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    Spirituality in Cinema – Ecumenical Jury at Cannes

    By Ron Holloway | July 13, 2008

    Stroll through the lower level of the Palais des Festivals at the Cannes film festival, and you bump into the Ecumenical Jury Stand – prominently positioned on the corner of Row 13. Throughout the festival, the stand is a beehive of activity. Respected by critics and filmmakers alike, the Ecumenical Jury has been part and parcel of the Cannes film festival for the past 34 years.

    More often than not, the awards given by the Ecumenical Jury bear the same distinction, the same renomé, the same mark of excellence as those handed out by the festival’s International Jury and the FIPRESCI International Critics Jury. On some occasions in the past, when the decisions of the Ecumenical and FIPRESCI Juries have overlapped, the respective awards were handed out jointly to the winning filmmaker. Composed of six jury members – three appointed by SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication) and three by INTERFILM (International Intercurch Film Organization) – the Ecumenical Jury can look back on some remarkable achievements in its bid to support quality productions by visionary filmmakers. One look at the record confirms its status as a respected voice in active support of films that “touch the spiritual dimension of our existence, expressing the values of justice, human dignity, respect for the environment, peace and solidarity.” In other words, “these values, shared in all cultures, are those of the Christian Gospel.”

    During its early years at Cannes, the Ecumenical Jury invited such celebrated filmmakers as Poland Krzysztof Zanussi and Hungary’s Imre Gyöngyössy to serve as jury members. Zanussi was jury president in 1983, when Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (Nostalgia) (Italy) was awarded the Ecumenical Prize. In the recent past, the Ecumenical Jury has awarded two films directed by Iranian filmmakers: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Safar é Ghandehar (Road to Kandahar, aka Kandahar) (Iran/France, 2001) and Samira Makhmalbaf’s Pan é asr (At Five in the Afternoon) (Iran/France, 2003). Shot in Afghanistan, both films pleaded in exacting times for more tolerance and understanding among peoples and cultures. Moreover, while Kandahar and At Five in the Afternoon made history at Cannes, their awards by the Ecumenical Jury also boosted their chances for broader distribution around the globe.

    Over the years, the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes has continually awarded outstanding films that reflect not only the ever evolving standards of film art, but also the spiritual pursuit of talented filmmakers as they seek meaningful answers to existence in today’s complex world. Its openness to social, cultural and religious diversity is reflected in its decisions. To mention just a few: Theo Angelopoulos’s Mia eoniotita ke mia mera (Eternity and One Day) (Greece, 1998, Golden Palm winner), Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka (Japan, 2000), Aki Kaurismäki’s Mies vailla meneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past) (Finland, 2002), Walter Salles’s Diarios de motocicleta (Motorcycle Diaries) (Brazil, 2004), Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden) (Austria/France, 2005), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (Mexico/USA, 2006), and Fatih Akin’s Auf der anderen Seite(The Edge of Heaven) (Germany/Turkey, 2007).

    True, all these Ecumenical Jury award winners were heralded in the media as authentic works of film art. But they also can be described as films that strove to define the very meaning of life itself. The same is pretty much true of other films awarded by an Ecumenical Jury at key international festivals throughout the year – at Berlin, Locarno, Karlovy Vary, Montreal, Mannheim-Heidelberg, Kiev, Leipzig, Leipzig, Oberhausen, Cottbus, Zlin, Plzen, to name just the first dozen that come to mind. Indeed, Hans Hodel, Swiss festival coordinator at Interfilm, takes pride in annually adding a new festival to his list for both Ecumenical and Interfilm jury work. He notes, too, how often Interfilm Awards at specialized festivals – like Saarbrücken, a German-language event, or Lübeck, a Scandinavian showcase – are publicized on EuroNews and other media outlets.

    Considering the heavy screening schedule, plus other demanding protocol challenges to be met at Cannes, how does the Ecumenical Jury there manage to get the job done? To say nothing of arriving at cross-cultural decisions in regard to film entries that puzzle even the most astute of film critics. One reason is its organizational acumen. Denyse Muller, as a key member of the Interfilm Board of Directors, knows Cannes like the back of her hand. Not just the inner workings of the festival, but also its traditional values as a major showcase of film art. This year, she and her SIGNIS colleague, Jos Horemans, welcomed six jury members from France, Germany, Canada, Lebanon, and the Czech Republic. Another reason is its commitment to the spiritual dimension in the cinema. The Ecumenical Prize at Cannes 2008 was awarded to Atom Egoyan’s Adoration (Canada), a film that explores cultural intolerance and misinformation. “Adoration invites us to re-evaluate existing cliches about the Other or that which is foreign in our own culture and religion,” the Ecumenical Jury stated in its declaration. “I am overwhelmed by this prize because it places my film in another context,” said Egoyan upon receiving his award. “Adoration is an intimate film. It’s very much rooted in my culture. The jury got the movie.” Eleven years ago, back in 1997, the Toronto-based, Armenian-Canadian filmmaker was also awarded the Ecumenical Prize for The Sweet Hereafter.

    – Ron Holloway

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