Freelance and Freeloading in Cannes
Story and photos by Mark Brecke
(edited by Mark Beers)

*click photos below for larger image
Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, James Caan Bjrk, in the basement of the Pavilion Faye Dunaway
Willem Dafoe Jean-Pierre Leaud, actor from Troubled Youth Takeshi Kitano, signing autographs

"You've come from where?" asked the woman in the press accreditation office.

"From China." A reasonable answer, I thought, because the long, arduous trip from Asia, just two days before, was still fresh in my mind.

"And you're with what magazine?" she asked.

"I am with Comet," I replied.

"Comet is in China?"

"No, we're in San Francisco."

"Oh," she said, "and you're from the States."

"Yes. Do you have my press pass ready?"

"Well, if everything is in order, tomorrow," was her officious reply.

Two days of dealing with bureaucratic gate keepers still hadn't produced my photographer's press accreditation for the 53rd Annual Cannes Film Festival. The complicated applications process, no doubt designed to weed out gonzo types like me, was working. Without a press pass, I would be denied access to the film screenings. Thinking fast, I used a trick I learned while watching a Los Angeles Times reporter whose press pass had also been delayed.

"Do you want to call my editor?" I asked.

"No, that won't be necessary."

"Well, he might want to call you."

It worked, because the next day I was finally granted press accreditation. Of course, she had no way of knowing that I'd never officially worked as a press photographer. Before this I had only worked in war zones with fake press passes (a doctored UC Berkeley "press" ID got me into Kosovo last year just as NATO was making its triumphant road trip into Pristina.) Now, thanks to Comet, I had achieved legitimacy with my first real press pass, one of 30,000 granted at Cannes this year.

So I got to work. Jacked up on espresso to keep pace over the course of ten days, I attended up to three screenings per day, along with the press conferences that accompanied them. My daily experience of the festival felt like a visual orgasm at a celluloid orgy. By the end of the week I was completely spent (for which effect the legendary Cannes parties - all night, every night - should take some blame as well).

The Cannes Film Festival is actually a multilayered and highly confusing set of screening categories. Of course, there's the main attraction, made up this year of a record 23 films competing for the coveted Palme d' Or. Five of these were American films - big budget, formula Hollywood movies that fared poorly against the "foreign" offerings whose art, soul and storytelling continue to demonstrate more integrity by their filmmakers than the American products. As one American journalist told me, Hollywood's last good showing at Cannes was in the 1970s, to which I replied, "Well what do you expect when the industry has become populated with more MBA's than MFA's?"

My favorite screening category was the Quinzaine des Realisateurs (Directors' Fortnight) - not really a competition - in which the films are shown in the basement of the Noga Hilton Hotel. This is a showcase for smaller, low-budget or no-budget films. Francois Trufaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others started it in 1969 as a protest against Cannes' restrictive tendency to screen only slick feature films. Directors' Fortnight presented the best films by far at this year's festival, so much strong work in fact, that I find it difficult to pick a favorite. Two films, however, have stayed with me, the first of which is an outstanding work from Haiti called Lumumba, by Raoul Peck. It is the first narrative film - long overdue, in my opinion - about the life of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of Congo (Zaire) after Belgium reluctantly granted its former colony independence. At only 31, Lumumba took over to lead one of Africa's largest, resource-rich nations. He soon became a major pawn in the larger game of Cold War politics (his chumminess with the former Soviet Union was a threat to the West), and only three months after taking office, he was overthrown and murdered (with help and planning from Belgium and the CIA) by Mobutu Sese Seko. This film pulls no punches. Shot in Zimbabwe and financed by 25 different backers, the film took ten years to make. I'd also like to recommend La Captive by Chantal Akerman (Belgium), about which my friend Olivier Joyard (film critic for the magazine Cashiers Du Cinema) said, "I was giving up on cinema criticism all together until I saw this film." These films by Peck and Akerman are just two examples of the many low or no-budget works coming from small countries where - in contrast to Hollywood - vision, passion and commitment override the desire to sell a commercial product. These and the other films in Directors' Fortnight served as a refreshing reminder that the "world" of movie-making does not revolve around Hollywood.

Not just about filmmaking, the Cannes Film Festival also provides the international film industry a venue for about 60% of the year's film-related business dealings. Big industry executives spent as much time (or more) deal-making - marketing, buying, and setting up distribution - as attending the screenings. As you might expect, the dot-coms were there in force, trying to acquire short films from independent filmmakers to be shown on their websites, presumably to help sell banner ads.

On the last night of the festival, the Palme d' Or awards are handed out. Winner for Best Picture was Dancer in the Dark, a film that paired the unlikely duo of Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves) and pop sensation Bjrk. Since I wasn't one of the big photographers, I didn't get a pass to shoot the awards. Besides, I didn't fit in well with the black-tie crowd or even the black-tie press (a tuxedo - something I didn't have - was required for photographers shooting the march on the red carpet openings). So I was left out in the cold with the fans watching the show on a big screen TV. There onscreen was Bjrk giving her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress. At that moment something clicked for me. The day before I was hanging out with an English paparazzi who taught me the ins and outs of photographing celebrities; he also showed me all the back stairs and service elevators of the Pavilion building where the awards were held. I quickly ran inside the building and took the service elevator to the basement where I expected to find hundreds of photographers crowding the spot where Bjrk was likely to pass after exiting the back of the stage. But I was wrong: I was the only one there, and moments later, champagne in hand and surrounded by her entourage, Bjrk walked within a few feet of me and my camera. She ended up being my final shot at the Cannes Film Festival.

Mark Brecke is an independent documentary filmmaker and photographer. He has worked in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. His current project is on crimes against humanity. He lives in San Francisco.