With ‘Rafiki’ and ‘Birds of Passage,’ the Cannes Film Festival finally looks beyond Western culture


For two hot weeks every May, a small harbor town in the South of France turns into the epicenter of the movie universe. The first Cannes Film Festival was held in 1946 as a silver screen World’s Fair, its broader original title of Festival International du Film a symbol of their commitment to bringing together talent from every corner of the globe. It was on the banks of the Croisette that the Romanian New Wave came to worldwide attention with Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or win; that Americans first got hip to Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul; that Iran’s proudest sons Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Asghar Farhadi and Abbas Kiarostami denounced injustices back home that are still ongoing today.

And yet the history of the festival’s Official Selection programming has evinced a clear sense of favoritism — for the cinematic product of France, “naturellement,” typically along with an overwhelming number of entries from the United States and big European players such as Germany, Italy and the U.K. Japan and China have long enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Cannes, but in general, the festival privileges countries on the whiter side of things.

There are factors to consider, of varying validity: The largest and most prolific film industries would logically have a presence in proportion (though that leaves the paucity of Indian output a major question mark), not to mention the programmers’ well-known weakness for star-studded vehicles attracting A-list wattage to their red carpet premieres. All the same, it can be a touch tiresome to see the same old players returning year after year. I’m fairly certain Jean-Luc Godard can simply walk into the Palais des Festivals the day of and demand a Competition screening. Though, to be fair, he is Jean-Luc Godard.

All of which is to say that the 2018 lineup has been a refreshing change of pace, even a few days in. When the Official Selection was announced in April, surprise rippled through the cinephile community. Where are the big names? Only two American films playing in Competition? A road-trip story following a man scarred by leprosy, from an Egyptian first-timer scoring a slot in Competition, the most prestigious screening section? As the Cannes decision-makers instated the first Competition Jury dominated by women since 2014 and a planned set of new rules to reinforce inclusion — seemingly genuflecting to the #MeToo movement — so too have they redoubled their commitment to spreading the attention across continents and into new frontiers.

In my second day at this year’s proceedings, I took in a pair of radically different films that nonetheless exemplified this new curiosity for the less-explored portions of the onscreen world. That morning, I made it to Birds of Passage, the new film directed by Colombia’s Ciro Guerra and his longtime producer/wife Cristina Gallego, and that afternoon, I squeezed into a showing of Wanuri Kahiu’s Kenyan romance Rafiki. To drastically different ends, both pictures shine a light on milieus heretofore untouched at Cannes and widely unknown to Western audiences, the former set among and cast with the Wayuu tribe of Colombia’s Guajira Peninsula, and the latter being the first-ever Kenyan production in Official Selection. Though decades and untold miles separate these two stories, they jointly provide a concise snapshot of a festival and a larger moviegoing culture in flux.

Birds of Passage tracks one Wayuu family’s two-decade fall from grace as they get involved in the pre-Escobar marijuana trade, distinguishing itself from the likes of Narcos and like-minded gang epics with the novelty and specificity of its setting. The Pushaina clan does business their way, and expects the outsiders referred to as “alijuna” to respect that. Spoiler alert: This does not go so well for them. The script places strapping, stoic Rapayet (José Acosta) in the lead, and his personal transformation into a South American Michael Corleone is of a piece with the larger tainting of the pristine Wayuu heritage.

The film opens with breathtaking slow-motion photography of an ecstatic ceremonial courtship dance, Guerra and Gallego marveling at the careful, rapid movements of feet in the desert dust. But the deleterious seductions of money and power chip away at the Pushainas’ integrity little by little — you know they’re doomed once they start excavating consecrated coffins for discreet firearm storage. Their compromises don’t just leave a pile of corpses. They desecrate centuries of reverently upheld convention, ultimately estranging the family from their tribe and, by proxy, themselves. The genre gradually drifts Westward, too, from a documentary-style ethnography to the time-hallowed mob film.

Rafiki, currently banned back in Kenya for reasons that Kahiu makes abundantly clear, jumps to the present for another depiction of shifting social mores. The conventional plot doesn’t feel particularly radical until contextualized in its political climate: Shy Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and extroverted Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) take a liking to one another, and when their budding courtship enters the town rumor mill, they’re subjected to intolerance and outright scorn from everybody, starting with their conservative parents.

Without depicting today’s Nairobi as backward or provincial, Kahiu digs into the deeply ingrained beliefs that make love impossible for a pair of young lesbians. Religion seems to be the primary culprit, as a hellfire preacher bellows about demonic possession steering women away from the men they were born to be with. That’s one dimension of a more wide-spanning mentality, in which the old ways are unilaterally enforced as the best way.

The onward march of progress irrevocably alters the locations in both films, for better or for worse. Both films negotiate the tensions between tradition and modernization, between seclusion and globalism, between group identity and personal identity. They convey the slow creep of Western influence through the visual shorthand of costume; Kena’s parents dress in traditional garb while she wouldn’t look out of place in Portland’s premier gay bar, and Rapayet’s hot-tempered business partner attires himself like a Boogie Nights extra after their first big score.

Cannes has always taken a shine to exports laced with commentary on their motherland; day three delivered denunciations of state-sponsored repression in both Russia and Southeast Asia. Rafiki and Birds of Passage condense a sea change on a national scale to intimate drama between individuals — entertainment doubling as embedded reportage.

If the Cannes Film Festival’s “raison d’etre” really is to create a more circumspect view of an evolving world through the lens of the camera (and not, as I sometimes suspect, to make American journalists feel underdressed), they’ve taken some heartening steps in the right direction, toward uncharted territory. Cinema is a transportive medium, revealing a flash of reality even when the script may be constructed. Earth is getting smaller all the time, and the theaters of the Palais serve as both portals and guidebooks. These films collect faraway places in a single location, offering an edifying glimpse of the foreign while questioning just how foreign they truly are.

And though those of us with professional obligations must cross the Atlantic to take in the Olympics of moving picture art, the slow trickle of these selections out to the general public means that an intrepid viewer can play ambassador at their local arthouse. Movie tickets have gotten so steep, but still, it’s a paltry price to pay for a god’s-eye view of the planet.