Days 7 to 12: A Cannes Farewell

As Michael Parfit bids goodbye to the Cannes Film Festival, there is good news for Luna from the Canary Islands

Perhaps it's fitting that while I've been here, "Saving Luna" was almost turned into a complex art film.

While I've been trying to keep up with the demand for preview DVDs of our film at Cannes, I thought that Suzanne was having easy fun showing "Saving Luna" at the International Ecological and Nature Film Festival of the Canary Islands. Wrong.

It turned out that we accidentally sent two different versions of the film's script to the festival for subtitles—which get projected on the screen separately at festivals like this one. So with only four hours before the film was scheduled to show, Suzanne discovered at the theater that although the Spanish subtitles were all ready to go, they were timed wrong and wouldn't match the film.

"Saving Luna" is a straightforward storytelling kind of film, with a clear narrative that makes the funny, unexpected story of the little whale's life accessible to all ages. This subtitle situation would have changed that.

It's possible some reviewers might have approved. After over a week at Cannes, I could imagine it well: "Challenging . . . difficult . . . an interwoven, disturbing clash of words and images that leads to profound perplexity."

Suzanne dashed back to her hotel room for a fresh copy of the script. Wearing flip-flops in the sub-tropical warmth, she ran through crowds of elderly German, Spanish, and Finnish tourists.

"As I was squeezing around people," she wrote me later, "huffing and puffing 'excuse me' in as many languages as I could remember, I was just thankful that there were very few children there for me to injure."

She grabbed her laptop and flip-flopped back to the theater. With only minutes to spare, she and a careful expert named Carlos put all the subtitles in what they thought were the right places. As the big crowd in the theater settled down to watch, Suzanne hoped for the best.

Back at Cannes, the festival's second week is ending. The film market is winding down. Plywood emerges from the fraying glitz. By Friday at our agent's booth the posters are gone and the whole enterprise is reduced a pile of cardboard boxes ready to be shipped home.

It has not been the best of years. Rob Straight, our agent here, started coming to the Cannes Film Festival more than 30 years ago, when the market for video tapes for purchase and rental first took off, and today he's seeing the opposite trend. Digital piracy and lower-profit-margin video-on-demand distribution systems are drying up markets for DVDs. The Wall Street Journal quotes one film executive as saying that a stroll through the Marché is like walking among tumbleweeds.

"Saving Luna" hasn't turned to dust, but we, like many others, have signed no deals, though all those DVDs I've been making are still out there with potential buyers and we have some offers. But it's hard not to be discouraged. There's an urgency to this place that gives you a kind of Cannes fever of dreams, which puts both big art and big money right in your face, and makes you want to grab. You see that red carpet and you want to be on it.

So I leave for an afternoon and take a train into the hills. I get out at the end of the line at the city of Grasse, and hike up very long staircases from the station to the old town. I keep climbing, among perfume factories and through narrow passages between buildings, looking only for streets that go uphill.

The climb is hard and feels good. As I get above the town, I pass wildflowers growing in cracks in old stone walls. I get to a ridge and look down on the old city center, where roofs overhang so closely it looks as if the whole town were just one building huddled up to the cathedral tower. Cannes is off in the distance by the sea, in a layer of dirty air.

"This year's Cannes Film Festival has been brutal," writes Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune, "Evil, really. And memorable." Three days after I climb above Grasse, the jury will give its biggest prizes to films that reach new levels of violence and to directors and actors who craft detailed images of pain and death.

I cannot argue with those who evoke the world's harshness. One of my own favorites of this festival is Anne Aghion's film about Rwanda's truth and reconciliation trials, "My Neighbor, My Killer," in which stories of cruelty are told so they ache, just with faces and speech. But the level of violence in the prizewinners this year seems extreme, and in the celebrations of these films on yachts and in fancy hotels there's something gleeful that doesn't fit. If this work reveals the roots of humanity we should only stand in silence and mourn.

But is this film's best work or just ugly novelty? Only time winnows art to reveal greatness, but there are clues. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes: "Movie violence is so easy."

On the hill above Grasse there's an old research station and a farm, and off in the distance children are calling a dog. My Cannes fever is gone.

Then, for us, the unexpected happens. That weekend, on a pleasant Saturday evening far from the southern coast of France, in an archipelago west of Africa named for songbirds, a story about a lonely whale and the people who loved him wins the Ecological and Nature Festival's overall audience favorite award. Suzanne and Carlos had put the subtitles in the right places, and the people who watched loved Luna, too.
"I am sure," writes one of the festival's organizers in an email to Suzanne about the award, "that one day we can change the world."

So we didn't make "Saving Luna" into a complex art film after all, and we didn't make big bucks at Cannes. But that turned out to be ok.

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