The following Q&A appeared in Screen International, the weekly, on March 10, on the occasion of Gilles Jacob's elevation to president of the Cannes Film Festival.
While his name does not often appear on the lists of Hollywood power brokers, the super-rich or the stars to watch, Gilles Jacob is arguably the most influential person in independent cinema. First as a journalist, and for the last 23 years at Cannes, he has had a key role in determining which films get the red carpet treatment; which films are given a seal of quality approval; and, maybe indirectly, which films are made. With a fine eye for new talent and a faithfulness to artistic film-makers from obscure corners of the world, Jacob has shaped Cannes' Festival International du Film into the showcase every film-maker wants to be a part of and the artistic event that the world's media cannot get enough of.
Jacob talks to Patrick Frater on the occasion of his elevation to festival president, discussing the delicate balance between his enthusiasm for the ever-changing world of cinema and the necessity of remaining focused on the task at hand. And he drops a hint that he expects his influence to be felt for many years to come
Screen International: Do you still see your role as festival selector in the same way as when you took over at Cannes 23 festivals ago' What are the differences'
Gilles Jacob: The difference is that cinema has changed. Society has changed; so have the public and the press - even I have lost a few illusions. But mercifully I have not lost the pleasure I get from cinema. When I started with the festival I worked for Maurice Bessy who every morning would say to me: "Gilles, cinema is dead!" I said to myself how strange it was that this old gentleman could announce the same disaster every day and I promised myself that I would not fall into the same trap, however tempting.
Two years on, and having been nominated in his place - this was 1979 - I put together a selection that went down in festival history. In one festival we had Francis Ford Coppola, Milos Forman, Terrence Malick, Martin Ritt, John Huston, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, Luigi Comencini, Miklos Jancso, James Ivory, Dino Risi, Francesco Rosi, Andrej Wajda, Volker Schloendorff, Werner Herzog, Andre Delvaux, Bo Widerberg, Andrei Konchalovski, Claude Lelouch, Alain Corneau, Jacques Doillon, Andre Techine, Gillian Armstrong, Tomas Gutierrez Alea and James Bridges. Even if one is only a bit of a film buff, you know that these names still have resonance today. Each has put his or her mark on the cinema of their country. It would be too easy to be cynical about what is going on today; suffice to say that some have sadly passed away or retired, in some cases others have taken their place, and others have not reached the summits and genius of the others (Federico, how we miss you). But today we are often more taught about Bill Gates than Maurice Pialat, broadband technology than the art of cinema, or even about the kind of cookies my computer should accept (and these are not home-made delicacies!).
No, cinema is definitely alive - and that is all the more reason to defend it tooth and nail. As an art form still capable in one year of assembling films as inventive and original as those of Pedro Almodovar, Tim Burton, Takeshi Kitano, David Lynch, Wong Kar Wai, Abbas Kiarostami, Jim Jarmusch, Sam Mendes, Spike Jonze, Otar Ioseliani and Emmanuel Finkiel, without forgetting the very on-form Malick and Forman.
That is the kind of cinema that gives me a genuine thrill. To continue on the subject of artistry - and from the beginning I only concerned myself with that - it is also absolutely vital to discover new talent. Here, I am lucky: it is my passion. Hence the decision to create Cinefondation in Cannes and Paris, which will actively assist film students from around the world by creating bursaries, helping them put together their first features, and so on. From now on it is also necessary to ask about the survival of this art.
Why do you say survival'
Because we are witnessing both a revolution and an earthquake. The revolution is digital and is associated with new technologies and the understanding that everything moves so quickly today - far quicker than with the arrival of the talkies or television. The earthquake is the merger of AOL and Time Warner, which gives the advantage to AOL. Who could have predicted such an event 10 years ago' Who had even heard of AOL five years ago'
What will happen next' Until now we were always able to analyse things along two lines: hardware and software; container and the content; pipelines and programming. Obviously what counts is the content: emotion will always win against technique for its own sake. But the challenge that has existed since television began majority-financing cinema is now increasing; it is not just today that the broadcaster decision-makers choose the subject, the technicians, the actors, the shots, the camera angles and what can or cannot be said. Rather it is that whole branches of the industry (distribution, laboratories and so on) are now being forced to adapt or disappear.
What is going to happen to independent film-making' Will it know how to use the technology to its advantage' Be able to use the Internet for marketing as subtly as The Blair Witch Project' Become the free electron in this open space without forgetting that works of art, even if they behave like commercial goods, are artworks at heart' The survival of independent cinema obviously depends on the major festivals, which are dedicated to maintaining the attention and curiosity of the public, a curiosity that of late has had a tendency to diminish. It is therefore even more necessary to concentrate on talent and emotion. That is how art tames technology.
In American Beauty the young neighbour spends all his time looking at the world through a digital camera. The image he has of the world (and he needs to record these images to have a memory) is an image made up of lines and pixels; an electronic image that has neither the warmth of a chemical image nor the heartbeat of a real image. One day he sets eyes on the young girl and discovers that she has an enigmatic smile'And that smile is anything but virtual.
How is new technology now changing your job as festival selector'
It makes life a lot easier. First of all, in terms of communication. There is no longer any need to wait up at impossible times to speak with Los Angeles, Tokyo or Sydney. You send off an e-mail, you get an immediate response and it all stays confidential. Marvellous! It is also changing screenings: more and more films are edited on Avids; we see work prints on Beta SP video, which we screen on a big screen (using a Barco projector) because it is important to see a film in its natural and favoured environment - the movie theatre. In the last five years, image quality has improved markedly, making it perfectly possible to take full stock of the work. For better or worse: the film is there. It saves time and improves profitability for the producer.
Is digital film-making changing the nature of films presented to Cannes for selection'
There is a risk that in the medium term we will be inundated with films shot digitally and made with small budgets by amateurs who take themselves to be the new Martin Scorsese, Ken Loach or Stephen Frears. Unfortunately, a Loach or a Frears only comes along once every 30 years. Meanwhile, we see a lot of home movies in the hope of spotting some talent - and this does happen. We are not really set up for screening all thi