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It’s strange to have the light on

Directors Fortnight (DF) programmer Benjamin Illos sat down with Max Currie at Script to Screen’s first Writers Room of the year. Illos has been a programmer with DF for five years, and is currently in the middle of the annual submission period. “It’s strange for me to have the light on,” he explained.

Separate from the two official Cannes programme the Competition and Un Certain Regard , DF and fellow sidebar event Critics Week each have their own objectives, Illos said, While Critics Week is open to first and second-time filmmakers, DF is less restrictive.

Does it like to expose directors at the start of their careers? “We’re proud when it happens,” said Illos, “but we’re not closed to experienced directors.”

Currie wanted to explore beneath the surface, the inner workings and the organisation behind the programme. Illos shared that the programming team receives an awful lot of submissions. He mentioned 1300, although last year’s feature crop numbered 1623.

“How do you deal with it?” Currie wanted to know. Days in a screening room and nights in front of a TV was the answer, with the other programmers and director doing the same. The DF submission period runs for around three months which means everyone watching on average at least four films a day – not that submissions arrive in an orderly manner.

Illos noted that earlier submissions get better feedback, as there simply isn’t time at the sharp end of the selection process.

As for shorts, DF received 1742 last year, from which it programmed 11.

Currie raised the issues of representation and diversity among Cannes’ selections, noting that they were “two white guys talking about diversity”.

“I’m part north African,” Illos said, “so not that white.”

Illos took a very different line to that taken by the Academy recently, noting that if festival programmers want to present the crème de la crème, and those films were made by white guys, it wasn’t the festival’s job to change that.

“We’re not producers,” Illos observed. “I don’t think you can blame the end user. I meet a lot of people who do the same thing I do. We don’t agree on everything but we find a lot of common ground.”

A selection, Illos claimed, is “not about the gender of the filmmaker. It’s about the craft.”

DF doesn’t choose what films get written, financed, made, nor which of those get submitted to it. Currie went at it a different way, suggesting that there was research to show that people were naturally inclined to favour people like themselves, and wondered whether that impacted on festival selections.

Half of the DF programming team is female, so criticism of its selections (three of last year’s 17 DF features had female directors) was difficult, That programme included Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, which has picked up over 20 international festival awards since playing DF.

Asked whether Cannes’ various programmers shared titles they thought were good but not appropriate for their own selection, Illos said they didn’t. In part, that may be because the various Cannes line-ups are, to some degree, in competition with one another. Filmmakers, of course, are not bound by the same etiquette and may submit to more than one programme. Last year, Miguel Gomes’s three-part Arabian Nights and Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days played DF having reportedly been declined by the Main Competition.

Illos admitted, however, that he would champion films he thought were great but being overlooked to programmers from other festivals.

What’s the benefit of selection? asked an audience member.

DF doesn’t pay for flights, Illos noted, although Currie suggested that it was a pretty safe bet that a selection in one of the Cannes line-ups would persuade the NZFC to stump up for a plane ticket.

We offer accommodation for directors, Illos explained, adding that the festival’s press office was also at the disposal of filmmakers selected, to help organise interviews, meetings, promotions. Any Cannes selection opens doors, whether with sales agents, distributors, or producers.

Noting that Cannes could seem a very long way away from New Zealand, and that it had been over a decade since the last DF selection for a NZ feature, Currie asked if Illos could offer examples of other small countries whose films were well-respected in Cannes.

It wasn’t really about the country, Illos suggested, but the filmmaker. He mentioned the Philippines’ Lav Diaz, who’s had considerable attention from festivals (if not distributors, with his last three titles totalling 18 hours running time).

Illos was diplomatic throughout, reluctant to offer examples in his responses that would identify titles or filmmakers, Asked who he was said DF had given an opportunity to, he answered, “That’s a very cruel question. You’re asking me to choose one of my children.”

He did admit that when people tried to present promos to him, he would ask, “if I don’t like it, does it mean I don’t have to watch the full film?” While commercials, reels, promos, etc., all have a job to do, as a programmer Illos would prefer to watch the film, and not judge the book by its cover.

Illos also admitted that, perhaps, Cannes was not the best place for documentaries or shorts – although all the programmes do have a shorts line-up. DF usually selected one, maybe two, documentaries in its line-up, which typically sits between 15 and 20 titles. It’s less than a week since a doco won the Berlinale’s top honour, which might give a clue about one A list festival considered more doco-friendly.

As for shorts, Illos suggested, a Cannes selection “will help one’s career but it’s not necessarily the best place,” before name-checking Clermont-Ferrand and Oberhausen as premiere festivals for shorts.

Even in generalities, Illos wasn’t keen to suggest what sort of stories he wished people would stop telling, or which he’d like to see more of. The closest he came was noting that in the films he was viewing there was an increasing number of drone shots and “neck shots”, the back of someone’s head as they moved. He also noted an increasing number of other language remakes, although it’s hard to imagine many of those being submitted to any of the Cannes programmes. Luckily for NZ, he didn’t single out films that began with landscape porn.

Directors Fortnight (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs) is accepting submissions until 18 March.

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