Cannes 2016 – The First Sunday

Cannes is ever unpredictable. My first meeting of the day was cancelled, enabling me to take advantage of one of the many informative and entertaining events staged at the UK Film Industry’s home-from-home, the beach-side UK Film Centre. Having perhaps been a little critical about Ken Loach’s storytelling in I, Daniel Blake in yesterday’s entry, it was only fair to give the team a hearing today, as his long-term producer Rebecca O’Brien and lead cast members Dave Johns and Hayley Squires came to talk about the film.

Rebecca O'Brien has been producing Ken Loach's films for nearly 30 years
Rebecca O’Brien has been producing Ken Loach’s films for nearly 30 years

It’s clearly a passion piece for all those involved. “Ken can’t resist (writer) Paul (Laverty)’s enthusiasm for a story,” explained O’Brien, when it was suggested that Loach was meant to have retired. “We decided that he couldn’t go out on a soft musical, so we thought ‘Let’s get tough again.'” They carried out extensive research and met people on the receiving – or not receiving – end of benefit to show the country – and the world – that the welfare state is broken.

The story was clearly very personal to them all, not least because as O’Brien explains, Loach likes to cast actors who, if their lives had gone a slightly different direction, could easily have become their character. This technique, shooting the film sequentially without the cast knowing what’s coming next, and Loach’s advice to first-time dramatic actor Johns, that he should not act, but listen and react, do give rise to the most natural performances possible. Additionally, Loach likes to help the cast by keeping the crew as far away as possible and claps the slate at the end of the take, so as not to break their concentration before they start. But surely the point of an actor is that they are able to act naturally without such assistance. It could perhaps be argued that if a director needs to build his whole modus operandi around the fact that the actors need help to act, perhaps he has the wrong actors?

Geordie stand-up comic Dave Johns was surprised to get the call from Ken Loach
Geordie stand-up comic Dave Johns was surprised to get the call from Ken Loach

There is no question that having met people like their characters as part of their extensive research, from the director, producer and writer to the cast, they understand the dire conditions they are forced to endure and the humiliation they suffer. They have a message they want to get across to audiences that is powerful and, at times, gut-wrenchingly emotional. But none of this, by definition, makes it any more than a series of vignettes, each one opening a window on yet another arguably unfair aspect of the welfare state. The film makes no effort to suggest alternatives; if more money is to be paid to more claimants more quickly, where should it comes from? Of course, it’s not for the film-makers to tell the government what to do instead, but presenting a string of expositional anecdotes to spoon feed the anti-government campaigners with more clips for their Facebook news feeds doesn’t, in itself, provide anything more than a series of powerful polemics. We empathise with the protagonists, but they don’t need our empathy. And they don’t want our charity. They want dignity. And what this film seems to be suggesting is that they would get that dignity from state hand-outs, which is exactly what the actors suggested did not provide dignity.

Immediately after this event, that was a fascinating companion piece to the film that only Cannes audiences will get to enjoy, was another panel discussion about taking advantage of the UK tax incentives, even if your shoot takes place outside the UK. In front of a fresh audience, speakers were variously trying to persuade producers to shoot in Morocco, pair up with Hungarian production companies, bring American money to the UK (and that was an American producer) and generally explain the complex web of international film financing. After the session, I managed to grab a quiet moment with Samantha Perahia from the British Film Commission, who chaired the discussion. With my journalist hat on, I asked her whether the Commission had any thoughts on Brexit – none at all, she was quick to point out, and in truth, independent public body or not, it has to continue promoting British film globally regardless of what happens in next month’s referendum. With my film-maker hat on, I was interested to hear whether – for my current side project – I might be able to find financial advantage in filming certain scenes in Romania or Turkey – two countries, unlucky enough for me, that don’t offer any.

The father-daughter relationship isn't as simple as it might be, in Beyond the Mountains and Hills
The father-daughter relationship isn’t as simple as it might be, in Beyond the Mountains and Hills

After lunch, it was time to see a film, rather than just listen to people talking about them. In the second biggest cinema in Cannes, the 2000-odd seater Debussy, the Un Certain Regard strand – the Championship to the Official Competition’s Premier League, if you like – was screening an Israeli film, Beyond the Mountains and Hills, which – among other things – explored the tensions between Israel’s Jews and Muslims.  It was peculiarly fortuitous for me to find myself, in this vast auditorium, sitting next to the only Israeli Arab know, BBC Arabic’s Hollywood correspondent, Sam Asi. He, like me, was fascinated by many of the elements of the film – a recently retired Israeli army commander who finds it hard to adapt to civvy street, his wife – a teacher who doesn’t know how to respond to a pupil with a crush, a daughter whose sympathy for Palestinians causes problems in her own family and that of her Palestinian friend – but for both of us, the ending was hugely unsatisfying, knowingly leaving important plot points unresolved. We don’t need to be spoon-fed, of course, and a film-maker might have a perfectly good reason for leaving a question or two hanging, but so fundamental are the omissions here that the director Eran Kolirin is either knowingly wasting our time or blissfully unaware that he’s forgotten to end his story.

Jonnie Hurn, left, and Paul Hills
Jonnie Hurn, left, and Paul Hills

The next port of call was a surprisingly short visit to the Romanian pavilion, where I’d been hoping to get advice about any mechanisms to assist foreign producers to shoot there – and all I got was a shake of a head and a pamphlet. Just next door, a crowd was gathered outside the French screenwriters’ association pavilion to hear Ken Loach’s writer Paul Laverty talking about a film that’s increasingly haunting me. Then, on the way back to the flat, on a quick visit to the Riviera exhibition hall in the market, I encountered a film-making team that’s been coming to Cannes as long as I have; actor and writer Jonnie Hurn and director Paul Hills had just completed one of the many ad hoc sales agent meetings, trying to sell their latest projects, including Hurn’s directorial debut Circles.

BFI London Film Festival director Clare Stewart
BFI London Film Festival director Clare Stewart

Then came the moment I was more thankful than ever that I had found a flat to rent within ten minutes walk of the Palais; within minutes of arriving back at the flat, just before 7pm, I received an email confirming my attendance at a BFI London Film Festival event, back at the UK Film Centre, that started at 7pm.

The head of the festival Clare Stewart took the opportunity to tell the guests about some new sponsorship and partnership deals but this was primarily a chance for her and her team to catch up with producers or representatives of other festivals who might have films that could be of interest to her, as she’s putting together her selection, later this year.

With work out of the way for the day, there was a property party to go to – while there was a little wine and the odd canape at the London Film Festival event, it was for business – but next, I was off to meet some colleagues at the Panama Film Commission party, on another side of Cannes’ old harbour. Arriving as late as I did proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. Not only had they run out of alcohol by the time I arrived, they had also run out of Panama hats.