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A Change is Gonna Come: Cannes Remembers May 1968 in May 2018


Change is a coming, and so it did at the 2018 Cannes film festival. Right from the start the festival felt different: The 12-day festival began on a Tuesday, not the traditional Wednesday, and it ended on Saturday instead of Sunday. This new schedule, coming a year after the 70th edition, has two overt purposes: opening a day earlier will give one more film a red carpet premiere before the weekend, and the festival brass feels that closing on a Saturday night instead of a Sunday night makes the event more gala-esque. Though with two red carpet screenings every night, it seems to me that there’s enough “gala” going on every day. And seriously, when you are at the Cannes film festival, one day melds into another. For those on the ground, there is no difference between a weekday and the weekend.

The second reason seems the more urgent issue: Press screenings of competition films now occur simultaneous with the premiere red carpet screening – or the morning after. This prevents bad reviews (previously appearing before the gala premieres) from raining on the red carpet parade. Many critics went a little wild when this new plan was announced, but everyone got with the program and survived.

Of course, it was 50 years since the events of May 1968 in Paris came a calling in the South of France and shut down the festival. These “events” began as protests by students and workers, and it was several filmmakers representing the French New Wave who forced the festival to close before it ended. The next year, Quinzaine de Realisateurs, or Directors Fortnight, was established in order to give a breath of fresh air to the proceedings. And because of the Directors Fortnight, other sections cropped up, official (Un Certain Regard) and independent (Critics’ Week).

While the festival didn’t seem to do too much to mark the occasion, It did show a documentary, “La Traversee/On the Road in France” made by filmmaker Romain Goupil, who won the Camera d’Or for best first film in 1982 for his film “Mourir a trente ans/Half a Life.” And probably coincidental to the festival, but perhaps not to the 50th anniversary of May ’68, railroad workers demonstrated on the streets of Cannes, with police at the ready.

“La Traversee” is a journey across France to see what ordinary people from all walks of life are doing with their lives, and trying to see how the events of May 1968 brought them to where they are. They interview intellectuals, farmers – oh, and another very ordinary person, president Emmanuel Macron. In fact, they interview Macron over a casual coffee. Goupil and his fellow traveller on this journey, Dany Cohn-Bendit, debate what any and all of it means, and if the changes wrought by the demonstrations 50 years ago still hold.

It is interesting to note that the demonstrations and riots in France were not only students, but also workers, and their rage reached as far as a film festival, which was forced to shut down. At the same time in the U.S. demonstrations really remained with university students. And it would never have closed down a film festival. Coincidentally – or was it? – railroad workers took to the streets of Cannes on the final weekend to protest conditions. The police were at every corner in riot gear, just in case. One wonders about the same images 50 years before.

While “La Traversee” was a very interesting film to watch at the Cannes Film Festival, by chance I was able to see Goupil’s 1982 Camera d’Or-winning film, “Mourir a trente ans” back in New York recently at the Alliance Francaise. While the recent film is not a follow up to the first film, One can see the trajectory of the social structures of France, and also the growth of the filmmaker. In 1968 Romain Goupil was in high school, but became very involved in the revolution that was fomenting.

While Dany Cohn-Bendit, who travels through today’s France with Goupil in “On the Road in France” was a student leader in 1968, Goupil’s mentor in his  younger days was Michel Recanati, another leader of the student protests, who lost his fervor, as well as his will to live and committed suicide ten years later. Goupil tells his own story of growing up radical from a vantage point a dozen years afterwards. While he may have a calmer perspective, the energy and chaos of those early years rings through.

And it is a pointed counterpoint to the current day debates Goupil has with Cohn-Bendit in the later film. As someone who came of age in the 60s, and for whom 1968 was a pivotal year, to remember the energy and rage of my youth makes me want to rage against things now – and there are plenty of things to rage about. So here’s to the 50th anniversary of a revolution: time to revolt again.

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