Big Cannes of worms

Running the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes may sound like the perfect film job, but, as Marie-Pierre Macia tells Geoffrey MacNab, there's a lot of politics and pressure
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Depending on your point of view, Marie-Pierre Macia has either one of the most enviable or the most difficult jobs in French cinema: she is artistic director of the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes. On the one hand, she is charged with upholding the campaigning legacy of Pierre-Henri Deleau, who established the "Quinzaine" in 1969 with the slogan, "Cinema At Liberty". On the other, she has to negotiate what is often a political minefield, and fight to preserve the Quinzaine's independence.

Outsiders would be hard-pressed to guess at the in-fighting behind the scenes and the horse-trading that goes on to get a film into the festival. "People are mad, people can kill to be in Cannes," Macia sighs. "It's a constant fight."

The Directors' Fortnight was intended as an idealistic endeavour from the outset. It was set up in response to the 1968 protests against the Main Competition in Cannes, led by (among others) Truffaut and Godard. Its defining traits are its independence and its radicalism. While the Main Competition will sometimes programme films for political reasons, and will stay stubbornly loyal to ageing auteurs, the Quinzaine is full of movies by young and adventurous directors. Over the years, it has introduced such names as Ken Loach, Theo Angelopoulos, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese to international audiences. It's neither in thrall to Hollywood nor bogged down by mainstream European art-house fare.

None the less, Macia sounds as if she is under siege. "To be able to be really independent, you have to pay a very heavy price," she says. "The Directors' Fortnight is in a fragile state from the point of view of infrastructure. To build something solid from it, I have to fight. I don't know how long I'm going to be able to keep the Directors' Fortnight in this independent way. If it has to be another way, I will definitely quit."

Every year, she comes under intense pressure to include certain films in the programme. The challenge is to be able to say "no", even when some of the most powerful producers in the world are breathing down her neck. In 1999, she helped launch Sofia Coppola's career by programming The Virgin Suicides. Then Francis Coppola lobbied hard to persuade her to take Roman Coppola's Casino Royale-like spoof, CQ, last year. She refused. "I thought it was not for Directors' Fortnight. Sometimes Cannes is not appropriate for a film. A director can be killed in five minutes."

Festival directors are – by reputation – power-crazed Machiavellians who spend as much time politicking as they do watching movies. Thankfully, Macia, a genial bespectacled figure with close-cropped grey hair and an easygoing manner, does not conform to type. It's easy to work out where her passion for cinema sprang from. Born in Algeria in 1954, her family moved to France when she was eight years old. After growing up in Grenoble, she went to Paris when she was 18. Soon afterward, she first visited Henri Langlois's legendary Cinémathèque, where she was to work for five years as a projectionist – an unlikely choice of career for a young literature student, but one which allowed her to see literally thousands of movies.

In the build-up to this year's festival, Macia watched around a thousand films. She has selected just over 20. Her opening movie, Catherine Breillat's Sex Is Comedy, was controversially snubbed by the Main Competition. It is a self-referential affair in which Anne Parillaud plays a director making a movie not unlike Breillat's own recent effort, A Ma Soeur! (Fat Girl.)

"As a director, you're a predator," Breillat suggests. "You rip the emotion out of the actors. You take it and sign it. It's yours in fact. Actors are the raw material of films. And for the actors, it's worse because I am a woman... it's harder to give up your soul because giving up the soul is a female act and taking it is a male one."

In other words, this is just the kind of contentious and iconoclastic film for which the Quinzaine is renowned. "It's perfect for our opening night," Macia says.

Sex Is Comedy takes its place alongside films from Bangladesh, Chad and Cuba, one of two US independents, and a smattering of European titles. Macia is withering in her analysis of contemporary US indie cinema ("there's a lack of invention, a lack of creativity") and expresses her relief that she was able to find a couple of films worth showing. One, Welcome To Collinwood, is directed by a pair of unknowns, Anthony and Joseph Russo. The other, Laurel Canyon, is directed by Lisa Cholodenko, whose previous film, High Art, was also championed by Macia.

Two British films have made it into her final selection, Shane Meadows's Once Upon A Time In The Midlands ("kind of like a British Western") and Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar ("it confirms the talent we could see in Ratcatcher – it's a real gem.")

Since she took over at the Quinzaine in 1999, relations with the Main Competition have become very much more cordial than they were in the days of her predecessor, Pierre-Henri Deleau. "In the past, there used to be a lot of rivalry, but I decided it wasn't worth it. I decided to make some kind of peace," she explains. She insists there is no envy or bad feeling. "But we don't share information," she adds. In other words, they may still fight over films, but nowadays they're polite about it.

She is not known for championing exploitation pics, but one of this year's special screenings fits into that bracket. Polissons et Galipettes (Rascals and Somersaults) is a collection of pornographic films from the turn of the last century. Macia describes the films (made to keep clients in bordellos amused while they waited their turn) as "a curious anthropological document" that reveals that cinema was never quite as innocent as some historians pretend. Several of France's leading filmmakers of the era are suspected to be behind the films, which were made anonymously but boast surprisingly strong production values.

With limited resources, Macia and her team have to set up their makeshift offices themselves. "We have to do everything. Build the office, put up the posters." While the rest of the festival risks turning into a glorified circus in which photo-shoots of stars matter more than movies, the Quinzaine retains its integrity – at least for now.