What is a good film? People choose the films they want to watch for different reasons: often because of their preference for particular genres, stars or actors, or for certain directors, or because of their subject matter. They can also be influenced by the eyecatching publicity or sensational buzz around the release of a film, or just because of convenience. You click on whichever of the many postage stamp sized images representing films that get your attention while lazily scrolling through the many options on any of the ever increasing number of streaming services. If the image is compelling and also contains rows of laurels from film festivals so much the better. Chances are it's a "good" film.
The prizes films win at film festivals are one of the ways distributors choose certain films from among the huge number made around the world each year, and how they therefore become part of the ocean of options available via streaming services. It's not the only way. Some are commercial products made to satisfy the existing demand for films that fit into categories viewers are already comfortable with and know they like, and plenty of people don't care much about whether or not a film has won any prizes.
Making films is expensive, and competition for recognition and distribution is tough. Not everyone has the time or money or help they need to be able to submit their film to many festivals or pitch their films to distributors in film markets. The majority of films will not win prizes, which makes it a little less likely that you will run across them as you scroll through the options your algorithm recommends to you.
Viewers interested in films that win prizes at festivals tend to be looking for those that break the mold, that may challenge the viewer to process and understand what they see differently, These films may be the product of the idiosyncratic vision of a particular director. They may be characterized by the not immediately recognizable iconography of a culture that is not the viewer's own, or a temporality that is faster or slower or has a different rhythm than the one that feels intuitively "natural." Characteristics like these that force viewers to see and understand differently lead jurors in the really good film festivals to determine that a film has qualities that are singular enough to merit a prize. Of course that is a subjective decision, and that's why it is always interesting to notice who exactly are the members of the juries that award the prizes.
In many festivals, the names of the jurors are not made public. Who knows how the decisions are made? In some, the winning films are essentially the ones the organizers of the festival choose, and all kinds of people organize film festivals. In others, the criteria for selecting the jurors may not necessarily be their film credentials. Festivals that focus on environmental issues, for example, may choose jurors with more of an ecological background than a film background.
I was a juror for a student film festival that worked in the following way. As the director of a film program, I was invited to have my students submit films representing our program. I was also a juror helping to select the films that would receive prizes, together with other film professors representing all of the participating programs. Since, it would be natural for professors to want to support their own students, we were assigned only films from other schools and asked to rank them using numbers. The festival organizers then averaged the numbers to determine which had received the highest scores and would therefore receive prizes. This seemed like an appropriate and fair way of evaluating this particular group of films. I never met the other jurors and don't know who they were.
A similar approach is taken by the Academy Awards. All of the members of the Academy are able to cast their votes and then these votes are tallied. We never learn who exactly voted for what.
But the festivals that interest me most are the ones in which I know exactly who each of the jurors is, and the festival in fact flaunts the selection and gives the jury plenty of protagonism. Cannes is all about this. The announcement of who will be on the jury each year is almost as big an event as the announcement of the winners. In France, they love to lionize artists and intellectuals. Late night talk shows in the U.S. provide a platform for a movie star to shine for ten or fifteen minutes before the next guest comes on, but on French television, a show may provide a philosopher, a historian, a novelist or a filmmaker with an hour of uninterrupted time to discuss their work and their ideas in depth. The jury selection at Cannes brings together a carefully selected group of film artists from a variety of countries, many of whom have won plenty of prizes themselves. This year the jurors who awarded the Palme d'Or for the feature film came from France, the U.S., Sweden, Afghanistan, Argentina, Zambia, and Morocco. These different perspectives are important. We don't all see the same way or know the same things. France is usually well represented on the Cannes juries and it is not surprising that a healthy number of French films receive awards, just as Italian films are very present in Venice, and American films dominate the Oscars. Not all of the Cannes jurors will be familiar to mainstream audiences, but the festival website features photos of them along with biographies that can help anyone interested understand what it is that each brought to the chemistry of this particular group that engaged in the deliberation resulting in the awarding of the prize.
I also love about Cannes that when the prizes are awarded, the jury sits on the stage and witnesses the winner come up to receive the prize. They could not be more present and we the audience get to hear the remarks of the director who may thank the jury, and to observe all the facial expressions and body language of both winner and the jurors as they acknowledge each others' presence.
This year the president of the jury was the Swedish director Ruben Ostlund whose disturbing films dismantle the idea of Sweden as a tolerant and utopian society. The Argentinian director, Damian Szifron, who I am a big fan of, was there. Also on the jury was Julie Ducournau, director of the 2021 Palme d'Or winner Titane, a French film about a female serial killer. Ducournau was only the second female director to win the Palme d'Or after Jane Campion. I like Ostlund's films and am curious about Titane, though hesitant to watch it since I think it's very violent. I am sure there were many factors at play in the selection of this year's winner. But, perhaps it is not all that surprising that the winning film, Anatomy of a Fall, is a thriller directed by a Frenchwoman.
Would I like this film? Who knows? But, because of what I know about the people who selected it, I might watch it.
From the point of view of being a juror, it is a different experience to come together with other film professionals to discuss the films in competition and make a decision than it is to assign numbers and leave the computation and the final decision to others. I have been lucky enough to have had this experience. Members of juries get to know each other in these conversations and must use words to say what it is that they see in the films they have watched and what it is in them that they value most.
What is most striking about the narrative or structure of the film, the directing, the acting, the cinematography, the editing, the ideas put forward, the mood created, or any ineffable combination of these and other things? We do not all think the same. We do not all necessarily pick up on the same things or assign them the same meaning or value. I have participated in juries in Latin America film festivals in which the jury was asked to write a "laudo," that is a short statement in which we put into words the qualities of the winning film that we admire, and read it when we award the prize. Having to find the right language to accurately describe these qualities without resorting to cliché is good exercise.
When jurors have the opportunity to attend a festival, and not just converse via screens as has become more common in this digital age and certainly is the case for the many festivals that cannot pay the travel expenses of jurors, this can be a rich and compelling conversation that develops over a period of time. This series of conversations - over breakfast or lunch, after watching a film together, on the bus to the theater - help us think deeply, and with others, about what cinema is, how it does what it does, and what it is about the films we are now watching that, in each of our minds, is significant. These dialectical conversations move film forward. This is the importance of festivals like Cannes.