Credit: Florent Drillon
by Jesse Catherine Webber Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Risk-Taking & Poetic Imagination: An Interview with Julien Rejl

June 19, 2023

Since 1969, the French Directors’ Guild (SRF) has held the Directors’ Fortnight in parallel to the Cannes Film Festival. Often more adventurous than the official selection, highlights of recent years have included De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Will-o-the-Wisp, Neptune Frost, and The Tsugua Diaries. The section has also featured higher profile and starrier French and English language films from directors like Mia Hansen-Løve, Robert Eggers, and Alex Garland.

Last February, the SRF announced that the following year’s festival would be general delegate Paolo Moretti’s last, and that they would additionally be undergoing a wider overhaul. That June, they brought in Julien Rejl to spearhead those changes. Though there were still some familiar faces in this year’s lineup, like Hong Sang-soo and Michel Gondry, Rejl’s first official selection also featured a number of films from new directors, some of which did not come into the festival with sales representation. Though this meant slightly less hype going in, the choice has already paid dividends, as this year’s Camera d’Or — awarded to the best first feature across all sections of Cannes — went to Fortnight’s Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell. After the conclusion of his first festival, we caught up with Rejl via email.

I remember reading when Director’s Fortnight announced that they were looking for new leadership they also said they were looking for someone to come in with a new vision. What about that task appealed to you? 

What I found attractive about the Fortnight is that it still embodies a spirit of adventure and exploration, without having to be accountable to any market logic. In this position, I think it’s still possible to move the lines a little. The DNA of the Fortnight is to be the unofficial selection of the Cannes Film Festival. Its primary mission is to welcome free films, made by filmmakers who experiment and invent their own language with the means of cinema. These may be “genre films” that play with their own codes, or “arthouse films” that venture into uncharted territory. The richness of the Fortnight lies in its diversity and its lack of hierarchy between popular and insider cinema. It favors the discovery of young filmmakers, but takes the liberty of inviting established directors. The audacity it values is that of escaping all formatting and lack of authenticity. It offers a place to films that are sometimes fragile, sometimes lame, that make no claim to perfection, because it supports risk-taking and poetic imagination.

What did you see as possible weaknesses in previous programming that you could address?

In some ways, certain programmations could occupy the same ground as the official selection. But I believe that it’s by setting itself apart as much as possible from the others, by asserting its own identity, that the Fortnight gains in strength, legibility and recognition. In its selection process, the Fortnight must be able to adopt a buissonnier spirit, to get off the beaten track, to surprise. Only in this way can we encourage filmmakers to join us, in the friendly, cinephile atmosphere that has always characterized the Fortnight.

Having come into Directors’ Fortnight with a particular vision, do you feel like you were successful in executing it? Are there adjustments you plan to make going forward, either in your approach or your execution?

I’m delighted with the work we’ve done with the selection committee, but it’s only a start, and there’s still a lot of progress to be made. It will take several years for this dynamic to bear fruit. With this first edition, we’ve tried to give this new Fortnight a direction and a personality. But the greatest challenges lie ahead. I want to further broaden the spectrum of films presented at the Fortnight: more documentaries, more animation, more hybrid formats, more genre films. But also welcome formats that escape all categories. Our freedom is to push back the boundaries of the idea of what cinema should be at Cannes.

Do you read reviews of the films you program? Are there other ways you gauge how people are reacting to them during the festival? Does that play into how you will approach future lineups?

I read the reviews of the selected films, because I’m an avid reader of film critics. I’ve always been passionate about film critics, which is why I’ve chosen several journalists to sit on my selection committee. What’s more, at the Fortnight we’re lucky enough to have a real audience in theaters, as we’re the only selection to offer a ticket office. We can gauge their reactions both during the film and at the Q&A. This year, after the Q&A, many spectators came to talk to me every day. They were very warm and pleasantly surprised by this new Fortnight. On several occasions, they told me that the films in the Fortnight were different from those in the other selections, that it was good for them to have surprising cinematic experiences, far from films with a subject or message. But I like it when films provoke debate, when they disturb. I refuse to make a selection based on what critics, audiences, or the market thinks. When you’re an artistic director, you have to have confidence in your own vision, and not give in on your convictions (especially as they’re the result of a collective effort). It takes several years for an editorial line to take shape and mature. You have to fight for what you believe in. Future generations will judge.

Credit: Cannes Film Festival

Were filmmakers or producers surprised by your move away from giving preferential treatment towards films that were rejected from competition?

I don’t know, I haven’t had any feedback on that. But you’re right that there’s no such thing as preferential treatment. When you discover the latest film by a great, established filmmaker, it may surprise you, it may impress you, or it may seem less innovative, more expected, even if the talent is still there. When you’re putting together a selection that focuses on the singularity of the artistic gesture, adding a film like this can unbalance the whole. We’ll never turn down a film we think is excellent. But when we have a few doubts, the question arises of making space for a younger filmmaker who, even if he or she is less talented than an established director, needs to be given a chance. There’s also the case of films that are shown too late, after the Official Selection has given a negative response. This poses a twofold problem: firstly, there’s the risk that we won’t have the space to properly showcase such a film within the programming grid; but above all, the Fortnight is not a last-minute solution: it’s like poker, if you choose to go all-in, you have to accept the risk of losing everything…

Do you think there may have been a gap left at the festival, especially given the quantity of French films vying for competition slots?

No, I don’t think so. A selection is based on programming choices. If all the films were in Cannes, then the festival would lose its value. There are enough major international festivals to welcome the best films. At the Fortnight this year, we have chosen to reduce the number of films in selection. This decision reflects our desire to give greater prominence to each of the films selected, and at the same time to strengthen the Fortnight’s identity and editorial line.

Did any of the politics of putting together the Directors’ Fortnight lineup surprise you? I’m sure you can’t get into too many specifics, but I think Víctor Erice’s open letter in El País, in which he mentioned an invitation from Directors’ Fortnight, came as a surprise to outsiders.

No, I wasn’t really surprised. We’ve been very open about our enthusiasm with filmmakers, producers, sales agents, and so on. In return, there are those who are delighted by a frank and sincere dialogue, and those who prefer to up the ante or are afraid of taking a decision too quickly. We give priority to those who, above all, want to show their film in the Fortnight. For Victor Erice’s film, the only thing I can say is that the return of a great filmmaker who, like him, has nothing left to prove, would have made a great event at the Fortnight.

How does the pool of submissions to Directors’ Fortnight differ from that of the Official Selection? Are you specifically soliciting films you think might fit the cadence of your selection better?

On the whole, films that submit to the Fortnight also submit to the Official Selection, and vice-versa. We receive almost the same number of films. On the other hand, it’s true that during the prospecting phase, we sometimes encourage filmmakers to submit their films to the Fortnight, otherwise they simply wouldn’t dare submit them to Cannes.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 24

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