where people « meet »: technology has become a meeting place, particularly for teenagers. In the United States and in numerous European countries or in South Africa, teenagers do not have enough pocket money, transport, the time, the safety etc to go to multiplexes that are often located in out-of-town malls. They consume the media with their friends at home, or when connected. Myspace has become the new place to socialize where people create their profile and construct their identity. They create a digital body, copying and pasting all kind of images and contents in the same way that people stick posters and texts on their bedroom walls. Multimedia is a means of expression; people have been creating their own images and posting them o on Youtube since late 2005. Teenagers do not have credit cards, so the only way they can access VOD films and downloadable songs is through illegal piracy. They watch and imitate, but they develop their creativity in remixing what they see and turning it into new means of expressions. What they create usually corresponds to what they consume and the jokes they share draw from our business dominated world.
A day will come when cell phones will be able to project on a screen. Will it be possible to dream that way, as much as in the Escurial, the Majestic, the Rialto etc, in these movie theatres where we used to gather around common values? Why not. Cinema defines itself through the combination of place and sociability, which will shape its future, said Emmanuel Ethis at the Cannes opening conference. Within ten years, the number of festivals has multiplied by five in Europe. They are more and more thematic: specific audiences get together and socialize there. There are also films festivals on the internet. « The ideal of a general public is being shattered, » adds Ethis.
The myth of a general public
Blogs enable anyone to write a review: people form their judgment and express it. It allows people to assert themselves and show that they belong to a certain group. 91% of the people who met on Meetic, the dating site, spend their fisrt date at the movie! If one wants to get to know someone and share a moment with him/her, watching a movie remains the best. Films can be shown to one’s friends on a cell phone. The more a film makes you share, the more successful it is. Film, concludes Ethis, is « the art of meeting up », « it is the way we will build these meetings that will shape the audiences of tomorrow. »
That’s reassuring for the future of film, but what about the future of their contents? Maintaining what enables films – and artistic creation in general – to stimulate the mind, to question our society and the world, to build utopias is at stake. It cannot be achieved through commercial conformism and the repetition of the same tricks, but through the innovation of formats and stories. That requires auteurs. It has to be said again and again as anti-auteur ideology is gaining ground just because one has to please the majority in order to balance the accounts: the myth of a general public used as an alibi for the generalization of a commercial logic. The digital era makes this even truer since quantity predominates over quality. It is good to remember, as Jean-Michel Frodon does, that Eric Rohmer « remains, strictly from the point of view of the link between the cost and the receipts of his films, the most profitable filmmaker in French film history. » (1) It is unquestionably in the niche of digital production and its costs that auteur films can survive, thanks to alternative distribution channels.
A digital catalogue
Distribution remains the sinews of the war. That is where the power is. It increasingly finances film, notably via presale agreements for television rights. It is where, thanks to new technologies, the greatest profits of the future will be made. In Africa, major groups have well understood it. Three operators are in the running: Orange, through its Senegalese subsidiary Sonatel, ART, an Egyptian television channel financed by the Saudis and M-Net, the private South African channel. The latter was the early bird and it seems it is winning the game. Its representative Mike Dearham, in charge of the purchases, met the filmmakers one after the other. For a lump sum of 25 000 to 40000$, he has bought the broadcasting rights of their films for a period of 25 years. The rights are for Africa’s movie theatres and televisions, and the whole planet for distribution via the new technologies. Exclusive and worldwide at the beginning, the contracts have evolved as reluctant filmmakers have negotiated to limit them to Africa and sometimes have managed to secure non-exclusivity. But for the internet it is inevitably exclusive and worldwide. The aim is to buy the 2000 African feature films made since independence, to digitize them and to put them into the « African Film Library », a catalogue presented as a Pan-African, coherent solution to decaying distribution. The offer is more than tempting for filmmakers often crippled with debts and with no real income and who do not earn a penny from the distribution of their old films, an unmanageable task anyway. Apart from a few rare exceptions (Souleymane Cissé, Abderrahmane Sissako, Moussa Touré, Jihan El-Tahri, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda…) have thus sold their soul to the devil. It is even said that Sembène signed before he died.
Big mistake! The South African Film Resource Unit shouts loud and clear in a press release: « these monopoly contracts withdraw films from circulation: many African masterpieces cannot be found anymore, such as Djibril Diop Mambety’s last films. » Another conflicting voice: that of Eddie Mbalo, the NFVF’s (National Film and Video Foundation) CEO in South Africa, who is worried about the consequences, while at the same time claiming that in a liberal system, companies are free to start up the projects they want and that it is filmmakers’ role to organize and react (cf. interview on our website).
The great discount sale
Surely, it is too late; the great discount sale has already occurred. Many filmmakers have already sold their rights, without consulting one another in their renewed federation, without waiting either for the free play of competition to increase the prices, bringing to light an unpromising pessimism with regard to the profession’s ability to organize. It’s a far cry from the grand declarations made at the Fepaci’s outset: the logic of individualized business has replaced former solidarities. « These filmmakers do not realize, goes on the Film Resource Unit, that they are giving the kiss of death to films that belong to our continent’s common heritage, and are thus dooming any real hope of profitability for our industry. » Indeed, the AFL thwarts any attempts at action in the field of distribution even though the African markets are far from being saturated and new technologies offer huge possibilities. It also thwarts the SABC’s desire, the public South African channel, to play an active part in the broadcasting of African film. As Fabienne Pompey titles her article in Le Monde (15 June 2007), « the Internet could become the only distribution circuit for African films ». In less than two years, M-Net has bought the rights of more than 400 films for the internet and often for movie theaters and television broadcasting on the African continent. M-net, main channel of the DSTV bouquet and owned by Napsters, the South African media giant, has put 5 million dollars at Mike Dearham’s disposal who was signing checks at the last Fespaco by the Indépendance Hotel’s swimming pool; a renowned place where filmmakers and festival-goers meet.
Unfortunately, he was not in Cannes and could not attend the debate organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Pavillon des cinémas du Sud on « digital broadcasting, a hope or a threat to African films. » The representatives of the approached channels were also absent. There was thus no confrontation but it was interesting to hear filmmakers such as Gaston Kaboré (Burkina Faso) or Michael Raeburn (Zimbabwe) explaining why they accepted M-Net’s offers. (cf. the forthcoming transcription of the conference on the site). It is easy to imagine why: the desire to valorize old films stuck on old shelves so they can be shown to a large audience, and of course, the amount of debts to pay back. The conditions of the contracts were raised, and their scope and period, which is unusually long for this type of rights transfer, and so the debate ended with a call for attention.
African filmmakers in the place of honor
The Pavillons du Sud stall, jointly financed by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Intergovernmental Organization for Francophony, the Centre National de la Cinématographie and TV5, is every year the meeting point for all those who are interested in films from the South and African films in particular. Debates and conferences are held all day long while the terrace on the seafront is a preferred meeting place for professionals. Projections are organized in alternance with the film market. Gaston Kaboré and Newton Aduaka gave their masterclasses: it is always exciting and instructive to hear filmmakers explaining in detail how they make their films (cf. transcriptions on the site).
Cocktail-event: the Nigerien filmmaker, Moustapha Alassane, was made Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur on May 24 by Véronique Cayla, director of the Centre National de la Cinématographie. The veteran has a heck of a past and a heck of a future! 1966: he directed a medium-length western-like film – a little marvel: Return of an Adventurer. 1972: his feature film FVVA, femme, voiture, villa, argent mocked the nouveau riches. The expression has remained an informal way of describing social-climbers. In the 70s, he went from one village to another with a travelling cinema, filmed the villagers in the morning, developed and showed them the images on the same night. He now lives in Tahoua, 800 miles from Niamey, where he owns the Hôtel de l’Amitié (Friendship Hotel), which has been partly transformed into a studio for his animation films. His toad Sim, the president of the Republic of Toads, has traveled the world. First, he worked with puppets, using the techniques learnt with Claude Jutra and Norman Mac Laren, and then computer (cf. interview on the site carried out in 2002). He is now adapting Albarka’s tales, a deceased Nigerien storyteller.
Africa boycotted?
That is what Cannes is about, here and there extraordinary opportunities to meet and discover people, away from the lights and media hype. Yet, sequins are useful so that, through their filmmakers’ works, countries can raise their voices in the world concert. Africa was absent from the selection this year. Boycotted? The question is asked every year, it is always the same old story, which our excellent peer Renaud de Rochebrune of Jeune Afrique did not miss the chance to ask again.
This year, the African Guild of Directors and Producers, which took up residence in a cosy alley of the old Cannes, thundered in a press release: « No African film has been selected in the official competition for the Golden Palm in ten years. Is this a facial discrimination linked to the color of our images? Questioned by the AFP, the board of the Cannes Festival qualified these accusations as « unfounded ». « Artistic criteria only are taken into account during the selection. » « When there is no film, it is always the sign that the film industry is not going well in this area » clarified the board of the Cannes Festival.
Gilles Jacob, the big boss of the festival, hosted a Fepaci meeting on the premises, assuring he would « do anything to help African film ». In a press release, the Pan-African Filmmakers Federation urged African governments to ratify the UNESCO convention on cultural diversity and wanted funding to be developed to facilitate and promote African films. It also asked for broadcast quotas for local productions on African channels, the repatriation of cinematic archives taken from the African continent during the colonial period, the creation of local film libraries, the reinforcement of intellectual rights and for measures to fight piracy.
Of course, African filmmakers’ quasi-absence from the Festival’s 60th anniversary commission, Chacun son cinema (To Each His Cinema), a collective film of 33 3-minute shorts about movie theaters and directed by famous directors in the world could only reinforce the feeling of being boycotted. It is true that Egyptian Youssef Chahine was part of the experience: in 47 years after, taking his success as an example, he encourages youngsters to hold on in spite of the different setbacks. In War in Peace, Wim Wenders did film an improvised video screening room in Kabalo, Congo, in 2006 – the first year of peace, where children traumatized by the war watch the formidable Ridley Scott film Black Hawk Down on a TV, which plunges them back into it. In Cinéma d’été, Raymond Depardon did transport himself into an Alexandria movie theatre on a summer night, capturing the gestures, the looks, the feelings. Films follow films, often moving, always striking, sometimes hilarious, like Nanni Moretti’s Diario di uno spettatore, or Walter Salles’ excellent Miguel Pereira, Brésil… à 8 944 km de Cannes, which conducts in front of a clueless movie theatre showing Les 400 coups, a musical battle slammed to the sound of tambourines like repentistas nordestins: one claims he has been to Cannes and actullaly knows quite a lot about the festival, the other one is doubtful but captivated until his partner confesses he has read everything on the internet! Dedicated to Federico Fellini « that little skip of the heart when the lights go off and the film begins » aligns a number of cinematic pearls.
African presence
It isn’t that Cannes should implement affirmative action but one may well wonder why Mooladé or Bamako were not in the official selection in past years: it would have enabled the festival, without abjuring, to put pay to such criticism considering the quality of these films. Anyway, this year: nada. But which of the new films could have found its place? One cannot but notice that Africa does not produce the major films anymore which succeeded in the past decades. The filmmakers who would like to just cannot find the funds to make the great intuitive visions that were Yeelen by Souleymane Cissé or Genesis by Cheick Oumar. Even Idrissa Ouedraogo has stopped filming anything apart from videos. Certainly, despite the paucity of films produced, lots of them are interesting or even fascinating, and if not epic, they are filled with reality and deal with our present time. But which could make the top of the pile and be among the happy few of a world selection? Daratt by Mahamat Saleh Haroun was already awarded in Venice and the Fespaco did not reveal the pearl of the year, apart from the beautiful Ezra by Newton Aduaka, Golden Stallion, which could not be selected as it was already presented at Sundance in January and Cannes insists on the films’ absolute exclusiveness. (cf. review and interview of the filmmaker and also the interviews in Cannes with actress Mariame N’Diaye and actor Emile Abossolo).
The only official attempt to put things right: special projections. La Semaine de la Critique dedicated a projection to Ezra in collaboration with RFI. Cartouches Gauloises by Algerian Mehdi Charef was presented out of competition (cf. review). The only African presence in the official selection, in the Un Certain Regard section: a fragile film made by a young Corean-American with other young people in Rwanda. Fragile but totally dazzling. Munyurangabo, by Lee Isaac Chung, is born from a collective process of writing on location during a film workshop (cf. review and interview on the site). So, it is a digital-improvised film, entirely filmed in Kinyarwanda with a minimalist budget; it made it into the selection thanks to an aesthetic treatment without any kind of effects but original and just.
It is just because of its viewpoint, its commitment, its manifest ability to listen and the way it turns the story into a serious thought, a vision. « When you come from a world full of iniquities, you can’t tell the same stories » said Abderrahmane Sissako during a question and answer session organized by the CCAS, the electricians and gas workers’ work council which every year presents the excellent « Visions locales » selection. This year, Sissako was its patron, an invitation he accepted before he was asked to be part of the festival’s feature film jury (cf. our interview during the festival on the site). « Our cinema must be committed: it must challenge the Other to provoke a questioning of justice. » It is the artist’s role. « When we make a film », he went on, « we’re not trying to be right, but to get certain things heard. We have to fight to have another vision of the world and mankind. » At that point, Sissako talked about the pirogues that leave the coasts of Africa and try to reach the North. He was overcome by emotion. He lowered the microphone. This moment of silence carried the weight of the world.
The world was present out of competition in the « cinemas du monde » selection which has its own projection screens on Pantiero Port. Once again taken as a country, one day was dedicated to Africa. Scheduled were The Hero by the Angolan Zézé Gamboa (cf. our interview with actor Makena Diop) and two Guineans films: Early in the Morning by Gahité Fofana, and Clouds Over Conakry by Cheick Fantamady Camara. Three films that we have already talked about but our meeting with Alex Ogou gave us the occasion to evoke the latter again, in addition to a black actor’s life (cf. interview).
Also, the presentation of Mo & Me offered a detour into the little known world of Kenyan films that are rarely seen beyond East Africa (cf. our interview with Salim Amin who describes the advances in this area.) In order to maintain necessary distance, Salim Amin did not want to direct the film himself which he produces about his relationship with his father Mohamed Amin, famous reporter-photographer who witnessed the entire History of Africa for 30 years. He entrusted it to his friend Murad Rayani, who joined forces with the British Roger Mills. This documentary ran for seven weeks in the Kenyan movie theaters. It’s no wonder why: it is the film of a son questioning himself about a father always away from home, possessed by his work, hard to reach, but that everybody knew for the quality of his reporting. This personal approach gives rhythm to what would have otherwise only been the rather classical evocation of a good journalist’s career who started from nothing and met all the great figures of his time, living all its [i.e. the era’s] tragedies and conflicts. This approach passes off the television format and the omnipresent voice-over that describes the struggles of this arrogant and self-absorbed father who even arrives late at his son’s wedding. On the other hand, it makes it difficult to have any distance from the images of the father who died in a plane hijack in 1996 and to whom the son is trying to pay tribute.
Mo’Amin’s life reflected his profession’s danger: imprisoned and tortured in Zanzibar in 1965, he had to have his arm amputated after getting too close to the explosion of an ammunitions stockroom belonging to Ethiopian Mengistu’s crumbling regime in 1991. But it also had its moments of grandeur: through his pictures he alerted the world to the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 and at Bob Geldof’s initiative, brought together musicians and singers for the song We are the World and launched the relief effort. Throwing light on biography through the son’s experience, Mo & Me is therefore a subtle initiation to journalism’s paradoxes.
Barbet Schroeder’s portrait of Jacques Vergès in Terror’s Advocate selected in the Un Certain regard section also enables us to enter History’s complexity by drawing on that of an uncommon character, this time alive and interviewed at length. Seeing how his far-left anticolonialist and commitment, for the Algerian cause in particular, will little by little bring him to defend terrorists and anti-Semites is fascinating. In retracing the History from the 60s to the 90s through an uncommon and not necessarily pleasant character, the two films bring us back to the evolution of our own contradictions. There is always a degree of bitterness in retracing the pranks of History and the illusions of past commitments but it is precisely through the light they shed in such a personal way that they help us to know where we stand.
If The Band’s Visit by Israeli Eran Kolirin was one of the festival’s pleasant surprises, it is undoubtedly because of the way it takes apart cultural differences in the Isrealo-Arab conflict through humor. An Egyptian band arrives in Israel to play at an Arab cultural center’s opening ceremony, but they are left stranded at the airport and go to the wrong village. Forced to spend the night there, its members will subtly connect with each other. A piece of shared humanity where everything opposes them, a piece of what is forgotten in conflicts, the reasons of peace, the desire to bridge the gap to be together.
Digital perspectives
Rare are the African films that are not now shot on digital. What if it were an opportunity for the continent? It is clear that nowadays, American and Asian channels do not finance projects unless they are filmed in high definition and have the potential to be exploited on the internet. European channels will soon do the same.
For young directors, internet is a way to get known by enabling a large audience to watch their short films. For committed documentary makers, internet is a way to broadcast films beyond circles of activists. For confirmed directors, the internet is, without counting the video on demand sites for their feature films, a way to make their short films, forgotten films, makings of, bonuses, etc. known. We are currently making, in collaboration with the Africultures, and sites a free-access portal of all these films, making it possible to find the works listed by country and themes.
Digital technology? Like the internet or cell phones, an opportunity for Africa!

1. Cahiers du cinéma, January 2007, note p. 39.Translated from French by Sutarni Riesenmey///Article N° : 7071


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