Wasteful film industry ‘on a learning curve’ as Cannes aims to go green
A still from Aïssa Maïga's "Above Water" ("Marcher sur l'eau"), part of the Cannes Film Festival's special climate segment. © Les Films du Losange

Vowing to go green this year and shed its consumerist image, the Cannes Film Festival has included a roster of pics on environmental topics and even trimmed its famous red carpet – though there was still enough crimson rug to host the A-list cast from Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch" on Monday night.

For hardcore film buffs, Cannes is first and foremost a trial of endurance, sitting – and often dozing – through three, four, five movies a day (and then sometimes writing about them). It's a frantic race between screenings, past successive badge scanners, vaccine-pass scanners, metal detectors and meticulous bag searches.

This year, critics are drugged out to the eyeballs with the big screen, such is the abundance of films on offer. After last year's Covid-19 washout, festival organisers have stacked the 11-day film bonanza with enough material to ride out the next pandemic, packing 24 movies into the main competition and more than five times the number in its many sidebars – perhaps to make up for the dearth of parties.

The deluge of films can result in somewhat awkward tonal and topical shifts – like starting at 8am on Monday with Sergei Loznitsa's haunting "Babi Yar. Context", about one of the biggest single massacres of the Holocaust, and closing the day on a deck chair for the beach screening of "Fast & Furious 9" at Cannes' Cinéma de la Plage.

In between, two of this year's hottest tickets gave the Palme d'Or race a jolt. Russian iconoclast Kirill Serebrenikov premiered his "Petrov's Flu", a surreal nighttime trek through a post-Soviet urban landscape (though the authorities in Moscow once again barred him from attending). And Wes Anderson delivered his long-awaited ode to print, "The French Dispatch", starring Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Adrian Brody, Willem Dafoe and just about every other actor you'd expect to see in a Wes Anderson movie.

Left to right: Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Benicio del Toro on the red carpet for Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch".Left to right: Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Benicio del Toro on the red carpet for Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch". © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

With its star-studded cast, the latter film was an instant highlight of the festival for the all-important red-carpet photographers, though France's Léa Seydoux – proclaimed the "queen" of Cannes this year with a whopping four films in the festival – was a no-show after contracting Covid-19.

'We need a planet'

Monday night also saw the screening of two films from a brand-new segment on climate change, part of Cannes' efforts to place the environmental emergency at the heart of its concerns in the wake of pandemic. Among them was Rahul Jain's "Invisible Demons", a haunting portrayal of the catastrophic pollution that is blighting the director's native New Delhi.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 ahead of the film's premiere, Jain said it was high time major film festivals tackled such issues head-on.

"For all the stories, all the wars and all the peace treaties, and all the romance and all the sport sagas, we need a planet," he said. "So I'm very glad that this is finally happening. Everybody and anybody in a position of power and cultural proliferation should take heed."

Indian director Rahul Jain keeps Covid-19 and pollution at bay on the red carpet. His New Delhi pollution pic "Invisible Demons" screened earlier on Monday.Indian director Rahul Jain keeps Covid-19 and pollution at bay on the red carpet. His New Delhi pollution pic "Invisible Demons" screened earlier on Monday. © Mehdi Chebil

Other pics gracing the new section include "I Am So Sorry" by China's Zhao Liang, about the dangers of nuclear energy, and "Above Water" by Senegal-born French actress Aïssa Maïga, which looks at the impact of global warming on Niger.

"Cinema has an impact on our imagination, on our social links and even sometimes on politics," Maïga told FRANCE 24 earlier on in the festival. "And regarding climate change, I think it's an amazing way to connect with the audience on a global scale, and it's an amazing way to give a voice to the voiceless."

Greening the red carpet

Alongside the new program, Cannes organizers have announced an environmental action plan to reduce waste and decrease the event's carbon footprint.

Going green involves a delicate balancing act for a festival that is wary of throwing a wet blanket on celebrations. Cannes knows that it is as much about the glam as the films. It is heavily reliant on film stars flying in from across the globe and on festivities that tend to generate mountains of trash.

A few years ago, a viral video posted by a local diver revealed a slew of detritus lining the sea bed just a few hundred meters from Cannes' sandy beaches. As one reporter pointed out upon close inspection, the junk included press kits for the festival's forgettable 2014 opener "Grace of Monaco".

As the glitziest stop on the film world's endless circus of festivals and parties, the Cannes Film Festival has long been an ecological hazard. It has also fallen behind other gatherings, such as the Berlinale, which recently adopted red carpets made of recycled fish nets.

This year's Cannes red carpet will be half the size of that last seen in 2019.This year's Cannes red carpet will be half the size of that last seen in 2019. © Alberto Pizzoli, AFP

To make amends, Cannes has this year halved the volume of its famed red carpet and made it from recycled materials rather than the usual PVC. It has also banned plastic bottles, deployed a fleet of electric cars, and instituted a €20 contribution from each attendee to offset some of their carbon footprint.

'Motivated by hope'

Similar steps need to be taken throughout the film industry, French writer and filmmaker Flore Vasseur told reporters during a press conference in the Palais des Festivals on Sunday, which brought together documentary makers and environmental activists.

"This industry does not have an extraordinary track record on this issue," Vasseur said. "We're all on a learning curve, we're all looking for solutions."

Produced by Marion Cotillard, Vasseur's documentary "Bigger than Us" follows Indonesian teenage activist Melati Wijsen as she travels the world to meet other youths who are driving the fight for climate and social justice. Vasseur said the young activists had pressured her crew to take steps such as cutting out plastic on set.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 last week, Wijsen urged youths around the world "not to underestimate" their ability to mobilize and bring about meaningful change.

"If you want to start taking action, do your homework, do your research: what is local to you, what is happening, what is not happening, and understand where you can play a strong role," she said. "Remember that we are in it together, and that (...) together we can create change."

Teen activists are also at the heart of Cyril Dion's "Animal", which stars 18-year-old Briton Bella Lack alongside the veteran animal conservationist Jane Goodall.

"People believe that all young people are terrified and motivated by fear (...). I've actually been motivated by hope and by imagination," Lack told the news conference on Sunday. "That's what the cinema industry and Cannes can act as – as a vehicle to catalyze the imagination of adults."