Thierry Fremaux, Dream Maker And Breaker Of Cannes

Every year, he watches 1,800 films and rejects 1,750. Inside the life of the Cannes Film Festival's almighty power broker.

Thierry Fremaux is the man to know at Cannes
Thierry Fremaux is the man to know at Cannes
Fabrice Pliskin

CANNES — Thierry Frémaux is pedaling. Wearing a black sweater and black lycra suit, in tribute to his Italian cycling idol Fausto Coppi, he eats up the kilometers on the plains below the Vercors Massifs in central France. Riding his 6.4-kilo Scott bike, he's wearing a helmet and earpiece like the Tour de France champions.

And along the 50 kilometers of his solitary breakaway, the delegate-general of the Cannes Festival continues his cinema world "negotiations" using his hands-free kit.

It's the last Saturday before the April 16 press conference, where the festival's official selections will be unveiled. Frémaux phones and fires off texts. He answers to the distributors, producers and directors bombarding him with emails to convince him "their film is the eighth wonder of the world," he says. "I'll do everything I can to get Amy Winehouse onto the Croisette," the distributor-producer of a documentary on the late soul singer writes with humor, referring to a prominent road in Cannes.

A swarm of trade professionals flatter him and hunt him down tirelessly.

"To convince me, some producers bluff," he says. "They tell me their film was chosen at the Venice Festival. But Venice festival director Alberto Barbera and I happen to talk. So I know if they're lying or not. Some of them would murder both their parents to be part of the selection."

Frémaux says he doesn't take the imperious threats of a producer such as Harvey Weinstein too seriously. "He tells me, "If you don’t choose this film, next time I do a good film, I'll give it to the Berlin Festival." Things only Harvey says."

Anyone trying to get hold of Frémaux by phone in April should first send an email with their phone number so he can identify the caller later.

While the walnut trees pass by, he tells a few unlucky candidates that their films didn't make the cut. His maxim: "Our job is too watch 1,800 films and reject 1,750."

Frémaux has been director of the Cannes Film Festival since 2004. Gripping the handlebar, pedaling slowly, he's now talking with the new festival president, Pierre Lescure, who followed Gilles Jacob. Frémaux once got tendonitis in his left elbow because of holding the cellphone to his ear too much.

Thierry Frémaux, Gilles Jacob and Arte TV channel president Véronique Cayla at Cannes in 2009 — Photo: Plyd/GFDL

He calls his "colleagues" on the festival's three selection committees, which he put together himself. The French film selection panel has seats reserved for three journalists. The foreign film selection panel is comprised of three members, including Laurent Jacob, Gilles Jacob's son. The third panel gathers seven volunteers in charge of trimming down the first bulk of candidacies. The selections are made between February and April.

"We spend our lives inside the festival office's movie theater, on Amélie Street in Paris," Frémaux explains. "Hence the cycling. From 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., we watch foreign films. From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., it's French films. We eat in the room. We also watch one at home during breakfast. When we come across a notable scene, we tell the other members of the committee."

Friends in high places

Actress Nicole Kidman brings him flowers. Martin Scorsese invites him to his birthday parties in New York, with Philip Roth and Leo DiCaprio. Tim Roth and Benicio Del Toro are his "two close buddies." The Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi never comes through Paris without going out to eat snails with him.

With grey hair, three-day stubble and dark, Reservoir Dogs-like suits, 54-year-old Frémaux spends his time between Paris and Lyon, where he manages the Institut Lumière.

On this particular Saturday, he has no time for meditation. After the bicycle race, the race against time continues. Frémaux watches movies, full or only snippets, and re-watches others.

In 2001, Haneke's The Piano Teacher received three awards in Cannes. "Initially, we didn't select it," he says. "Then a second editing changed our minds. We're often criticized for always choosing the same filmmakers. But those who criticize us for this would be the first ones to say. "Those idiots, they let slip Haneke or Tarantino,""

The festival office receives 35 mm copies and DVDs. "Films that aren't always finished, subtitled or mixed, sometimes in thousands of pieces, with a temporary soundtrack," he says. "Some films now are sent through internet links. You have to watch them on a computer. I hate that. Nowadays, anyone can do a full-length feature film with an iPhone. We receive more and more films, but the average quality isn't any better."

Despite its cachet, many major American studios are still reluctant to show their films in Cannes. "They’re scared of ruining them before the race to the Oscars, which starts in October," Frémaux says. "May is too soon for them. They prefer concentrating their financial resources on the campaign for the Oscars. And a bad review in Variety, and Cannes has killed your movie." That's not all: "They also fear the intellectual aura or the "artsy" stamp of the festival, which would be prejudicial, according to them, to large commercial success. When we wanted to show The Hangover in Cannes, the producers told us no, fearing their film would seem highbrow."

Code of silence

When someone drops Thierry Frémaux's name, people working in the film world seem to become silent film stars. Is he He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? The extremely eloquent Bertrand Tavernier presides over the Institut Lumière. Though Frémaux is the director there, Tavernier "does not wish to talk about Thierry Frémaux," his production company says.

Journalist Eric Libiot, a member of the French film panel, cites his duty to "confidentiality." Unsuccessful and frustrated, we call the seller-exporter François Yon, who, after careful consideration, sends us to his associate, who prudently sends us on to the producer Paulo Branco.

We call Paulo Branco, who repeats with the tone of an ISIS hostage, "The Cannes Festival is the biggest film festival in the world."

We call the filmmaker Benoît Jacquot, whose three last films were selected in Berlin. He strongly declares, "Cannes is a neurosis. Yes sir, I have the most virulent things to say about the selection mechanisms." Finally! But he immediately adds, "But it's not the right time to say them."

This year, the Coen brothers chair the jury. One seat for two. Might this be the secret sign of a new power balance between the delegate-general and his president? Frémaux explains, "In 2000, when I arrived, Gilles Jacob was already there. He already had an expert knowledge of the Cannes apparatus. In 2015, Pierre Lescure is arriving, but I'm the one already here."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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