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India’s ‘All We Imagine As Light’ wins Grand Prix: What is the Cannes Film Festival, and how did it begin?

With artists from India winning major awards at the Cannes Film Festival, considered globally as one of the most prestigious events related to cinema, here is how it all began with an unlikely origin in the World War 2 era.

Payal Kapadia, second from right, winner of the grand prize for 'All We Imagine as Light,' poses with Kani Kusruti, from left, Chhaya Kadam, and Divya Prabha at the 77th international film festival on May 25, 2024.Payal Kapadia, second from right, winner of the grand prize for 'All We Imagine as Light,' poses with Kani Kusruti, from left, Chhaya Kadam, and Divya Prabha at the 77th international film festival on May 25, 2024. (AP/PTI)

The Cannes Film Festival, held from May 14 to 25 this year, saw several Indian artists win major prizes and receive critical acclaim for their works. Director Payal Kapadia’s debut feature film, All We Imagine As Light, won the coveted Grand Prix prize.

There were many other films either made by Indians or having a strong Indian connection. Among them was actor Anasuya Sengupta, who became the first Indian to win Best Actress at Cannes (Un Certain Regard) for her role in the Bulgarian director Konstantin Bojanov’s The Shameless.

In addition to films, the festival consistently draws eyeballs every year with its attendees’ fashion. Over the years, particularly for Indians, it has become noteworthy because it results in numerous photos of Bollywood actors on the red carpet, often in unconventional outfits. Why does the event generate so much interest and what happens as part of it? How did it all begin? We explain.

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What is the Cannes Film Festival’s history?

Its history goes back to 1936 when tensions were building up to World War II.

In 1938, a few months before the War began in Europe, some countries assembled in Italy to attend the Venice Film Festival. At that point, it was one of the very few competitive film festivals in the world, featuring the USA and a few countries from Europe. Italy and Germany were ruled by fascist parties under Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, respectively.

Festive offer

When it was time to give the best film award, the jury was unanimous in its choice for an American film. “But under pressure from Hitler the Nazi propaganda film Olympia by director Leni Riefenstahl and the Italian film Luciano Serra, Pilot by director Goffredo Alessandrini reaped the ultimate accolade, named the Mussolini Cup,” says its website. Riefenstahl made propaganda films for Hitler’s Nazi regime.

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The UK, the USA and France quit the event in response, reflecting the geo-political tensions in the region as well. French representative Phillipe Erlanger would then plan to establish a French event as an alternative.

Georges Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister, was concerned about this affecting Franco-Italian relations, but Education Minister Jean Zay and Minister of the Interior Albert Sarraut supported the idea of a film festival for Europe in which art would no longer be influenced by “political manoeuvring”.

Thus, in 1939, a festival was ready to be announced, with support from countries like the United States. Among the cities in contention was Cannes, a coastal city on the southern tip of France, chosen for its location as a resort town and lobbying by local hoteliers and businessmen.

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But tensions because of the War in Europe would push the first edition to open in 1946, attended by stars like Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot, Cary Grant, Gina Lollobrigida and the painter Pablo Picasso. It featured 19 countries and an international jury.

At a gala dinner organised by the Cannes film festival committee, Indian actors Sunil Dutt and Nargis Dutt are seen. At a gala dinner organised by the Cannes film festival committee, Indian actors Sunil Dutt and Nargis Dutt are seen. (Express archives)

What happens at Cannes?

According to an AP report, the festival essentially witnesses film premieres and screenings, with media members and the general public having limited access to the entirety of events. Invites to the event are limited and restricted to professionals in the industry.

“The hive of activity is the Palais, a massive complex by the sea full of cinemas with names like Buñuel, Bazin and, the granddaddy, the Grand Théâtre Lumière. This is where the red carpet runs in Cannes, nightly hosting two or three world premieres beneath a glass canopy flanked by rows of photographers. Festival cars ferry stars and directors who are ushered down the carpet and up the steps. Unlike most movie premieres, there are no reporters on the carpet,” it says.

Instead, filmmakers and casts speak with the media the day after their film premieres.

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How did Cannes become popular?

The first few editions involved a range of entertainment options, beyond films. There were parades, fireworks at the beaches and doves released in the air. Nowadays, apart from the prizes, there are film screenings throughout the festival, concerts and other social events, such as the red carpet. Nearly all of these are invite-only events and are limited to those chosen from the film industry.

This exclusivity and the “sight of stars from all four corners of the globe processing up the famous red steps and the constant swarm of media attention soon turned it into a world-famous, legendary event,” the website says.

Actress Aishwarya Rai, for instance, first attended the Festival for the premiere of her film Devdas in 2002. Since then, she has attended as a global ambassador of beauty brand L’Oreal.

However, the aim to avoid political manoeuvring hasn’t been easy to achieve, with the festival’s beginnings accompanying the onset of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. The organisers thus added an article to the festival regulations authorising the withdrawal of a film submitted to it under certain conditions, to avoid issues over choosing a film. This was then removed in 1957.

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In 1955, a jury comprising foreign celebrities from the film industry awarded the first Palme d’Or, decided as the highest prize at the festival. Iconic films such as Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Pulp Fiction and Parasite are some of its recipients. The first and only Indian film to do so was 1946’s Neecha Nagar, directed by Chetan Anand.

By the 1980s, to make the selections more diverse, countries such as the Philippines, China, Cuba, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina were invited. In 2022, the Oscar-nominated documentary All That Breathes, by Indian filmmaker Shaunak Sen, won the Golden Eye, the highest honour for a documentary.

Last year, Saudi Arabia backed several films as part of its push for diversifying its exports to include culture and tourism, apart from commodities like oil. French director Maiwenn’s film Jeanne du Barry, starring Johnny Depp was among these films and it premiered at Cannes.

A report in The Hollywood Reporter said other Saudi-backed films like Four Daughters, by Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, and Banel & Adama, the debut feature of Senegalese filmmaker Ramata-Toulaye Sy, point to an attempt to promote films from Arab filmmakers.

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The #MeToo movement, highlighting cases of sexual misconduct, also hit the festival. Former French actress Adele Haenel, in a critical open letter, described Cannes as one of the institutions of French cinema that was “ready to do anything to defend their rapist chiefs.”

She also quit the film industry, citing other concerns about the treatment of sexual harassment cases. Festival chief Thierry Fremaux rejected her claims but the Festival has faced other concerns in the past too over invites to artists accused of abuse and harassment.

This is an updated version of an explainer first published in 2023.

First uploaded on: 26-05-2024 at 14:06 IST
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