It felt like there was a cloud hanging over Cannes today. Not the rain kind, although there were those hovering about too. Waking up to the news that Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, the man who gave Detroit singer Rodriguez’ a second lease on life, took his own, cast a shadow over the excitement of the start of a festival. He was only 36 years old. Malik had become a fixture on the film festival circuit, tirelessly promoting his documentary, in the days and months before it won the highest of prizes, an Oscar for Best Documentary. I felt like I’d lost someone I knew.
Interviewing him at Sundance in 2011 has always stuck with me, as I listened to his tenacity and steadfast approach to making the film. The tale of Rodriguez’ unknown popularity in South Africa, while his career in the US spluttered, was only meant to be a 7-minute piece for TV, but he told me it was the most incredible story he’d heard and he knew he had to make it into a film. It took Malik 4 years, and he said he sent it to Sundance without having the money to get the sound mixed and illustrations done. He did them himself, thinking he would change them at a later stage. Sundance had said they liked it just the way it was. And just the way it was, was how he landed the Oscar in February 2012.
It wasn’t clear at first how he died, but I saw my Swedish friend and fellow journalist Roger at the press office a few hours later, and he confirmed that it had been a suicide. We stood and hugged each other as other journalists around us clamoured to get into the Grace of Monaco press conference.
I couldn’t shake the sadness I felt today, but my mind was taken away from the matter for about two hours, thanks to the opening film Grace of Monaco. Starring Nicole Kidman as the late Princess of the Monaco Royal Family, the movie had me laughing in all the wrong places. It was such a dud of a film that I couldn’t help but chuckle at the terrible dialogue (with lines that sounded like they’d been lifted from Google Translate), the lack of lines and over-use of extreme close-ups on Kidman’s face, and the story that seemed to equate Grace Kelly’s decision to leave movies with the survival of the Monaco principality. It’s not being touted as a biopic but it’s just too far-fetched to take seriously. That is half the problem. If it weren’t trying to be so serious about itself, perhaps the film would be a camp classic of sorts.
As usually goes with Day 1 of Cannes, I only saw one film. Getting re-acquainted with the French Riviera can take half a day at least – setting up and confirming interviews, remembering where the best pain au chocolats can be found and listening to the jury talk about what they’re looking for in this year’s Palme d’Or winner takes up most of the day.
This year’s jury has a much welcomed slant towards women – 5 out of the 9 internationally-known names in filmmaking is female. And Jane Campion, the only woman to ever win the Palme d’Or in Cannes’ 67 year history, seems to have a no-nonsense attitude towards helping more women get into the competition. Only 7% of the number of films submitted this year, she said, were from woman. “It’s undemocratic,” she said, of the film industry. “And women notice. Time and time again, we don’t get our share of representation. There is something that women are thinking and doing that we don’t get to see and hear about.”
Something else that happens on the first day of Cannes is catching up with friends made in years gone by at the annual cocktail party thrown by DDA press agency. The people with whom you can share the peculiarities of covering a film festival such as Cannes; people who’ll hold you a seat if you’re stuck in a queue, or share their audio recording with you if your equipment malfunctions. I remember meeting some journalists in my first year there who told me they’d been coming here for some 10, 15 years. I remember laughing to myself, thinking that’s an awfully long time to be covering the fest. Now that this is my 8th time, I realize I’m not too far away from that feat myself.
Even as we mingled, the threat of rain kept hovering over Carlton Beach, where the party takes place. Thankfully, the clouds moved on, allowing us to truly appreciate the view. The sadness I felt about Malik though, returned to me as I walked home, wondering about his friends and fellow filmmakers – all those people who loved and appreciated his vibrant, tenacious spirit that he left behind.