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Cannes Diaries: Surviving the first film screening

  • Published at 10:02 am May 19th, 2019
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72nd Cannes Film Festival - Screening of the film 'The Wild Goose Lake' (Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui) in competition - Red Carpet Arrivals - Cannes, France, May 18, 2019. Director Quentin Tarantino and wife Daniella Pick pose Reuters

Dhaka Tribune’s correspondent at Cannes reviews Moroccan absurdist film ‘The Unknown Saint’

If there is one thing I have learned from traveling to different countries to attend film festivals, it is that your experience is only as good as the company and the films. At Cannes, all the films are so “well-told” that you are torn between choosing which film to see and which to leave out. Of course, as a jury, I am stuck with the films in my sections – the Directors’ Fortnight and the Critics’ Week. We have to sort through the first and second feature films of directors in these sections and pick a winner for the prestigious FIPRESCI prize. 

Many top directors today made their mark in these sections at Cannes at the beginning of their careers. Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, Jafar Panahi, George Lucas, Damien Chazelle and other big names of their stature have showcased their initial films here. 

State of the art film curation

The curation of films at this festival is something to idolize for any festival programmer. Every new director in these sections managed to blow us away. You would think they would make some rookie mistakes or have some technical glitches at the least, but they were really perfect.

As I mentioned in my last article, the lines to get into the screenings stretch all the way around the block at times. If you do not have a priority badge, it is difficult to have the patience to stand in line not knowing whether you will get a seat in the theatre. Many make themselves comfortable sitting on the pavements after their legs give in. But once you have seen a few films here, you understand what the buzz is about. 

This sophisticated curation of films prevents the film pilgrims here from running off to the mesmerizing beach or the wise old mountains adjacent to the venue. 

I have so far watched one third of the films I have to watch. All of them stood out with their individual merits. Let's take a quick look at the first film I saw as a jury here, and how that set the tone for the films by new directors. 

‘The Unknown Saint’

This Moroccan film by debutant director Alaa Eddine Aljem is an absurdist film about a thief (Younes Bouab) who hides his loot in the middle of the desert under the guise of a grave. He comes back years later to find a shrine and a city built around that grave. Now he must find a way to retrieve his treasure for which he served in prison for years. 

The timeless nature of this desert and the universality of religious blindness made the film surpass its cultural barriers and connect with a global audience. From the camera, the lighting, the sound to the writing and the acting – there was no trace of a novice in this film. 

The characters were minimalist yet well-rounded, each with their own clear goals and conflicts. It is a film our upcoming filmmakers can study to understand how an absurdist film can have structure and substance without compromising on the director’s artistic vision. 

Even the sub-characters, with their separate plots, had a short but clear character arcs. For instance, a barber-cum-dentist (Ahmed Yarziz) in that new small town becomes the town’s hero by making gold teeth for the shrine guard’s beloved dog. 

The humour in this drama is subtle and clever. It makes the viewers appreciate the subliminal subtexts. To give an example, when a new doctor arrives in that town only to find out he has nothing better to do than to prescribe paracetamol, he takes up an illegal hobby just to survive the boredom. It is another example of an unorthodox character arc that makes this film interesting. 

Watching this film and others by new directors, one thing is very clear: New filmmakers must visit these festivals to open their eyes to global standards and preferences.