The Elephant on the Red Carpet: An Interview with Léo Soesanto
We’re living through an unprecedented period of the 21st century. Because of the damage wreaked and lives lost to the virus COVID-19, every major film festival, to say nothing of theatrical premiere and press junket, has either been cancelled or forced into a new bowdlerized shape the size of a window on your computer screen. Should things return to normal, every corner of the film economy is going to have to deal with a changed world. For a little insight into what the responsibilities of such a person was and may be, I spoke to Léo Soesanto, a programmer of short films at Cannes’ parallel Semaine de la Critique, or Critics’ Week, and someone who aids young filmmakers in developing their first feature. We talked about his job under ideal circumstances, the future of film selection, and his responsibilities to the arts and artists he helps to herald.
First, how would you describe what you do beyond the bare facts? It’s easy to say you program films, but at such a high-stakes and highly regarded venue, I would think there are responsibilities at play that most people cannot understand.
Well, behind the words “programming films,” there are two ideas: first, our section is called Critics’ Week, which means the programmers are film critics who unashamedly process the films as such. Programming is an extension of film criticism, which means defending, supporting, and championing films, sharing a taste with viewers and — of course, it’s pretentious — trying to think about the cinema of tomorrow. And I mean literally, as the main criteria for selecting short films in competition is that their directors haven’t made a feature yet. So, with my colleagues, we can quibble over a single shot, the morality of a tracking shot, or some tired film tropes. In a word, we’re picky. And we try to be fair and diverse by selecting a large set of different styles of filmmaking, moods, genres, and countries — even if we can’t escape the usual coming-of-age film every year. But if I check last year’s selection, I’m happy with the fact that the definition of a “good film” could encompass such different shorts as the dry — and I mean it in the most positive sense — “She Runs,” by Qiu Yang, and the warmer “Tuesday from 8 to 6,” by Cecilia de Arce. Or that two films like “Ikki illa meint,” by Andrias Høgenni, and “Lucía en el Limbo,” by Valentina Maurel, could question genders and the mentioned coming-of-age tropes in very contrasting ways.
At the same time it’s a matter of maintaining high standards in such a behemoth like Cannes, which is mostly focused on features, and where it can be difficult to give the proper spotlight on young, emerging filmmakers — I mean, it’s Cannes, everything needs to be a masterpiece. At Critics’ Week, we try to treat shorts and features on the same level. There was a time when we had double bills (short and feature), and then, to give them the proper exposure, we put the shorts altogether in two programs, right in the middle of the festival and not at the end as an afterthought, when everybody has gone or is too tired. You can ask all our selected short directors: they felt put on the same level as feature directors. They’re treated with the same lunches, parties, photo calls, and in-house video interviews. The Cannes stamp means quality — in theory. Since 2014, we have gone to the next level to give the short film selection more identity with the Next Step workshop. That means that each director in competition will have the opportunity to work on his/her first feature script near Paris six months after Cannes with filmmakers, producers, and other professionals as mentors. If everything plays well, their first feature may pop up in a Cannes section, maybe ours, like for Sofía Quirós Ubeda, who had her short “Selva” in 2017 and then her feature Ceniza Negra (Land of Ashes) in 2019. So, our selection is a next step, which is the main identity of Critics’ Week for features (first and second), since we picked Wong Kar-wai, Jacques Audiard, Ken Loach, François Ozon, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Jeff Nichols, Julia Ducournau, and David Robert Mitchell among many others in the past. But we treat short films as a distinct way of making cinema and not only a calling card for features — animation and experimental blossom in the short form, as it’s difficult money-wise and somehow not always right to get the feature treatment. So that’s why we also have those out-of-competition screenings for shorts by filmmakers who made features before, like Brandon Cronenberg, Katsuya Tomita, or Bertrand Mandico, and think that, short or long, it’s still cinema.
You say you can’t help but approach your job as a programmer through the lens of criticism. What do you look for in the short films that make you want to program them? Someone could write a great treatment and have no visual style, and someone could film an empty idea with great panache. Do you want to look beyond shortcomings in form to the promise within a filmmaker? Is that part of the job?
Well, since you mention less ideal realities, we have to deal with “competition” with other fests and sections in Cannes (the Official Selection, Directors’ Fortnight) that also select short films. Especially since we focus on world and international premieres. There are less stakes in theory, given we’re talking about short films. – There aren’t the same amounts of money invested for production/sales/distribution as in features. There’s much more artistic freedom and less pressure to take an average feature because of its cast or the power plays of the sales agents/producers. But good films tend to be liked by all sections, so a short can be invited by Fortnight, the Official Selection, and us at the same time. It’s our task to convince [filmmakers] that we are the best context in Cannes to welcome short films, even if a Golden Palm for Best Short is tempting.
Short form has, I believe, become a much more important part of the filmmaking economy/landscape, especially at festivals like BlackStar, where directors who wouldn’t otherwise be given the resources to make a feature can still have their work screened and taken seriously by a community hungry for new voices and clearly enunciated sentiment not otherwise spoken. Have you noticed an attitude shift in the way we deal with short form in your years at the festival? What, if anything, would you change about the Cannes presentation/workings?
I mentioned the lens of criticism for programming and need to explain this: being picky sounds too harsh and we always contextualize. We can be more forgiving for a first-time filmmaker than someone who has made three or four shorts. Every year, the selection speaks for itself, as there is always a mix of more-or-less recognized short filmmakers and student films that are maybe less polished but discoveries indeed. And given the Next Step workshop, the idea is to find, as you mentioned, a promise: do I want to see her/his first feature? Does the short contain the seeds of a future career? Regarding your question on style and content, I think we can have the best of both worlds, as long as we feel this promise or what I would define as a sense of necessity — was it made the right way to touch us, to involve us, to convey something, like a theme, a mood? Shorts films — well, cinema in general — are stuck between showing off and flat statements. If I take a film like “Tuesday from 8 to 6,” it’s not the most flamboyant piece of filmmaking, but the photography and the writing are neat, and there’s, above all, a fresh honesty because the filmmaker knows what she’s talking about. “Hector Malot: The Last Day of the Year,” by Jacqueline Lentzou, looks on paper like a collection of random moments, but they tell something without being linear. I like it when the blank spaces in a story don’t bother me because the filmmaker trusts the audience to fill them or, even better, not to care about them. It’s even more relevant in shorts when you don’t take that much time to establish a setting. I like how Mikko Myllylahti throws us in media res in his short “Tiikeri”: a drunken father, a shotgun, a character in a mysterious tiger suit, and then… deal with it. I guess we go back to the ageless discussion on the virtues of “termite art” and “white elephant art” as Manny Farber defined them. Do it, but don’t overdo it.
And you’re right, short form is important in the film landscape — you have sales agents dedicated to them, implying that there’s an economy. And you see more and more young filmmakers who, after doing a feature or two, are eager to make a short. They don’t feel like it’s being downgraded — it’s just making films, quicker and with a context or ideas that could not fit a feature. In Critics’ Week, short filmmakers felt welcomed, but our profile has increased since our general manager Rémi Bonhomme set Next Step: Cannes is not just an end, it’s also a beginning. If I had to change anything, it would be putting more criticism in the mix, since we are Critics’ Week, and finding a frame to talk about the films. There was a time when we had Q&As after the screenings, but we had to get rid of that because of the new security measures during Cannes. When you have to manage the queues, audience flows, and security searches, there’s simply no time for that between screenings in our venue. We hope to find a physical space in Cannes for panels and discussions with our filmmakers. But now that people seem to have gotten used to Zoom conferences because of coronavirus and quarantine, who knows? I’m also interested in the development of VR, which is by definition short form. You see that more and more at big festivals, and it’s interesting to see how it tries to find its voice in a very noisy environment where everybody’s obsessed with — I hate the word — content.
Are there festivals that you think are doing great work that don’t have the reputation of a Cannes, a Sundance, or a Berlin?
I envy many festivals that are only dedicated to short form, like Clermont-Ferrand in France, Vila do Conde in Portugal, Regard in Canada, or Winterthur in Switzerland — I’m speaking of the ones I visited. They just show that finding intelligent ways to curate and promote shorts engages the local audience. You find there’s a wonderful energy in the short film community. For the all-inclusive ones, I like the diversity of the programs in Toronto and Rotterdam (disclaimer: I program features in Rotterdam). Like Berlin, they celebrate shorts as a form in itself, not as a next step.
What filmmakers are you looking forward to seeing grow and develop their voices from your section?
It’s like choosing between your children, it’s embarrassing if you don’t mention all of them. I read their first feature scripts, and they’re all different, all exciting, and have definitely something to say.
Have the shutdowns because of coronavirus shown you holes in the fabric of film distribution and showcasing that you think should be addressed, now that it’s clear that so much of what was once considered essential is now expendable? Do you see a world where there’s an overhaul of festival practices because of the events of 2020?
Well, the coronavirus crisis is an existential threat to the very essence of festivals as physical events. The online presence, which was a second-best, second-rate option before has become the key for survival, and it’s definitely a thing to explore in distribution and showcasing. The stakes are less obviously difficult than for features given the invested money. If it’s a way to reach a wider audience, I’m of course for that, especially for short film, which feels like an insular world for the general public. But I do think the curating process of a festival — whether it’s online or in real life — still counts. We canceled the physical edition of Critics’ Week, but we’ll pick 10 shorts — the ones we are supposed to put in competition — and show them online and hopefully in a theater in Paris when venues can open and give them a “supported by Critics’ Week” label that they can display for future selections in other fests and publicity. We didn’t know first how the producers/directors would embrace the idea, but they were very supportive, meaning that the festival label/tag/brand/whatever is strong. And I’m sure it would be the same for Locarno, Toronto, Sundance, or Berlin. Frankly, I cannot and don’t want to foresee the future world in terms of practice as, when the lockdown started in March in France, we did our selection process, in denial, with the shrinking hope that Cannes would happen somehow in May/June.
What do you think is the responsibility, if there is any, of a programmer like yourself? And that can mean morally, to the arts, to filmmakers, or to some other power?
I think we can define it, whether it’s a big or small festival, as being a gatekeeper, even if it sounds like a grand word for working as a bouncer at the entrance of a club — well, in a way yes for the latter, because we spend more time saying no than yes to films. But in its best sense, well, it’s opening the door for filmmakers to reach an audience and vice versa. It feels more important in these times: culture kept us sane behind containment, through books, music, series, and films, and the survival of its sector — how people working on canceled shoots, festivals, or concerts would strive with no job — is being neglected by most governments. So we probably had this in mind when we picked those 10 shorts/filmmakers in the middle of the crisis. I know it sounds preachy, and I’m not a religious person, but cinema, especially when Cannes comes around, sounds like a religion with festivals as masses and churches. And the current climate sounds familiar: the idea of one cinema, centralized, with a faith in venues only, sounds like Catholicism. And facing that, you have an idea of a more widespread cinema, without central authority to define if it is worse when you stream it, which sounds like Protestantism. I oversimplify, of course, and the discussion is less lethal than centuries ago, but it’s funny and poetic that it has come full circle.
Top image: “Hector Malot: The Last Day of the Year,” Jacqueline Lentzou
Léo Soesanto is the head of shorts film selection for Critics’ Week at Cannes and a senior programmer for the International Film Festival Rotterdam.