Filmmakers Set Free: Cannes Films Far from Home

in 75th Cannes Film Festival

by Ahmed Shawky

Cinema is a universal language. It’s a fact that critics usually defend based on the ability of well-crafted films to influence viewers all over the world, regardless of their backgrounds, beliefs or cultures. But the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival has this year shown a new level of cinema globalisation, by presenting a significant number of films made by filmmakers who live far from their topic. A phenomenon that appeared everywhere in the festivals program, including the official competition and sidebars, with different outcomes in each case.

We will not include two titles from the international competition in this list: Boy from Heaven (2022) by Tarik Saleh and Ali Abbasis Holy Spider (2022), although both films were made by Nordic filmmakers while the stories take place in Egypt and Iran respectively. The reason is in both cases that the filmmakers are both originally from where their stories take place. Saleh is a Swedish-Egyptian who showed a recent interest in using genre films to raise the question of political (and in this case religious) dynamics in Egypt; Abbasi is a Danish-Iranian who decided to go back to his roots and tell a story about his homeland.

Both directors have obvious motives to make their new films, both won main awards at the end of the festival: Boy from Heaven received the price for best screenplay and Zar Amir Ebrahimi was awarded best actress for Holy Spider. Furthermore, the direct connections were not that clear with two other competition titles: Stars at Noon (2022) by Claire Denis and Pacifiction (Tourment sur les îles, 2022) by Albert Serra.

France’s Claire Denis chose Nicaragua as a location for her story of a brief encounter fueled by passion, loneliness, physical attraction and political oppression between an American adventurous journalist (Margaret Qualley) and a British executive (Joe Alwyn) who turns out to be connected to intelligence. Nicaragua here is just a location that achieves the suitable setup for the events, and it can be easily substituted by any other Central American country going through political unrest.

In the cinematic trip to French Polynesia (Tahiti) by the Catalan director Albert Serra, on the other hand, there’s a higher connection to the place. Not in terms of story, which again can be applied to any place that is still governed by the traces of European colonization, but in terms of the specific atmosphere of Tahiti, with its hypnotic feel and silent aesthetics that are widely used by Serra in his film.

Moving on from the international competition to the Un Certain Regard section, Lotfy Nathan, an American filmmaker with Egyptian origins, traveled to North Africa (in particular, Tunisia) to make is film Harka (2022), whose main actor Adam Bessa received the best performance award in the section. The word “harka” has a double-meaning in the Arabic word: In North Africa it is a slang term describing illegal immigration, while its direct dictionary meaning is “burning”. A linguistic paradox that can be applied to the main character who eventually decides to set himself on fire. A decision that might refer to a similar incident that triggered the whole Arab Spring back in 2011.

Another Arab-Arab trip was taken by the Lebanese visual artist Ali Cherri, whose feature film The Dam (2022) premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar. Here, Cherri moves to Sudan to make a visually stunning but not easy to follow film about a simple builder working on a unique mud construction. Nature, modernity and the revolution (which we never actually see on screen) shape Cherri’s work with a sophisticated sense of space and color contrast.

These are various examples that raise different questions about motivation and authenticity: What makes it appealing (or sometimes necessary) for a filmmaker to tell a story concerning people who live far away? And would the result offer a fresh eye, or a tourist point of view? The answers vary among the examples, but it certainly was a notable trend in Cannes this year. A trend that confirms the modern tendency of many filmmakers to set free from their own roots, and to go out to discover the world, searching for the common humane themes that matter for everyone in our complicated present.

Ahmed Shawky
Edited by Pamela Jahn