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I, the Jury

The Times' critic turns judge at the Montreal World Film Festival. Dozens of movies and more than a few languages later, he asks: What happened to backbiting, rivalry and jealousy?

September 22, 1996|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

MONTREAL — He was all eagerness and animation, this young man deep in conversation in a hotel lobby. "The aesthetics of these films are so different," he insisted to his friends, eyes hot with passion. "I can't imagine being on the jury at this festival."

I had to smile as I walked past, not only because the speaker reminded me of myself a couple of decades back, but also because I happened to be one of the seven members of the jury at the 20th Montreal World Film Festival. And, in fact, the experience was as the young man imagined, a situation hard to visualize in the abstract that became more surprising, more exhausting and more gratifying than almost any cinematic encounter I could remember.

It was how closed off and unknowable to outsiders the jury life was that made me curious to participate for almost as long as I'd realized the position existed. And my interest in juries as forces for good intensified after Cannes in 1993 when its chairman, the late Louis Malle engineered the decision most people wanted but dared not dream of: a rare splitting of the Palme d'Or between Jane Campion's "The Piano" and Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine."

Understandably pleased with what he had accomplished, Malle came over to chat with a group of American journalists at the closing-night party. "I'm as proud of having done this," he said, satisfaction all over his face, "as anything in my career."

Of course, through the years I'd heard all kinds of other stories about how these panels operated, juicier tales that made jury life seem well suited for a series on the Fox network. Rumors of backbiting, rivalries and jealousy were everywhere, as were festivals where the films hadn't shown up, where jurors needed bodyguards or played tennis instead of seeing the movies, where a juror had insisted on taking her unruly cat to all the screenings, only to have it invariably escape into the theater.

Sometimes factionalism on juries had become so extreme that a film won because both sides detested it equally. Berlin before glasnost, with its wall dividing the city between the West and the Soviet Bloc, had been a natural setting for divisiveness. One jury member remembered a Russian actress who announced, before a single film had been screened, that voting for anything from the United States or Canada was out of the question for her.

Especially good for trouble was the late German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Once, in a particularly anarchistic mood, he determined what the worst film in the Berlin competition was and insisted it win the Golden Bear, reducing an American actress on the jury to tears of frustration and rage.

Perhaps my favorite jury tale came from Donald Ritchie, the doyen of Western writers on Japanese film, who described how you indicate preference in a country where expressing strong opinions is frowned on: "On the first round everyone goes around the table mentioning all the entries and saying, 'These are all good films.' On the second round, you do the same thing and, if there is a film you favor, you name it at the end and say, 'This, this also is a good film.' "

Since the kind of jury experience I'd have would depend on my fellow panel members, I was naturally curious as to who they were. The redoubtable Jeanne Moreau was to be the chairman, to be joined by another award-winning actress, Spain's Assumpta Serna, and a former critic, Guglielmo Biraghi from Italy, who had also run both the Taormina and Venice festivals in his country.

Two members were directors: Cuba's Humberto Solas, whose "Lucia" was a classic of Latin American cinema, and Hungary's Judit Elek, whose "To Speak the Unspeakable--The Message of Elie Wiesel" had been well received at Cannes. Finally there was French Canadian producer Denis Heroux, with films like "Atlantic City" and "Quest for Fire" to his credit.

It was an impressive group. Maybe even too impressive. Suddenly I realized I was the only native English speaker on the entire panel. How would we communicate, I wondered, and other worries, each more irrational than the last, soon followed.

Would I be faced with a cabal of aesthetic zealots whose taste would run to the obscure and unwatchable? Would I in reaction turn into some kind of zealous American chauvinist, insisting on the plastic qualities of Sylvester Stallone's work? Would I get a late-night phone call from Jack Valenti, pleading with me to stand by the flag? Clearly this jury business might be more complicated than I thought.

Although Montreal is one of the world's larger film festivals, showing hundreds of films during its 12-day span, only 21 of those would be in the official competition, and when I got a look at the list of titles, a completely different set of concerns attacked my mind.

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