Armed with a degree in Contemporary History (For a Social History of Cinema), Thierry Frémaux began his stint with the Cannes Film Festival in October 2000. Currently, the General Delegate of the festival, he now has the arduous task of watching as many as 800 films a year to hand-pick the coveted titles for one of the most prestigious festivals in the world. Sagorika Dasgupta catches up with the man himself at NFDC’s Film Bazaar in Goa
How has Indian cinema evolved over the years at the Cannes Film Festival?
There are two things about Indian cinema – our perception of it, and where it actually has been. And I think we have to understand that it has grown in the same way. I would have to say that Indian cinema is more open now, more accessible, in terms of films, in terms of people and also in terms of knowledge.
Earlier, Indian cinema was rare at the festivals. It was very niche and something that was very far away. When I arrived at Cannes over 10 years ago, it was something far away from the works of Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray. Nothing was coming out of India at that time because, then, Bollywood cinema was not supposed to be the face of Cannes. So a lot has changed over these last 10 years.
Change in the idea of having the possibility to know more about the Bollywood system, change in the economics of filmmaking and so on, also a change in the cinema because Indian cinema has undergone a huge change as well. These days, Indian cinema has been able to break the perception that we had of Bollywood. There is now a new wave of films from India and a new generation of filmmakers who we know is very talented and we show their films at our festival. And that is why we had showcased the works of these new filmmakers who have given us films like The Lunchbox and Monsoon Shootout. And that is very interesting for us and the future of these filmmakers. So I think that it’s a very specific and a strong moment for Indian cinema now.
At Cannes, the reception that Indian films have is only the kind of appeal that is made by the critics. So if the film is good or bad, that is decided by the critics watching it. The reception is good when the film is good but the idea is to screen Indian cinema, which is one of the finest, strongest and most important types of cinema in the world. Indian films have not been screened in our Competition section yet but I hope that will happen soon.
You earlier mentioned the works of Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray. Were their films ever screened in the Competition section at the Cannes Film Festival?
At that time, yes, they were. The power that these directors had with their craft, especially the likes of Satyajit Ray… He was one of the most prominent and important directors in the world in the sphere of cinema. Like you also have in Mrinal Sen, who was a great director and a maverick, and was also quite like Satyajit Ray. They can be equated with directors like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. But even in places like Italy, it’s hard to replace directors like Bergman and Fellini with new directors because they are legends.
We have screened the works of great veteran filmmakers in that segment and so we need to keep it sacrosanct. For me, it is important to see what films we showcase in that segment but I have to say that section is full of hope.
Yes. I will give you an example, in Romanian cinema there is this director called Cristian Mungiu. He is a very well-known Romanian director and he has made many known films. But he had made a film called Occident and I had loved it and I put it in the Parallèle section. The guy at that time had no name… nothing. He later received the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for his film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
So if I like a film and it has something great to say, I pick it up. I did the same with his film. I told him when he made his other film, that it was worth being in Competition and that it would win. And it did. So, the most important way to select a film is to watch it and feel that it is good. Which is why, even in India, the producers I have met so far… I always ask them to send their films to us. There is only one criterion – that the film should have its world premiere at our festival.
What about the other sections? Are there certain standards for films which make it to the other sections?
Well, the Competition section is the most important section at the festival. But we do have sidebars for light cinema, small cinema and parallel cinema. Sometimes there are young writers who are not solid enough to be in the Competition section but have done some great work. We put their works in these sidebars.
You visited the Film Bazaar for the first time this year. How helpful is this kind of market for a filmmaker?
I think it’s very important. Cannes is Cannes, not just because of the festival but also because of its market. People come to Cannes to sell their films and to network. There are 40-50,000 professionals who visit Cannes every year to work. India is not as important for Cannes in terms of market but it is important in terms of a pool of films, for professionals and professionals who are looking for the kind of reach through which their films can become big. So the Film Bazaar is very important for a filmmaker in India.
What is the potential of Indian films in a market like France?
It is not yet all that big. At Cannes, it is better. But in a few markets in France, you may have more to do, in terms of the number of Indian films. In terms of presence at Cannes also in terms of people who come in representation of films including journalists.
But isn’t it difficult for Indian films to penetrate European markets?
Yes and no. When a film is good, it is good. But you also have to make film professionals open up to these markets and aware of these markets. There is a lot of similarity in what is happening to Indian films these days as what happened with Japanese cinema a few years ago. Japanese cinema underwent a revolution after World War II, with many directors like Kurasawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse who came to the forefront with the cine-club movement. I see that happening with Indian films in France.
Yes. I know.
Do you think that’s good?
Of course, we as professionals know that it’s not true. And we know that it’s not the truth when a filmmaker says ‘my film was at Cannes’ because it does not mean that their film was invited by us. But he took it there on his own.
But isn’t that misleading the audience in India?
I don’t know. I don’t want to say it’s bad; it’s up to the filmmakers.
We had two Indians who were part of the jury at Cannes this year. Can you tell us who the first Indians to make it to the jury were?
Before me, I am not sure but it could have been Mrinal Sen. But Aishwarya Rai was on the jury in 2003. At that time the presence of Indian cinema at Cannes was not very good. But Aishwarya is a great woman and is a wonderful lady and now a great friend. And she did very well at the jury. And then we had Nandita (Das), Shekhar Kapur and Vidya Balan. So I have to say that with the presence of more and more Indian films at Cannes, Indians on the jury have also been more.
Do you look for a particular mix of jury members when deciding who to select for the panel?
No. We make the selection but no one can tell how someone ends up being selected. But having Indians on the jury is also a good way of telling the world that Indian cinema is no longer what they perceive it to be. Indian cinema is no longer about song and dance. If Indian films are changing, it is my duty to show that. Me and my friend Christian Jeune (Artistic Director, Festival de Cannes) watch about 800 films throughout the year to select films for the festival.
Did you manage to meet any interesting filmmakers at the Bazaar this year?
I have met a few interesting filmmakers like the director of Sholay (Ramesh Sippy). It was fun to chat with him. But Indian festivals are a great place to interact with upcoming, talented filmmakers.
Is there anyone in particular whose work you have liked?
That is a secret! The reason Cannes is Cannes is because our team watches 1,800 films a year till April and then reveal the shortlisted names with the trumpets blowing in the background.