Julien RejlGroundbreaking Cinephilia: A Conversation with Julien Rejl, Artistic Director of the Directors’ Fortnight Maria Giovanna Vagenas November 2023 Interviews Issue 107 With a gaze that radiates a dreamy but determined freshness, the beautiful Leonor Silveira in Manoel de Oliveira’s Abraham’s Valley (Vale Abraão, 1993) graces the poster of this 55th edition of the Directors’ Fortnight, welcoming us to an event that has sparked the enthusiasm of the general public and the keen interest of the press and professionals in Cannes. This year’s edition is marked by a return to the Fortnight’s roots, its rebellious spirit, and its need to veer off the beaten path, opening its doors to a generous, inventive, and daring cinema beyond standardisation. Behind this renewal is the work of its new general delegate, Julien Rejl, who took over from Paolo Moretti. Along with his selection committee, he built this selection drawing on cinephilia and going against the grain to seek out tomorrow’s filmmakers in unexpected cinematic spots, under the market’s radar. The result was an exciting line-up of entries from 20 different countries, with an overall focus on lesser-known auteurs, favouring first and second films, including six first features and four second features, but also welcoming established auteurs such as Michel Gondry, Cédric Kahn, and Bertrand Mandico, and great masters such as Hong Sang-soo. There is also the luminous and audacious masterpiece of Manoel de Oliveira Abraham’s Valley, presented in a restored version, reinvigorating the connection to the Fortnight’s history. In the same spirit the Fortnight also invited Quentin Tarantino, in his capacity as film critic and cinephile, to present and comment on John Flynn’s cult film Rolling Thunder (1977). As in a kind of cinema laboratory, where new things come to life, and original propositions are mapped out, we had the opportunity to discover some challenging, and eventually controversial films. Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry by Tamta Melasvily, Mambar Pierrette by Rosine Mbakam, Légua by Philippa Reis and Joao Miller Guerra, Riddle of Fire by Weston Razzoli, The Sweet East by Nick Pinkerton, or the rigorously poetic A Prince, by old master Pierre Creton, just to name a few, all, in their own way, indicate an uncompromising, fervent approach to cinematic language. Rejl definitely took some risks, yet his bold choices met with success; Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell by Vietnamese director Thien An Pham, won the prestigious Camera d’Or Prize for the best first feature film, while A Prince by Pierre Creton, won the SACD (French Drama Authors and Composers Guild) prize. A former distributor and an ardent cinephile, Rejl has astonishing energy, strong points of view and a demanding, future-oriented mindset. This year, at his initiative, the Fortnight selection toured 30 arthouse cinemas across France shortly after the Cannes Film Festival. Nonetheless, in a tense and highly competitive festival environment, the stakes are high. Julien Rejl and Leonor Silveira During our conversation, which took place at the Fortnight’s offices in Paris, Rejl generously shared his thoughts on how he tackles the selection’s duty and perceives the Fortnight’s current role and identity. – MGV This year will undoubtedly be remembered as a turning point for the Directors’ Fortnight, thanks to two significant changes: the event’s change in name, and your appointment as the new general delegate. Before we discuss your new role, could you please explain the meaning of the change from Quinzaine des Réalisateurs to Quinzaine des Cineastes which makes a significant difference in French but is hard to make sense of in English? The name change was decided by the SRF (Société des réalisatrices et réalisateurs de films), the French Directors Guild. While deciding to appoint a new general delegate, it was also considering the issue of the Fortnight’s “all-inclusiveness.” It was crucial for the SRF to come up with a gender-neutral term and this is how the term cinéaste replaced réalisateur, which is a masculine noun in French. That was the starting point, and I believe it was closely related to SRF’s desire to renew the Fortnight’s editorial line as well, which SRF wanted to be inclusive in the broadest sense of the term, and beyond the obvious notion of sexual gender. I guess it was a signal that the Fortnight’s overhauling should also include a different editorial line, a different approach to selection and prospecting. What exactly is the function of the SFR regarding the Fortnight? The SRF has the status of a French filmmakers’ association whose role it is to express an opinion on political issues affecting the rights of authors and directors. In 1969, the SRF created the Fortnight. As a film selection section, the Fortnight has no independent legal status; it is one of SRF’s missions, one of its activities. In fact, the SFR is our employer. In other words, our employers are actually the French filmmakers but their role in the Fortnight is limited to selecting the general delegate and general secretary. That is their involvement. They decide who will lead the artistic direction and who will lead the logistical direction. Once this is done, the Fortnight team is completely independent of the SRF. Aside from that, the Fortnight hosts the Carrosse d’Or Award, a prize created by the SRF in 2002 to honour a different filmmaker each year who has left a distinctive mark on the history of cinema through a daring and uncompromising approach to directing. The awardee is chosen every year by the SRF rather than by the Fortnight’s general delegate in Cannes, and there is a special screening and speech on the Fortnight’s opening night. But that’s all there is to it. I’m aware that questions have been raised in recent years about the relationship and influence of the SRF on the Fortnight. However, the work I do all year long is completely independent. Back in 1969, the Fortnight was created by the desire to break away from the establishment, a sort of counter-programming, celebrating independently-spirited directors. What is your own vision of the Fortnight today? My editorial project began with a personal observation: we have been witnessing a certain formatting of what is known as arthouse cinema for a number of years, and it’s what we see almost everywhere on the festival circuit. Having been a distributor myself and worked in a production company for a long time, I’ve been able to observe how all the mechanisms that were created to support films actually work, how projects are presented and chosen. The subject of the film is widely regarded as its most critical feature. To put it differently, nowadays arthouse cinema is primarily concerned with a reflection on the state of the world or society, and it is encouraged to focus on a specific country, its problems, issues, and crises, but we no longer see the emergence of very strong aesthetics, new forceful cinematic proposals, or filmmakers willing to discuss cinephilia. As a distributor, I had trouble finding filmmakers with whom I wanted to work because we didn’t discuss anything like: “Which filmmakers are important to you? What kind of movies do you like? Who trained you? Why do you make this type of cinema? What interests you in terms of editing and aesthetics?” From the very beginning, I’ve been driven by the belief that it’s still possible to seek out hotbeds of creativity, and filmmakers who are independent of all networks and funding systems, who have less predictable stories and formats than films whose development goes through co-production markets, workshops, commissions for advances on receipts, aids to world cinema, and so on. Blankbird, Blakbird, Blackberry Standardisation is not limited to the subject of a film. Form and structure are frequently formatted as well, wouldn’t you agree? In fact, I would argue that there is no form at all! I wouldn’t even say the form is formatted. Instead, form has a kind of ‘un-thought-out’ feel to it presently. I’ll quote Godard as an example, even though it always seems a bit pompous. According to Godard: « Il y a les cinéastes qui cadrent et il y a les cinéastes qui en-cadrent ». In other words, the concept of frame has come to be something very abstract and hazy. Framing is the process of deciding how to organise the space in a shot and composing a shot, as well as knowing what the central object of a shot is so that you know what will take shape and be organised around it. Most of the time, we believe that the space existed prior to the shot and that the camera is capturing something real. However, this is not the case. Obviously, that is just an example to show that there is a problem with the form. Aside from that, I believe that arthouse and auteur cinema are now a market, not a quality guarantee. Arthouse, like blockbusters and commercial cinema, has a market and this market is now very present at festivals. What most interests me is the question/issue of directing and how filmmakers can create their own language. In any case, I wanted to get back to the idea of filmmakers developing their own cinematographic language, which is a theoretical question in the first place. But then I had to decide and figure out how we could put this into action. How do we go about finding films that do not fit into the previously discussed conventional patterns? In this context, I believe it is critical for the Fortnight to clearly define itself in terms of identity. What are your thoughts on the matter? I’ve set myself the challenge of giving the Fortnight a real label! Re-establishing and differentiating the Fortnight’s identity was a main concern to me. My goal was not just to start a new editorial line, this is understood and, at the end of the day, there are as many editorial lines as general delegates and programmers worldwide. Someone else, having reached the same conclusions as me about arthouse cinema on the festival circuit, would almost certainly have taken a different editorial stance. I became aware that the Fortnight ‘label’ had lost its authenticity and identity quite some time ago. The reason for this is that we all – or at least I – think that the films shown today in the various sections of Cannes Film Festival are essentially all alike! In your opinion, why is there a sort of interchangeability between the various sections, where films no longer seem to differ much from one another? Cannes has primarily become a market. It’s always been a market, but I believe that this fact is now influencing the selection process as well. Certain films must be shown in Cannes, regardless of which section they are in, they just have to be there. Since the cinema exhibition market is shrinking and suffering, at least globally – though there are still films doing exceptionally well – the arthouse cinema industry must create an ‘event’ around its films in order to ensure their survival, distribution, and circulation. Even today, a film that is selected in Cannes has a much better chance of being screened elsewhere than if it is not selected. I fully understand why the market and all distributors want and need their films to be shown in Cannes. That being said, I believe it is a programmer’s responsibility to figure out how to deal with this type of challenge. Mambar Pierrette The Director’s Fortnight was established in 1969 as an autonomous section. In other words, the Fortnight has always been independent. Do you agree? That’s precisely what I’m trying to recreate, but the context is different today. Independence was easy to achieve at the time because the official selection only included films pre-selected by embassies and institutions, creating a sort of lock. Faced with this situation, the filmmakers made this decision: “We need a wind of freedom, we need people to be able to make proposals that don’t fit into official codes, so we’re going to take in everything that isn’t official in the Quinzaine!” For a variety of reasons, things have obviously changed a lot since then. Gilles Jacob founded un Certain Regard in 1978. There was also the Critics’ Week, and finally, the ACID was created in 1992. Today, there is the possibility of hosting all types of cinema from all over the world at Cannes, which means that the context has changed since the Fortnight’s inception. But something has happened in a subterranean, invisible way over time: films that are already more or less in the market circuit have slowly infiltrated the other selections as well. I’m not saying that these are bad films, that’s not a value judgement at all, it’s just that the scope of the films that have access to the various Cannes selections is roughly the same for each of them. I don’t believe it was a decision made by the programmers; rather, I think something has changed and transformed the way festivals operate. But, at some point, we needed to change course at the Quinzaine. We can no longer continue to host films that simply do not make it into the Official Selection because there isn’t enough ‘space’ for them. Of course, some of these are high-quality films, so we could just as easily do it. But I said no! In other words, we are not there to select films that will sell well or to select films that were not selected by other sections. This is not a criterion for selection. My aim is to find the filmmakers of the future, those with the potential to become great auteurs. Pasolini, Fassbinder, and Oshima have become great cult filmmakers, recognised by cinephiles all over the world, shown in universities and film clubs, and then sold on video, but they were never big box office drawers. Nonetheless, they are the important ones today, not all those who have been forgotten. I can’t accept the idea of being asked to consider making a selection of films that will find their place on the market. That is the wrong way of thinking. On the contrary, I decided to start by seeking out unique filmmakers, and it is my responsibility to do the editorial work required to ensure that the press recognises these filmmakers as new talent to watch and, potentially, that these films find distributors. I do it even though it is not my first job. My first mission is to distance myself from everything that is going on the market and place my bets on tomorrow’s filmmakers. Your choice to modify the requirements for film submission eligibility was yet another novelty this year. Could you please elaborate on this? The eligibility question was a political statement. It was all about claiming that we’re here to defend the experience of watching a film in a cinema. Because, once again, I believe it is critical to promote and preserve the movie theatre as a genuine place to discover and watch films on the big screen, as well as a space for social exchange. That, in my opinion, is essential. Otherwise, what’s the point of putting on a festival where films are shown on the big screen, as we do at the Fortnight, if these films were only made for television or home cinema? So, for me, it’s simply a political way of saying: if you submit a film to the Fortnight, you at least commit to respecting its theatrical release in France. That’s the only thing I’ve changed in terms of film eligibility rules. Riddle of Fire If I’m not mistaken, you and your selection committee received and watched approximately 4,000 films. You’ve also travelled extensively to seek films by yourself. Can you give more detail about your prospecting process? In fact, we received submissions from all over the world, many of them from directors and producers acting independently without the assistance of sales agents or distributors and, when we started to work on the line-up, we tried to be as open as we could to all the unexpected submissions, films that hadn’t previously been discussed in the media, or that the film industry hadn’t necessarily heard about before. On the other hand, prospecting is a very challenging job. This year, I didn’t have enough time to do it properly, so I relied heavily on the submissions process to find the filmmakers or films that I have selected. Prospecting is an activity that must be developed ahead of time. This year, I started travelling to a variety of locations, not just festivals and labs, but also to meet professionals, filmmakers, producers, and so on, to explain: “This is what the Fortnight is all about, this is what I’m looking for, let’s speak the language of cinema and stop talking about other things!” My first goal was to promote the Fortnight. I do the same when I accompany our film selection in French cinemas and abroad. It’s an opportunity for me to recreate a new identity for the Fortnight. Of course, when I’m out and about, I try to keep an eye out for projects in progress and take note of them. In addition, the selection committee and I try to begin with our own network of filmmakers we admire but don’t necessarily know personally and say them: “Listen, over the last few years, I’ve liked your work, I like your films. Potentially, these are things that could find their way into the Fortnight.” We must capitalise on this connection in order for it to spread to other filmmakers in their area, region, and network. We develop our prospecting through capillary actions like this. But, as I just said, prospecting takes time, and I don’t expect to reap the benefits for a few years. At the same time, I believe that by making the selection decisions we did this year, we sent out some very strong signals that will allow us to get other films in the future. According to what you said, submissions revealed creative spots in unexpected areas. Were there any particular regions that stood out, as well as films that helped set the tone for this year’s edition? I would like to mention the three American films we’ve selected: Riddle of Fire by Weston Razooli, The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed by Joanna Arnow and The Sweet East by Nick Pinkerton. I believe they will set the mood and perhaps provide encouragement to an under-the-radar American independent scene. When I first arrived at the Fortnight, I told myself that breaking new ground in American cinema would be extremely difficult. Finally, the American cinema we chose came to us on its own! There are other indicators as well. For instance, regarding African cinema, the choice of Déserts by Faouzi Bensaïdi and Mambar Pierrette by Rosine MbaKam is telling. They are filmmakers who don’t export a culture to appeal to a global audience; instead, they make movies for the people in their communities and countries. Their cinema is deeply rooted in the place where it’s made and, once again, draws heavily on cinematic resources. Obviously, the Caméra d’Or awarded to the Vietnamese filmmaker Pam Thien An, for Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, will also add a certain uniqueness to what we might be looking for in Asian cinema. I believe these unexpected choices speak for themselves. However, in terms of prospecting, I was a little let down this year because I couldn’t find anything in the hybrid or documentary “format” – I use this term even though I detest classifying movies – that was compelling enough for me to bring to Cannes. I should focus more of my prospecting efforts in this field. Traveling to documentary film festivals is one way I’ll deal with this issue. I’m going to try to maybe be on a jury or have a special role so I can reach out to these filmmakers and this part of the industry. The Sweet East Premiere Your new selection committee is made up of a diverse group of people from various backgrounds; there is Agathe Bonizer, a very committed actress, as well as film critics like Hervé Aubron, or Daniella Scheier and cinema exhibitors. With what criteria did you form it? They’re obviously people I know, particularly those on the French committee, with whom I share a cinephilia and an exacting approach to contemporary cinema. I myself, however, do not come from a festival background but rather have a critic’s perspective. If we want to change our approach, if we want to diversify the way we look at things and the programming itself, we need to bring together people with different backgrounds. But generally, in order to address the issue that festival programming is a little too institutionalised, I told myself I wasn’t going to look for festival programmers. Two members of my committee, Hervé Aubron and Jean Narboni, are close to Cahiers du Cinéma, which represents a specific perception. Muyan Wang, on the other hand, was close to Pierre Rissient while Daniella Shreir exemplifies a new generation of feminist critics and we needed to bring in new perspectives. Choosing collaborators from the world of criticism seemed natural to me, given that the way I look at films is first and foremost through the eyes of a critic. Then, as a former distributor, I thought I should work with people who are in touch with today’s audiences, who understand them, who work on films that aren’t always easy, but who are mediators and understand what it’s like to present and bring a film to an audience. As a result, my selection committee includes people from cinemas and cinematheques like Jean-Marc Zekri and Caroline Maleville. You also mentioned the actress Agathe Bonitzer. I chose her, above all, for her sensitivity and because she is connected to a new generation of cinemagoers, particularly through her work with the La Clef collective. For me, the diversity of my committee is a strength as well as a challenge because you have to get all of these different people to work together! The Fortnight historically fulfilled its “counter-programming” role by welcoming filmmakers or films that did not fit into the Official Selection for a variety of reasons; this applies perfectly today to Manoel de Oliveira’s Vale Abraão. What drove you to include the recently restored version of this masterpiece in the Fortnight’s selection? Given the state of contemporary cinema, it was crucial to include a film like Oliveira’s Vale Abraão in the Fortnight’s program. It was a way of inscribing our editorial line in something specific, actually celebrating cinephilia, which isn’t always taken for granted in Cannes. Cinephilia has a history, and the Fortnight’s history includes Manoel de Oliveira. Oliveira’s cinema, and everything that comes with it, is very much of our time. That is the type of cinema I am promoting today. It’s a signal for everyone, both the viewers and the filmmakers looking to present a film at the Fortnight. I could have chosen another example from the Fortnight’s history, but I chose this one instead. It’s a way for me to claim my cinephilia, but also to state that there’s more accuracy, desire for cinema, inventiveness, and boldness in a film like this one than, perhaps, in a new film. We need to show that, compared to much of what is happening right now, something like Oliveira’s film will always be more subversive. A Prince Great filmmakers like Jerzy Skolimovski, Béla Tarr, or Hong Sang-soo, to name a few, have historically been regarded as being very close to Directors’ Fortnight. What sets them apart? What part will these kinds of filmmakers play in upcoming Fortnight editions? Some established filmmakers, such as the ones you named, have an undisputed place in the Fortnight. This year, it’s no secret, I had obviously discussed with Victor Erice and suggested that his new film, Close your eyes, should be our opening film. I’m not going to go into that story again, because it’s somehow a confidential one anyway. The fact is that his film was eventually shown in the Cannes Premiere section of the official Selection of Cannes Film Festival. The Fortnight is about more than just discovering new filmmakers, though I believe that is our primary goal; it is also about welcoming great filmmakers who can make ‘non-official’ films. They are obviously filmmakers I like or are associated with my cinephilia. But I believe my cinephilia is similar to that of the Fortnight. We have to welcome them. In this sense, these aren’t special screenings; when I showed Vale Abraão, it was simply part of the program, end of story! So, for example, if I had been able to get Erice’s most recent film, it would have been part of the program too. It’s a way of showing that it’s a part of the Fortnight’s bold, unformatted, unconventional cinema. Looking back at this eventful time, what is your assessment of this first edition? I’m very pleased with this first edition. Furthermore, the way the press has described the new Fortnight perfectly corresponds to the project I wanted to implement. This means that, more than any single film, the spirit of this year’s Fortnight has been understood. And this simply means that we’ve met some of the goals we set for ourselves. That makes me extremely happy. Secondly, I believe this is just the beginning. Being in this position was a first for me. Learning to collaborate with this selection committee, even if they were people I used to know, was also a big challenge, especially when you don’t share the same profession. There are still quite a few means to improve the way we prepare our selection, but above all, I would like to go even further in the selection process. I’d like to extend the scope of film represented at the Fortnight even further. In other words, I’d like to find even more ‘popular’ formats, so to speak, for certain films that appeal to a wider audience while being just as demanding in terms of mise en scène. This would also enable me to go even further in the opposite direction, i.e., I’d like to be able to seek out films that aren’t currently being shown at Cannes because the filmmakers don’t believe it’s for them. For example, the positive response to Pierre Creton’s film Un prince, which I really like, really surprised me this year. However, because Pierre is a filmmaker who has never been to Cannes before, it was a bit of a gamble for us. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell Creton’s films have mostly been shown at the FID Marseille, I believe. That is correct. However, the film was not only well received during the Fortnight, but it also won the SACD prize (Drama Authors and Composers Guild), which surprised me as well. Ultimately, we were able to prove that Pierre Creton’s films have a place in Cannes, and specifically at the Fortnight. This is why I’ll keep looking for formats that don’t fit neatly into any of the usual film categories. But, in order to do so, I must show as well that, since its inception, the Quinzaine has screened George Lucas’, Martin Scorsese’s and Béla Tarr’s films, to name just a few. I’ll have to try both ways. That’s my challenge, and that’s what I hope to accomplish in the coming years. Looking back, I can’t think of a single film from this year’s selection that I would qualify as a failure or a dud, but I already know that next year, I’ll be even pickier in my selection. So, even though I’m pleased with the quality of cinema that the Fortnight presents this year, we could still go even further to keep on surprising people and breaking new ground. This year’s Fortnight travelled widely in France and even abroad thanks to a new event: The Fortnight Extended, giving arthouse cinema audiences the opportunity to discover the selection right after the Cannes film festival, from June 7th to June 18th. Could you tell me more about this initiative? It’s an important novelty made possible by my experience as a distributor. I’m acquainted with the networks, the cinemas and how things operate. Distributors benefit greatly from having a label like the Fortnight do the research necessary to locate the most suitable cinemas. This year we found 32 top-notch venues all around France for these movies. Additionally, the Fortnight offers editorial services, which include producing a poster, a trailer, as well as texts about the films and video interviews with the directors, all of which are made available to distributors and cinemas. Screening the entire Fortnight program in 32 cinemas across France seems to be a huge logistical challenge as well. It’s a significant logistical challenge, which is why we’ve added a new employee to our team in order to promote the films and help them find an audience. I counter with this argument when people insist that the Fortnight must feature films with strong commercial prospects. I’m very happy for the films when they sell a lot of tickets, but that’s not my mission. My mission, once again, is to seek out filmmakers who want to create their own cinematic language. Then I find a way to support them in showing their films to an audience. That’s the basis of my thinking and acting. Thanks to the “Fortnight in Cinemas” initiative, we were given the chance to do so. Additionally, as I’ve said before, the Fortnight is just as important as the films. I want the public, the younger generation, and my partners to finally understand what the Directors’ Fortnight really is and that it isn’t just one more section in Cannes among many others. I want them to realise that the Fortnight has a distinct identity and a long history, that it “discovered” certain filmmakers, and that it is this history that enables us to look ahead. In September, it will also take place in Switzerland and Tokyo, where I will also present the selection. Could you briefly describe your background and professional carrier? I come from a working-class family. Above all, I’m a self-taught film buff who is still honing his cinephilia. Cinema has been a passion of mine since I was a child, but for a long time I was largely alone in this pursuit. After high school, I went to business school and studied philosophy. My first jobs had nothing to do with cinema, and I simply did not have the necessary education or experience to fit in. I had a day job and eventually learned about a new course at the prestigious Fémis film school that was shorter than usual and thus gave me the opportunity, since I was no longer so young, to pass the entrance exam and study there. After finishing my studies at the Fémis, I finally began working in the film industry for the first time. I decided to join Capricci, a small distribution company established by a group of individuals from the world of film criticism around Cahiers du Cinéma and that was also starting to publish excellent books on cinephilia and cinema history. This allowed me to broaden my curiosity and knowledge of great filmmakers. I started as a programmer, but because the company was new, I also served as a press attaché and was in charge of the promotional materials. Later on, I was in charge of distribution, making purchases, identifying new filmmakers, and working on new releases of classic movies. I also worked as a sales agent. For example, I’ve long backed Capricci-discovered, -produced, -distributed filmmaker Albert Serra. The greatest reward of all is seeing a filmmaker like Albert Serra compete in the international competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Along with Wang Bing, who also entered the Cannes competition this year, I’ve supported other filmmakers as well. These filmmakers haven’t all gone through the Fortnight, but many did, and it took them some time to get into the official selection, find an audience in cinemas, and catch the attention of major distributors. The Fortnight’s mission is to identify these filmmakers, whether it takes ten, 15, or 20 years for them to become widely recognised. In retrospect, I can say there’s a great deal of continuity between the work I started doing at Capricci and the work I’m now doing at the Fortnight.