Oh yes we Cannes

The Sunday Times, May 13, 2007

Three men in a van are on a mission to make the case for British movies

Sometimes, culture has strange prophetic powers. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had the citizenry constantly observed by the equivalent of CCTV. Minority Report floated the idea of catching criminals before they commit a crime, which was taken up in March by the Home Office when it proposed screening every child in Britain to assess their criminal potential. Then there’s Mr Bean’s Holiday, Rowan Atkin-son’s epic dreamscape, in which the eponymous hero follows a grand quest across France, ending up at the Cannes film festival, where his holiday digicam footage wins the Palme d’Or. In a year when no British films are in competition at the festival, three London chancers are inhaling the scent of inspiration from Bean’s soiled tweeds and, on Tuesday, will set off in a van packed with British short films to show them, guerrilla style, on the Croisette.

Their adventure, named Cannes in a Van, seems beset by peril on all sides. “We don’t have permission to show the films, we don’t have a public performance licence and we’re waiting on accreditation. But we’ve been told the French police are quite tolerant during the festival,” says Andy Greenhouse, one of the three men behind this insane venture. “We’ve built the screens into the van and are back-project-ing from inside, just in case we get moved on.” He thinks for a minute. “Which I suppose is quite likely.”

Although the trio had hoped to buy a van with doors that folded flush against the sides, they could afford only an ex-courier Transit. Their funding is such that their web-site (www. cannesinavan.com) carries a plea for people to buy them spare wheels and windscreen wipers. The only area in which they want for nothing is the films themselves: UK festivals such as Bite-size, Birds Eye View and End of the Pier, as well as the indie web-site Shooting People, provided hundreds of candidates, which they have whittled down to about 20.

“Cannes represents only a tiny elite of film-makers, and entry to its official screenings is strict,” Greenhouse says, arguing that their road trip has a serious purpose.

“Anyone who’s willing to drag themselves to Cannes and put their film into the pot should get a fair shout. We love the guerrilla spirit of independent film-making. The Van’s screenings will be free. If one of our directors gets a call as a result, it’ll have been worth it.”

Greenhouse’s vanmates on his celluloid odyssey are Simon Harris and Jamie Courtenay Grimwood, with whom he worked on a series of indie film nights at the 100 Club, on Oxford Street, known as Shallow Shorts. They showed shorts and documentaries, cut with DJ sets and live music; the Van is an extension of those nights, conceived during a drunken debate at a friend’s wedding. Perhaps inevitably, an indie documentary-maker called Sharon, who is hoping to make a low-budget movie about their escapades, will join them.

The expedition comes at an interesting time for the British movie industry. After almost collapsing under the weight of endless gang-ster flicks in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the mainstream is in a moderately healthy state – albeit heavily dependent on American cash. The British Film Council estimates that £846m was spent on making movies in the UK in 2006, although its full report rather weasels around what constitutes a British film. “UK story material”, for instance, comes in for much praise, claiming the Harry Potter movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Nar-nia, War of the Worlds and James Bond for old Blighty. Actual domestic British features, however, accounted for only £100m.

Cannes may have snubbed our movies in the competition – particularly galling given that Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or in 2006, with The Wind That Shakes the Barley – but it has anointed Stephen Frears as the first British jury president, and Anton Corbijn’s Joy Division movie, Control, is opening the Directors’ Fortnight. More sensitive film buffs may quail, however, at the news that the remake of St Trinian’s will be part of the slate we’re pitching at overseas buyers.

That is something the Van collective despises. “I’m not sure the people whose films we’re showing want to be Hollywood superstars and make the typical multiplex fodder that we try to sell the Americans,” Greenhouse sniffs. “Independent film-making is about people who are committed to the medium being passionate enough to say what they believe. It’s about being committed to your obsession.” As a man about to drive a beaten-up Transit van 900 miles across France to be chased around town by the local cops, he should know about obsession.

Cannes film festival, May 16-27
Stephen Armstrong


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