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‘Not too late to save Argentine classical films’

By Cristiana Visan
Herald Staff

Cannes Festival chief fights to preserve old movies as ‘memory of the world’

After a dozen years of moulding and reshaping the Cannes Film Festival, Thierry Frémaux is, in the eyes of many, one of the most powerful men in world cinema. Some call him the trailblazer of film festivals, some call him a kingpin, and some even call him God. The Herald met Frémaux in a painfully scorching afternoon before the official opening of the European Cinema Week in Buenos Aires. With entrancing resolve and unswerving passion for cinema, Cannes’ director talked about the importance of preserving classical movies and how new technologies reshape the filmic landscape.

How was the selection of films for the European Cinema Week made?

Well, the main criterion is to choose only European films, so it was among some 50 movies we had in the official selection this year in Cannes. But we are quite proud to have brought the Palme d’Or for the opening night as well as the director and the young team of the film. It’s the fifth edition of this event and it’s good to have here a filmmaker like Kechiche, especially since it’s his first time in Argentina. His film shows how cinema is today: it’s a European film, but it’s a French production where the director is Tunisian… It shows how very hard it has become to tell the nationality of a film.

How do you see Cannes’ relationship with Argentine cinema nowadays?

In the past it was mostly Pino Solanas. Then, more than 10 years ago, when I arrived, Argentina emerged as one of the strongest countries in world cinema. When we don’t have any Argentine films at Cannes, we invite someone from Argentina in the jury. For me, this is extremely important, I mean, Latin American cinema, from Argentina to Mexico, is something we need today. I still think that Argentine cinema is promising cinema: I see a great future, but I also believe that sometimes we have to wait for this wonderful generation to grow up some more.

When you say “this generation,” you mean the filmmakers coming after Lucrecia Martel?

No, I refer precisely to that generation, to Lucrecia Martel, Pablo Trapero, Carlos Sorín… Argentina is there with Romania, South Korea, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Mexico: these are new and extremely rich areas of world cinema.

What happened to Iran?

Almost every year we have Iranian films, but comparing to how it used to be 15 years ago… That wonderful, strong and collected movement for Iranian cinema is not so strong any more. We have invited Jafar Panahi to be part of the jury and he was forbidden to come to Cannes. So it shows that the former Iranian government was not very kind to their own filmmakers. I suppose we can only wait and see what happens with this new government.

I was reading the other day that there are so many film festivals nowadays that there’s one film festival somewhere in the world every 15 minutes. What does that mean to you?

First of all, I am the head of the greatest film festival and the world and so on, and so on, and so on, but I really pay attention to all my colleagues, wherever they are working. I’m in charge of Cannes, but I also have a smaller festival in Lyon dedicated to classic cinema. It’s good for me, because it’s like going back to the roots.

And what does this booming popularity of film festivals tell you?

I think that it means something very important: cinema is working like music already. Film festivals are becoming as popular as music festivals. Cinema in theatres is fragile today, cinema as an industry is rather fragile, the legitimacy of the big screen is fragile due to piracy, to DVDs, Blu-rays and the Internet. For me, there is no cinema without screening rooms, without theatres. So a film festival is like a rock concert: it’s good to have CDs at home but it’s better to go see the musician onstage. In our case, the stage is the big screen, the CD is the DVD and the concert is the film projection. A film festival is about the good old and unforgettable tradition of getting together to share the emotion of a film.

So it’s about access to quality material?

You know, it’s also more than just watching. A director who gets his film premiered in Cannes can go for two years around the world, showing his film. Just as novelists tour the globe for public readings and book signings. Little by little, that author becomes more famous, gains more support. Cinema is the same in a way: 200 people here, 500 people there, it’s a job.

Do you think the new technologies are changing the landscape? Ten years ago, everybody was saying that no serious film festival would accept anything but 35mm copies.

Have things changed? Yes and no. We are undergoing quite a big revolution. I’ve spent a lot of time with Quentin Tarantino recently and Quentin is, totally and absolutely, not against anything but in favour of change. But there’s also a technical reality – for example in France, except the archives, like the French Cinémathèque or the Pathé Archives, everything is in digital now. So, if you want to show your film, you have to be in digital.

How do you feel about digitalization?

If going digital helps to open new theatres, then it’s great. However, the digital format has its challenges, especially for classic cinema: a lot of people nowadays may go like, let’s go see Citizen Kane, and it’s a DVD, it’s not even a Blu-ray. And that is the fight we’re going to have in the future. I have a passion for classic cinema which in France is coming back in theatres. I think this cinema is also a Trojan horse of sorts: bringing films to get audiences back in theatres. It’s less expensive, maybe.

Argentina has a problem with that, since most of the classical films were lost or damaged for lack of a national archive or cinémathèque.

I know. But I can tell you this: it’s never too late. Why? Because it is already late, maybe even very late. How can I put this: it’s less late today than tomorrow. Listen, at the Lumière Institute in Lyon we welcomed Pino Solanas two weeks ago. Not only for a tribute — it was also to tell people that he made a big deposit of all his films, all his prints to be preserved in our collection. But it’s not enough: now we have to transfer all the negatives to digital, which is a lot of money.

So you’re seeing digitalization is a means of salvaging and preserving?

You know what I think? Digitalizing La hora de los hornos is not only Argentina’s problem, nor is it France’s problem, this is a world problem. These films were very important, they are part of the memory of the world so my colleagues and I are trying to preserve that memory. As to Argentina, it’s something I’ve been talking about with INCAA in order to save and preserve. In France we do that: I am in charge of the Lumière Brothers’ films, we are restoring in 4K system. The first films of the world are restored.

You’ve said that although there were two Palmes d’Or this year (for the film and the actresses), that is not going to happen again. What happened to “never say never”?

I like to say it won’t happen again because maybe it will. Truth be told, that’s exactly what I said to Steven Spielberg: OK, let’s do it this year. As an exception. It was the desire of the jury and it was the fight of the jury since it went against the rules to give the Palme d’Or for the director and best actor of the same film. I obviously said no in the beginning, but they insisted.

But you’re happy with that decision, apparently.

Maybe I was wrong to accept, I don’t know, but it was good to do it and to show that sometimes, even with a strong auteur like Kechiche, actors are important. I remember when I started my career, my first season at the Lumière was called Le temps des acteurs (The time of actors). Of course, the auteur is important, especially in France, where everything is based on politique des auteurs but once you understand that’s the bedrock, it’s OK to acknowledge that cinema is also about writing, it’s also about a good DP and especially about actors and actresses. What I can tell you for sure, though, is that it’s not going to happen again next year.

You’ve often spoken about openness in Cannes. Since Lars von Trier’s latest film Nymphomaniac has been so much in the news lately and it’s not going to be released at your festival, do you see Cannes opening its arms again to Von Trier following his banning for his ill-conceived comments expressing sympathy with Hitler?

True, his film will premiere at the end of the year in his country, so it won’t be eligible for Cannes. If you ask me about his next film, then it’s quite a different issue. I didn’t make the decision regarding Von Trier; that decision was made by the board of Cannes. It was a sad story and a stupid story. I’m going to say this again, I’m trying to say this as much as I can: Lars von Trier is not a Nazi. He was making a bad joke and I can tell you something: when he made that regrettable comment during the press conference in Cannes, nobody in the room stood up to express outrage. The people there knew Von Trier and they realized it was a joke, as unfortunate as it was.

Are you saying you’d be willing to welcome him again at Cannes?

Lars von Trier is, first of all, a son of Cannes and, second, I’m proud to say that I care about him. Now, since that happened, he was overwhelmed with sadness and has been through very difficult moments. And you know that he was also sued and won? And winning made the whole thing even more scandalous for him: I mean, if I win, then it wasn’t like they painted it, right?

To me, he is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, but that’s not an excuse. I just want to say that, for me, Lars von Trier is like Nietzsche, he is a man whose work transcends his relationship with his own life and the world. He put everything into his films. Going back to your question, I guess we’ll see with his next film. Time can repair things and I can only hope that one day we’ll welcome him again.

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