When the famous French Riviera welcomes the global film industry back to the Cannes film festival next month, the talk of the town is going to be, along with Covid-19 concerns, the bad air of Delhi. The only Indian film in the fabled festival’s official selection this year is a documentary that brings to international attention the choking existence of citizens in the world’s most polluted city. Invisible Demons by Delhi-born filmmaker Rahul Jain is part of the Cannes festival’s new section called Cinema for the Climate, which has been introduced this year.
“I wanted to explore how artists in the last hundred years of filmmaking have been able to communicate our species’ relationship with the natural world because the most drastic changes came about in the 20th century, which was also the century of cinema,” says Jain, known for his debut film Machines (2016), a documentary on the suffocating life of textile workers shot in Gujarat. “I wanted to investigate whether my theories about this could be made into a film.”
Invisible Demons will be joined in Cannes by Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) alumna Payal Kapadia’s debut feature film A Night of Knowing Nothing (in the Directors’ Fortnight parallel programme) and Bengali/Hindi film project Eka (Solo) by Kolkata-born filmmaker Suman Sen (in the Cannes film market). The last Indian full-length film in the festival’s official selection was Manto by Nandita Das in 2018.
“Cinema is not dead,” says Cannes festival’s artistic director Thierry Fremaux. “We had to see a tremendous number (about 1,900) of films this year,” he adds. The festival, which was forced to cancel its 73rd edition last year because of the pandemic, has rejigged its traditional May schedule to organise a physical 2021 edition during July 6-17 to support a beleaguered global film industry. “The idea of losing everything has impacted scriptwriters and filmmakers,” says Fremaux about the selection that mirrors a world devastated by the pandemic.
Annette (starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) by French director Leos Carax will open the festival on July 6. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, Annette tells the story of a stand-up comedian-singer couple and their first child Annette. It is among the 24 films— including Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s English language film Memoria (shot in Colombia and starring Tilda Swinton) and French director Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, her new film after Maya (2018), which was shot in Goa— vying for the prestigious Palme d’Or this year.
The festival, which is happening in the middle of the pandemic, is expected to draw fewer industry professionals than the 2019 edition due to travel restrictions. While participants from the US and UK, which boast of the biggest studios, are allowed entry into France without the need for a quarantine (only Covid-negative tests), professionals from India—on the Red list of countries—will be required to undergo a seven-day self-isolation for those fully vaccinated and a 10-day quarantine under the observation of security forces for the non-vaccinated. All attendees are required to take Covid tests—free and available at the venue—every two days during the festival.
“We arrived in Cannes on June 25. We will undergo a 10-day quarantine before the festival,” says Sen, who is participating in the La Fabrique Cinema mentorship programme for young filmmakers from emerging countries along with his Bangladeshi producer Arifur Rahman. Eka, Sen’s debut feature film in Bengali and Hindi—part of the Film Bazaar and TorinoFilm Lab’s development workshops in the last two years—is about an insurance agent in Kolkata deciding to stand motionless in front of a giant statue of a common man that is about to be inaugurated by the President in a busy city square.
“Eka explores the degeneration of the core social fabric of India, moving towards a fragile future and failing aspirations. It reflects the time I have lived in for the last couple of years, a time of hatred, intolerance and violence,” says Sen, who lives in Mumbai.
In the 53rd edition of Directors’ Fortnight, Mumbai-born Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing will be part of the main draw of 24 feature films, which also has the debut film Hit the Road by Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s son Panah Panahi. In her debut feature, Kapadia—who became the first FTII student to be selected for the Cannes festival’s Cinefondation competition section for film schools in 2017 for her short film Afternoon Clouds—tells the story of a young woman who writes letters to her estranged lover.
“This first poetic feature is at first an epistolary film, but then slowly spreads out as a hybrid narration, mixing dreams, reality, memories and archives. The young Indian director Payal Kapadia transcends the documentary material and draws the portrait of a contemporary Indian youth,” says Paolo Moretti, the artistic director of Directors’ Fortnight, which highlights the most singular and visionary practices in contemporary cinema.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer