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Cannes Film Festival 2021: Filmmakers reflect on the struggles of people in a pandemic-hit world

The stirring line-up of films from around the world at the 74th Cannes film festival mirrors a society hit hard by the pandemic, racism, gender injustice and inequalities.

July 10, 2021 / 12:05 PM IST
American director Spike Lee is the first Black person to head the Cannes competition jury.

American director Spike Lee is the first Black person to head the Cannes competition jury.

"You know what happens to the girls who speak up," a medical college student tells her teacher, who is exhorting her to report sexual harassment by a senior faculty member, in the Bangladeshi film Rehana Maryam Noor, screened at the 74th Cannes film festival that began on Tuesday.

Though set in the middle of the last decade, years before the #MeToo movement shook the world, Rehana Maryam Noor is Bangladesh's own Me-Too story. Directed by independent filmmaker Abdullah Mohammad Saad, the 107-minute film, shot entirely indoors using pale blue light to show the darkness in the lives of women in a male-dominated society, is also a story of the sub-continent.

Bangladeshi director Abdullah Mohammad Saad's 'Rehana Maryam Noor' is the country's first film in Cannes official selection. Bangladeshi director Abdullah Mohammad Saad's 'Rehana Maryam Noor' is the country's first film in Cannes official selection.

At the Cannes festival, back to the physical format this year after its 2020 edition was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, tales of gender inequalities, racism, war and the pandemic dominate an impressive line-up from around the world. This year, the festival has also introduced a new section, Cinema for the Climate, to voice concerns about climate change and global warming through the powerful medium of art.

Call for gender justice

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Premiering on the second day of the festival, Rehana Maryam Noor, the sophomore feature of Saad, whose debut Live From Dhaka (2016) highlighted the struggles of disabled people in Bangladesh, has set the tone for a growing artistic response to contemporary society's ills and evils after a year-and-half of unprecedented tragedy.

Rehana Maryam Noor, the first Bangladeshi film in official selection in Cannes, is joined by such titles as Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta, the true story of a nun's love affair with another woman in the backdrop of a raging plague in 17th century Tuscany, Italy; French filmmaker Catherine Corsini's The Divide set in the backdrop of the Yellow Vests movement in France; Petrov's Flu about an epidemic in post-Soviet Russia by Kirill Serebrennikov; Mahmat Saleh Haroun's Lingui, the story of a mother in Chad, Africa, battling religious intolerance of abortion rights to protect her pregnant teenage daughter; Women Do Not Cry, a Bulgarian film by Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova, about their country's decision not to ratify a regional treaty to confront violence against women for fear of eroding traditional values.

Not only sales agents and buyers, but even famous actors and filmmakers are waiting for the films made during the pandemic - irrespective of whether they're in them.

"My heart is full and I am emotional to be back," said American actor Jessica Chastain at the opening of the festival on July 6. "Ten years ago The Tree of Life changed my life," Chastain added about the Terrence Malick movie about life and faith, starring herself and Brad Pitt, at Cannes in 2011.

Changes in Cannes

The festival itself has undergone many changes during the pandemic. For the first time in the long history of Cannes, a Black person heads its competition jury. American independent director Spike Lee is the president of a jury that has more female (five) than male members (four). There are 20 films in the official selection that are directed by women, including four in the competition section.

"Each of our relationship with cinema is also changing because we haven't seen much because it is also very particular to watch so many, a wave of cinema after the absence of it," said jury member Mati Diop, the Senegalese-origin French director whose first feature film Atlantics won the Grand Prix in Cannes two years ago.

Three years after signing the 50:50 gender parity pledge (half of the festival selection committee members today are women), the Cannes festival is also aiming to make the influential gathering a carbon-neutral event. Electric and hybrid cars are now part of the official festival fleet along with a total elimination of plastic bottles. An efficient waste management plan has been put in place and the use of paper will come down by half this year.

Delhi-born director Rahul Jain's 'Invisible Demons', about the lives of ordinary people in the air pollution-hit national capital, is part of the new Cinema for the Climate section at the festival. Delhi-born director Rahul Jain's 'Invisible Demons', about the lives of ordinary people in the air pollution-hit national capital, is part of the new Cinema for the Climate section at the festival.

Oscar-winning French actor Marion Cotillard, whose new film Annette opened the festival on Tuesday, has produced a climate documentary, Bigger Than Us, which is part of the Cinema for the Climate section.

Bigger Than Us follows Melati, an 18-year-old Indonesian girl, who is among the many teenagers like Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who are leading the fight against global warming.

Animal, another documentary in the section directed by French activist-director Cyril Dion, echoes the sentiments. "Every generation has its fight, here is ours," say the two teenagers battling the collapse of biodiversity in the film.

Focus on the pandemic

A major highlight of the festival, happening in the middle of the pandemic, is an anthology of seven films directed by seven filmmakers in the Special Screenings section.

Dubbed a "love letter to cinema", The Year of the Everlasting Storm chronicles the uncertainties of life during the Covid-19 crisis. Shot across the US, Iran, Chile, China and Thailand by seven of today's most important filmmakers, the film will have its world premiere on July 14.

The filmmakers - Jafar Panâhi (Iran), Anthony Chen (Singapore), Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras and David Lowery (the United States), Dominga Sotomayor (Chile) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand) bring on the screen various hues of living, like a new life in an old house, a breakaway, a reunion, a surveillance and reconciliation in an unrecognisable world.

The Cannes film festival runs up to July 17.

One of the highlights of the festival this year is 'The Year of the Everlasting Storm', an anthology of seven films focusing on the pandemic. One of the highlights of the festival this year is 'The Year of the Everlasting Storm', an anthology of seven films focusing on the pandemic.
Faizal Khan

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