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[Only IN Hollywood] Cannes climaxes with historic honors for films celebrating sisterhood

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Cannes climaxes with historic honors for films celebrating sisterhood
Female-centric films win big this year in the most prestigious film festival – a night that celebrated sisterhood stories, the first Indian woman and the first trans woman to bag major awards, and the main female cast of a film collectively won the best actress award

LOS ANGELES, USA – Inside the Palais des Festivals, while waiting for the 77th Cannes Film Festival closing ceremonies to begin, and as the guests started to trickle in from the famed red carpet, I posted in my social media: “Will #SeanBaker (@bakermovies) score with his #Anora…?”

Over an hour or so later, as Cannes jury head Greta Gerwig intoned these words before announcing the Palme d’Or winner, “Incredibly human and humane film that captured our hearts,” I knew Anora was the evening’s top winner.

In my previous column, I wrote: “More about this winning comedy, which received a long standing ovation, in a coming column.”

And here we are, with Sean’s wildly entertaining film about a sex worker that’s a cinematic treatise on survival, money class, and power, he became the first American filmmaker since Terrence Malick in 2011 for The Tree of Life to pick up the festival’s plum prize.

Cannes 2024, ‘Anora’ filmmaker Sean Baker poses with his Palme d’Or presented to him by George Lucas. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Female-centric films won big this year in the most prestigious film festival – a night that celebrated sisterhood stories, the first Indian woman and the first trans woman to bag major awards, and the main female cast of a film collectively won the best actress award.

There was drama as a filmmaker who, just days ago, fled on foot to escape persecution in his country, appeared in person at the Palais and won a prize.

Greta, the feminist filmmaker behind the blockbuster Barbie, further praised Anora before reporters after the awards rites as “something that reminded us of a classic. There were structures of Lubitsch and Howard Hawks. It did something truthful and unexpected.”

As he approached George Lucas on stage, who presented the Palme d’Or, Baker bowed before the legendary filmmaker, who himself was honored earlier in the ceremonies with an honorary Palme.

Baker, looking boyish, nervous, but obviously elated, dedicated his first Palme d’Or triumph to “all sex workers – past, present, and future. I’ve spoken about them in several of my films –all these individual stories may not change the world, but they can help to eliminate prejudice.”

“I hope it will help people to see sex workers in a more positive light. Anora isn’t exactly a mainstream film but I hope that thanks to the Palme d’Or, we’ll be able to show it in cinemas and remind the general public that films like this do exist.”

Sean also spoke of this memorable night (quotes in this column are culled from both the awards show and the press conference afterward) in his career as a feature film director: “This (Palme) literally has been my singular goal as a filmmaker for the past 30 years. So I am not really sure what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”

Cannes 2024. Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux congratulates ‘Anora’ filmmaker Sean Baker as the film receives a long standing ovation at its gala screening. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

“But I do know that I will continue to fight for cinema because right now, as filmmakers, we have to keep cinema alive. This means making feature films intended for theatrical exhibition.”

Referring to the soaring popularity of streamers, the 53-year-old filmmaker said, “The world has to be reminded that watching a film at home while scrolling through your phone, checking emails, and half-paying attention is just not the way, although some tech companies would like is to think so.”

“Watching a film with others in a movie theater is one of the great communal experiences. We share laughter, sorrow, anger, fear, and hopefully have a catharsis with our friends and strangers. So I say the future of cinema is where we started – in a movie theater.”

I wrote earlier about how Sean, an admirer of the late Lino Brocka’s work, made sure to attend the Cannes Classics screening of the restored version of Bona, which starred Nora Aunor in the title role.

A few days later, at the party after the gala screening of Anora, I got to chat with Sean, his wife Samantha Quan (who is one of the film’s producers), and his manager Adam Kersh, who also manages Dolly de Leon.

Cannes 2024. ‘Anora’ writer-director Sean Baker (left) and his wife, producer Samantha Quan, flank Rappler’s Ruben V. Nepales at the after-party of the film which went on to win Palme d’Or. Contributed Photo

I praised the casting. Sean told me that Mikey, exceptional in the title role of a Brooklyn stripper and escort, was in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. And that Mark Eydelshteyn and Yura Borisov are real Russians.

Mark, who reminds me of Timothee Chalamet, plays Ivan, a Russian oligarch’s young son leading a wild life in the States who hires Mikey’s Anora (nicknamed Ani) for a week. On a whim, he marries Anora in Las Vegas, which enrages his parents, who send “handlers” to force the couple to annul their marriage.

One of the thugs, Igor, is portrayed by Yura. The three leads, plus an outstanding supporting cast, enhance the dark screwball comedy. Mikey was probably among the candidates discussed by the jury for potential best actress honors.

Cannes 2024. ‘Anora’ lead actress Mikey Madison and Rappler’s Ruben V. Nepales at the after-party following the well-received Cannes debut of Sean Baker’s film. Contributed Photo

Instead, to toast “the harmony of sisterhood,” as juror Lily Gladstone said, the jury gave the best actress award to the lead women thespians in Jacques Audiard’s musical comedy Emilia Perez – Selena Gomez, Zoe Saldana, and Karla Sofia Gascon.

Gerwig explained, “It was such a film that felt like it belonged to this interplay between these sisters, who are so different, but they are playing with each other the whole time. It almost felt like everyone was shining and they were all a unit.”

“To separate them felt like it undermined the magic of what they created together. I think that each of them is a standout but together, they are transcendent.”

Lily added, “We decided that how can you award a harmony by singling out individual notes? They are stronger when they resound together so we decided this year to award best actresses.”

Karla, who became the first trans actor to bag a major award in Cannes, attended the rites in person and accepted the prize on behalf of her co-stars.

She said, “This award is not just for me. It’s for all people who are fighting for themselves and their rights. We have been insulted, denigrated, subjected to a lot of violence without even knowing why. I think this award is so much more than anyone could imagine.”

Another woman, Payal Kapadia, made history as the first Indian person to win the Grand Prix in the festival’s 77-year history. Payal’s film, All We Imagine as Light, is a sisterhood drama about nurses struggling and unexpectedly bonding in Mumbai.

Cannes 2024. Payal Kapadia made history as the first person from India to win the Grand Prix in Cannes with her film, ‘All We Imagine As Light.’ Photo by Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Payal shared the stage with her three actresses – Divya Prabha, Chhaya Kadam, and Kani Kusruti – as she delivered her acceptance remarks: “This film is about friendship, about three very different women. Oftentimes, women are pitted against each other. This is the way our society is designed and it is really unfortunate.”

“But for me, friendship is a very important relationship because it can lead to greater solidarity, inclusivity, and empathy.”

Payal expressed support for the workers who have been protesting at the Cannes festival, asking for better working conditions. She cited the “many people who work behind the scenes at the festival. They have done a magnificent job. It is thanks to them the festival exists.”

The filmmaker herself is embroiled in a controversy back home in India for being involved in a 2015 student protest.

She asked for a greater appreciation of Indian cinema: “There is amazing work going on in our country. Not just Bollywood.”

“It was already a dream to be selected in competition and this was way beyond my imagination. Please do not wait another 30 years to have an Indian film.”

On a night of several long standing ovations, Mohammad Rasoulof, the filmmaker who just a few days ago fled Iran on foot to escape persecution and flogging, received the longest applause when he received a special jury prize for his The Seed of the Sacred Fig.

Cannes 2024. Mohammad Rasoulof, who won a special prize for his ‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig,’ fled a prison and flogging sentence in Iran on foot. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

The crime drama chronicles how a judge, dealing with paranoia and political unrest in Tehran, suspects his wife and daughter when his gun is missing, setting off a chain of events that impact the family. 

Addressing the audience, Mohammad honored his film crew by pointing out that they were “still under the pressure of the secret services back in Iran.”

In a press conference, the director shared, “There was tremendous pressure on my shoulders. I kept thinking, well, if I am arrested while making the film, I will spend at least five years in prison. And then obviously, I knew this film would lead to other charges against me.”

Iran’s secret police are reportedly planning to arrest others who are involved in the movie.

Mohammad added, “I therefore had to make a decision in just a few hours. I had to say to myself, ‘Do I want to be in prison or should I leave geographic Iran and join the cultural Iran that exists beyond its borders?’ ”

“I opted for the second possibility. It took me two hours to make the decision. I walked around. I paced around my house; I said goodbye to the plants that I loved.”

“It was not an easy decision to make. It still is not an easy decision to make. It still isn’t even easy to talk about it with you.”

On his escape, Mohammad stressed that he could only trust the people who assisted him: “They helped me to leave and go to a place where I was safe near the border of a country that I don’t want to name.”

Earlier, on the red carpet, the filmmaker held up photos of his actors Missagh Zareh and Soheila Golestani. He claimed the latter was recently arrested by the secret police.

On its website, the film festival on the French Riviera posted: “Welcoming Mohammad Rasoulof, the festival seeks to express its support for ‘all artists around the world who suffer violence and persecution in their artistic expression,’ said Thierry Fremaux, director of the Cannes Film Festival.”

“We are especially touched to have the director here with his film. We share this joy with all freedom-loving Iranians.”

“Despite constant repression, which has already led to him being imprisoned twice, Mohammad Rasoulof continues to successfully build an important and award-winning filmography.”

“His criticism of the mullahs’ dictatorship recently earned him another prison sentence on appeal of eight years, with a minimum of five. The director secretly left his country after a grueling journey but remains concerned for the safety of his teams in Iran.”

Coralie Fargeat won best screenplay for The Substance, the Demi Moore-Margaret Qualley body horror that targets ageism and sexism in Hollywood.

Some pundits thought that Demi, who drew the best reviews of her career, would romp off with the best actress prize for her take of an actress being eased out of her show due to her age.

Coralie, who also directed, said, “I really believe that movies can change the world so I hope this movie will be a little stone to build new foundations. I really think we need a revolution and I don’t think it has really started yet.”

Easily the highlight of the night, hosted by French actress Camille Cottin, was seeing two film titans and friends, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, together onstage.

Face, Happy, Head
Cannes 2024. Two film icons and pals. Francis Ford Coppola (right) presented the honorary Palme d’Or to George Lucas at the 77th Cannes Film Festival closing ceremonies. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Francis, who presented the honorary Palme to George, recounted making Finian’s Rainbow in 1968 and meeting the latter for the first time: “Pleased to have someone in my own generation, I suggested he come every day but only on one condition – that he come up with a brilliant suggestion every day which he consistently did.”

“And with that began an association that has lasted a lifetime. And he went on and on, making film history, story history. Business history and now, history in France.”

Francis, who had an in-competition entry this year, Megalopolis, shared how George was turned down in his bid to make a movie version of the Flash Gordon comic strip. Francis said, “He (George) looked at me and said, ‘I will make my own movie. I will call it Star Battles or Star Wars or something.’ ”

“Congratulations, George. Not only am I and your many friends proud of you but the world is here, proud to honor you.”

George, in accepting the Palme, said, “I came here to thank you all. I’m just a kid who grew up in the middle of California, surrounded by vineyards and made films in San Francisco with my friend Francis Coppola.”

“So we spent our entire careers in parallel, and in San Francisco in particular.”

It was a moving sight to see Francis, 85, guide Lucas, who just turned 80 last May 14, as they posed onstage for the photographers.

Cannes 2024. Jim Baltazar, head of CMB Film Services, whose father, the late Conrado Baltazar lensed ‘Bona,’ screened as a restored Cannes Classic. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Speaking of legends, Halfdan Ullmann Tondel, who scored the best first feature honors for Armand, is the grandson of legends – director Ingmar Bergman and actress Liv Ullmann. Armand was one of several entries in Un Certain Regard that focused on women trying to cope with realities.

On a side note, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Baltazar, the son of the late Conrado Baltazar who lensed Bona and other Brocka masterpieces, while we were in line to attend the premiere screening of Viet and Nam, directed by Minh Quy Truong and produced by Bianca Balbuena and Bradley Liew.

Cannes 2024. Director Minh Quy Truong introduces his Directors’ Fortnight entry, ‘Viet and Nam,’ produced by Bianca Balbuena and Bradley Lieu. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

The Directors’ Fortnight website cited Jim and his CMB Film Services for lending their camera, lights, and equipment to the cinematographers behind the four shorts featured in the Directors Factory Philippines.

The other winners included Miguel Gomes, best director for Grand Tour; Chiang Wei Liang, special mention for the Camera d’Or jury with Mongrel; Nebojsa Slijepcevic, short film Palme d’Or for The Man Who Could Not Remain Silent; and Daniel Soares, special mention for short film, Bad For a Moment.

And with these awards handed out in brisk ceremonies, the glorious two weeks of marathon film watching on the Croisette ended. Walking an average of 18,000 steps a day ended, too. Now, I am recuperating and jet-lagging in the other mecca of film, La La Land. – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.