Movie Culture: Politics of Film Festival Juries

Year after year, critics complain that the “wrong” films tend win jury prizes at major festivals. For example, at this year’s Festival de Cannes, one of the favorite films among critics was David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” which opened to rave reviews. Yet, when the awards were announced, the big winners were the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre’s “The Child” (“LEnfant”), which won the top prize, the Palme dOr, and Jim Jarmsuch’s romantic comedy, “Broken Flowers,” which received Special Jury Prize, the festival’s second prestigious award.

Both directors have won awards at Cannes before. The Dardennes became one of the few filmmakers to have won twice the Palme dOr; the first time for Rosetta in 1998. In contrast, History of Violence and the talent behind it (director Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen) left empty-handed. A Cannes veteran, Cronenberg was not surprised, having served as president in 2002 and having won the Special Jury Prize for his controversial erotic drama, “Crash.” That 1996 film became a cause celebre, voted by the jury against the wish of its president, Francis Ford Coppola, who violated the code of silence and declared his opposition.

There’s nothing new under the sky. Film festivals, particularly influential ones such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Sundance, have always functioned as arenas of aesthetic, political, and moral debates. Nonetheless, a case could be made that controversial films that win prizes fulfill important functions, calling attention to the riches of film as a multi-faceted medium and to the many different yardsticks in evaluating its merits.

When it comes to film festival juries, I am in a privileged position, having served on 41 juries, most of which international, such as Cannes, Venice, Taormina, and Locarno, but also American, such as Sundance, Seattle, Palm Springs, and Hawaii. Based on my experience, Id like to point out some trends, problems, and joys in serving on these juries, realizing that for every “rule,” therell be an exception.

Raising the Visibility of Obscure Films

Winning the Cannes top prize may result in securing theatrical distribution for challenging films that might otherwise not get released. Take Iran’s premier director Abbas Kiarostami, one of the most respected filmmakers in the world. It was shocking to realize that none of Kiarostami’s movies had received theatrical release in the U.S. until 1997, when “Taste of Cherry” won the Palme dOr. The fact that the film dealt with suicide, a taboo issue in Iran, and that there was uncertainty whether the government would allow Kiarostami to introduce the film added to the suspense. Indeed, Kiarostami was granted visa at the last moment, and his film was the last to be shown. “Taste of Cherry “is a very good film, but the question persists, was the jury also influenced by the politics around the film

Disregarding the Artistry of Commercial Films

It’s almost a given that genre films, even if theyre accomplished and made by world-class filmmakers don’t win awards. Take Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” in 1997 and Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” in 2003, two American noir crime dramas that were ignored in Cannes but went on to win major Oscars. Both films were sumptuously crafted and superlatively acted but they were made within a familiar generic tradition, classic American cinema. Peter Ustinov articulated this argument while serving on the Venice jury, disclosing that festivals are dedicated to cinema d’auteur or films as personal artistic statements. As a result, Ustinov said, “festivals tend to look to brilliant shortcomings rather than cinematic perfection that smacks of commercial work.”

Time Will Tell Timely Versus Timeless Art
Some of the great masterpieces of world cinema have been disregarded by festival juries, other have been rejected and even booed. How else can you explain that Ingmar Bergman has never won the Palme dOr, despite having films in the competition at least half a dozen times. Antonioni’s masterpiece, “LAvventura” was booed at its 1960 premiere, and as noted, so was Cronenberg’s “Crash.” Were Bergman’s films, or Bunuel’s for that matter, ahead of their times Was it a function of the jury’s aesthetics It would be interesting to examine the fate of movies and directors that had failed to garner awards. You can bet therell be lots of surprises and disappointments.

Second-Guessing the Jury

The moment a festival announces the composition of its jury rumors begin to fly and observers engage in a favorite game, second-guessing the members’ tastes. When Tarantino was appointed president in 2004, the immediate speculation was that Asian, particularly Hong Kong, films would be favored. However, no jury wants to be taken for granted or be predictable, and
the winner was Michael Moore’s incendiary documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the second time in Cannes’ history that a docu wins the top award. Was it the best film that year Could the jury ignore the fact that it was an election year stateside Otherwise, Tarantino fulfilled expectations and Asian films dominated: the South Korean entry, “Oldboy,” won Special Jury Prize and Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung was honored for the French film Clean.

Spreading the Wealth

Good films tend to make every aspect of them look good. Yet, festival directors are sensitive to the notion of “clean sweep,” one film getting most of the awards. In some festivals, the norms dictate that no film can win more than one award. Yet again, for every rule there’s exception. In 1989, a 26-year-old director came out of nowhere and won three major awards in Cannes. His name was Steven Soderbergh and the film was “sex, lies, and videotape,” which won the Palme dOr, Director, and Actor to James Spader. Soderbergh became a poster child of the new American indies, and sex, lies put Miramax on the map as an enterprising distributor.

In 2003, president Patrice Chereau made it public that the competition was weak and that the jury, which included Soderbergh, liked only four movies. Unfazed by the festival’s directives, the jury gave each of the four two awards. Hence, Gus Van Sant’s controversial expose of high-school violence, “Elephant,” an art film par excellence, won two major awards: Palme dOr and Director. “I thought I was done,” said a shocked Van Sant at the awards ceremony, upon being called to the podium for the second time.

Politics for Politics Sake

For the first decades of its existence, political controversies had marked Venice, the world’s oldest festival, founded in 1932. Critics were dismayed by the preponderance of German and Italian films winning prizes, claiming that the festival was run by Mussolini. In 1936, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, La Grande Illusion, was passed over in favor of an obscure German film, Luis Trenker’s “Der Kaiser Von Kalifornien.” Charges that Venice was “an instrument of fascist propaganda” repeated in 1938, when Leni Riefenstal’s docu “Olympiad” won over Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a movie that outraged the international film community, and resulted in the American representative on the jury, Harold Smith, walking out in protest. Olympiad shared honors with another Italian movie, “Luciano Serra Pilota,” produced by Vittorio Mussolini, the Duce’s brother!

Oranges and Apples

Juries are faced with the problem of how to standardizing the measuring rod How do you evaluate new films by the world’s most distinguished and vet filmmakers, such as Antonioni, Godard, and Fellini, vis-a vis the work of first-time directors, such as Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, and Soderberg, twentysomething directors right out of film school No wonder Woody Allen would present his films, such as “Match Point” this year in Cannes, out of competition. There no way but perceiving it as a failure if an estimable director like Allen is in competition and doesn’t win, for whatever reason. There’s a lot to lose–prestige and careers are on the line.

Juries can only confer awards on films chosen by the festival for its official line-up, about 18 to 22 movies. There’s always been criticism that the selection process itself is “inadequate” or “biased,” for one reason or another. Last year, Cannes rejected Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake,” which went on to win top prize at Venice three month later. Yet again, it could be argued that “errors of judgment” contribute to broader consciousness, and more realistic understanding of both films and festivals.

In 1980, Kirk Douglas protested his colleagues’ refusal to confer the acting award on Peter Sellers for “Being There,” because it was time to honor Italian artists. Accusations are often made that prizes are bestowed because the jury felt it was the turn of a particular national cinema to get attention, be it a Third World or European country.

The New York Film Festival, established in 1963, has rejected the idea that there’s a “festival kind of film.” According to its outspoken founder, the late Richard Roud, the festival goes for either innovative films that are unlike any other, or for straight and solid achievements. Though the film’s merits are one crucial variable, in the final selection, other factors, such as the geography, are considered. Can you reject a decent or mediocre film from Africa, a continent that makes a handful of films per year The NYFF has refused to award prizes because of the ugly side of competition. Roud said he was appalled by “the shenanigans that go on at other festivals, when there are pressures to win and that prizes are only good for the winners.”