Cannes 2021 Notebook: THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION by Mark Cousins


The Cannes Film Festival, and its main screening rooms, are housed in the Palais des Festivals, but ask anyone who loves movies— well, anyone who loves a certain idea of what the movies are— and they will likely agree that the Palais is less a palace and something more akin to a temple for true believers, a place for cinephiles to congregate and engage in a complicated relationship with not only contemporary cinema, but with the history of film. No film festival embodies that history quite like Cannes, which has shaped the international conversation around filmmakers and filmmaking for decades; from its elevation of the art of film to a black-tie event to its veneration of a long list of boundary-pushing filmmakers from around the world, Cannes is a festival that not only has the power to enshrine an artist in the history of film, but one that is fully aware of that power, which brings with it the ability to program almost anything it wants, which has come with its own problems; it is incredibly selective and loyal to its past, and when you lean so heavily on your history, problems of inclusion become a whole different part of the story. 

The festival was born in a different social, economic, and historical moment, but so was almost every other institution of power, and so, as it continues to see curation as a part of a continuum, Cannes continues to navigate how to contextualize its relationship to the past in a contemporary moment of long-needed, seismic change, be it access for people who have too-long been excluded from the production and celebration of cinema, to the new battlefronts that are reshaping the future of theatrical moviegoing. This is not a festival about democratic social participation in the movies; it is more akin to evangelism than conversation.

On the other hand, we live in a moment when films need a champion more than ever, and it is hard to come to Cannes as a true believer in cinema and not be moved by the experience. In that sense, the festival’s first official screening— Mark Cousin’s new documentary THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION— was the perfect start, a heartfelt benediction for the global community of contemporary cinephiles. As an extension of his multi-part THE STORY OF FILM, the latest A NEW GENERATION follows Cousin’s generosity, curiosity, and passion for the medium in the 21st century, from images and sounds to performances and genres, to create a sort of “state of the art” for modern filmmaking, placing recent films in the context of the past, but also, as a way forward, as a vital and living form.

As a film programmer and someone who has watched and thought about films for decades, no illusions about my own objectivity; there is none. Cinema’s history remains dear to me not only from the perspective of the films themselves— which, I am sure we could all assemble a list of exclusions from this chapter of THE STORY OF FILM that we would have loved to see Cousins address (while retaining admiration for the images, ideas, and interpretations he brings to A NEW GENERATION)— but also on the level of personal and political identity, which Cousins rightly identifies as a sort of “borderless, stateless” globalism, tied together by filmmaking, that unites cinephiles as being, in a sense, a community of people who seek to understand one another through filmgoing and dialogue. Of which, I am 100% guilty as charged. 

In the wake of the pandemic and attending my first in-person film screening in over a year and a half, I was not prepared to be so moved by the experience. I felt fractured; on the one hand, I couldn’t quite believe I was back in a theater, that I was at Cannes again after twenty one years, that I was sitting in the dark next to a stranger from another part of the world, watching a film together, and on the other hand, here was the past twenty years of my filmgoing life, unfolding before me as a sort of acknowledgement of that experience as meaningful, relevant, to be celebrated. I was quietly on the verge of tears and, as the images, rhymes, and Cousins’ soothing narration and love of cinematic ideas unfolded before me, I felt as if we had collectively arrived at a moment of truth not only for the impact of the pandemic on that sacred thing we love, but for cinema culture as a whole. 

Throughout the film, I kept thinking about what was to come at the festival this week, about how A NEW GENERATION was screening in dialogue with Cannes and its legacy and its evangelism, about how this moment would be framing everything I had yet to see, and how those films would also be in dialogue with an unseen future, with the past, an eternal reframing not only movies, but of myself. That anticipation, delivered here in the form of a retrospective from our often cruel and difficult times, felt to me like a real gift, a signpost on the never-ending search to be connected in the dark, to find one another. To breathe together again. And so, maybe, this is just my own way of coming to terms with all of these complications, with my conflicted feelings about all of it, which feels like coming home again. 


Can’t say it better than others, but wanted to express a few thoughts on the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the hunt for and death of Osama Bin Laden.

Let’s start here: those who criticize a film without seeing it are contemptible. Literalists who condemn Zero Dark Thirty after seeing it are terrible readers of film. How can art address the murkiness of human morality without showing it?

The film is obviously a composite of many thousands of facts. That it draws a straight line from a CIA officer named Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her obsession with a single name through to the killing of Osama Bin Laden is proof of how much information from the search for Bin Laden has been excised. If there is one complaint I have, it is that a 2.5 hour narrative fiction film is incapable of conveying the overwhelming number of false leads and misleading or insignificant chatter that must have been present. It unavoidably under-represents the problem of the search for Bin Laden in the name of condensing the facts into a story. That is what storytellers must do.

But those who say a film that compresses and composites this much information is an apologia for torture are crazy. The controversy seems centered around a single character in the film, a composite character who signifies black site interrogation subjects, who is tortured and then, under standard interrogation and NOT DURING TORTURE ITSELF, gives a single name that sets off a chain of events that leads to Bin Laden. This, it seems, is what sends cinematic illiterates into a hand-wringing frenzy as they claim that torture never lead to any actionable intelligence that lead to the death of Bin Laden.

However, the AP has reported the following (and, as far as I can tell, since sites like Think Progress link to this story as a moral argument against the film, no one has disputed these facts):

“In a secret CIA prison in Eastern Europe years ago, al-Qaeda’s No. 3 leader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, gave authorities the nicknames of several of bin Laden’s couriers, four former U.S. intelligence officials said. Those names were among thousands of leads the CIA was pursuing.

One man became a particular interest for the agency when another detainee, Abu Faraj al-Libi, told interrogators that when he was promoted to succeed Mohammed as al-Qaeda’s operational leader, he received the word through a courier. Only bin Laden would have given Libi that promotion, CIA officials believed.

If they could find that courier, they’d find bin Laden.

The revelation that intelligence gleaned from the CIA’s so-called black sites helped kill bin Laden was seen as vindication for many intelligence officials who have been investigated and criticized for involvement in a program that involved the harshest interrogation methods in U.S. history.

‘We got beat up for it, but those efforts led to this great day,’ said Marty Martin, a retired CIA officer who for years led the hunt for bin Laden.

Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

Is that not EXACTLY what Zero Dark Thirty expresses, in composite, in its first hour? This exactly? A character who, after being tortured, gives up a name under standard interrogation? I am no apologist for torture, I think there is no moral reasoning under which torture is acceptable, but I think Zero Dark Thirty shows this exactly, and not only that, shows the moral ramifications of this reality in a profoundly meaningful way by expressing the unknown as the unknown. Would Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have given the names up without the precedent of his experience of torture? Does that make any of it right? Can we know this? Art asks these questions; that Zero Dark Thirty tells the truth, whether we want the truth, shows its efficacy as art, treating the viewer like a reasonable adult who should see and decide for themselves. How any thinking person could not see this in the film, especially thoughtful political commentators who know the facts of what happened, is well beyond me.

The fact that the CIA destroyed its interrogation tapes and that the government has buried the Bin Laden death photo gives the film a cathartic, democratic power; we desperately want to imagine what went on in or name. Zero Dark Thirty is thrilling for providing us a space to examine our own place in the war on terror, but it never loses the power of fictional representation to transcend the specifics of reality in the name of heightened, compressed emotion. What else should art do?

EDIT (9:19 PM):
After a spirited discussion with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald about ZDT and representations of torture, Mr. Greenwald pointed me to this letter from Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain (FLM) to Michael Lynton at Sony Pictures. I won’t transcribe the whole letter, but I wanted to address the objections raised against the film.

FLM: “Pursuant to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recently-adopted Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program, Committee staff reviewed more than 6 million pages of records from the Intelligence Community. Based on that review, Senators Feinstein and Levin released the following information on April 30, 2012 regarding the Usama Bin Laden operation:

*The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Usama Bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.”

Quickly on this point: ZDT shows exactly this. Well after Maya learns of the courier’s nom de guerre from the “black sites” composite character during a standard interrogation (presented as being post-torture, ala Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), a young agent presents Maya with a file which names the courier and provides his nom de guerre. This is how Maya begins to piece together the courier’s existence despite receiving the false information that he was dead. This moment proves that the CIA already knew about him but, like so many thousands of other pieces of intelligence, the dots had not been connected to other intelligence. So, while Maya first learns of the courier from the KSM composite character, ZDT is clear that information about the courier was in hand at the CIA prior to Maya’s finding out the name. This point is crucial to showing the role of non-coercive intelligence gathering and to the CIA needing to connect information and it, like so much of this (and any) film, is condensed and composited.

FLM: “Nor did the CIA discover the courier’s identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts and no detainee identified the compound in which Usama Bin laden was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.”

Again, this is what the film depicts. The film shows Maya connecting the name of the courier through non-detainee generated 2002 file she is handed by a young female subordinate. In fact, the “nom de guerre” of the courier is said over and over again, with misinformation constantly being given by detainees, but the courier’s actual name is discovered in the file. Once the name is connected to the nom de guerre, the phone tapping and tracking operation portion of the film is undertaken, with no information from detainees being posited as being relevant, so I am not sure why this is an objection. The compound is discovered by tailing the courier, who is discovered by tapping his mother’s phone, the number of which is found through a bribe of a Lamborghini, the name found in a file, connected to a nom de guerre about which nothing is known until the file is connected.

FLM: “Information to support this operation was obtained from a wide variety of intelligence sources and methods. CIA officers and their colleagues throughout the intelligence community sifted through massive amounts of information, identified possible leads, tracked them down and made considered judgments based on all of the available intelligence.”

Did anyone watch the film? Anyone? This is clear throughout the entire film. Obviously, no two and a half hour fiction film can show all of this classified work, but needless to say, it is a procedural that leaves no doubt that a wide variety of methods were used to get various pieces of information and that connecting that information was a herculean task.

FLM: “The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.”

I can’t answer this criticism because I don’t know who that person is and how their situation/ information may have been rolled into the film’s narrative. But a point here about the words “most significant”: what is “most significant” in the narrative of the film is Maya’s quest. Those who conflate Maya for “the entire CIA” and feel that information that is disclosed to her is new/ relevant, that her awareness of things is somehow the first awareness of things, are not paying attention because the dots are later connected via other methods, and well, I don’t know what to say about that other than I think that is a true misreading of the movie. The film draws a straight line between Maya’s mission and the death of Bin Laden, but that is not a function of its political stance on torture; it is a function of it being a two and a half hour movie. I would advise anyone who cannot separate the way information is revealed in a cinematic narrative from the political intentions of the filmmaker to avoid films like, oh, say, Salò because, well, that’s going to be uncomfortable for you.

FLM: “In addition to the information above, former CIA Director Leon panetta wrote Senator McCain in May 2011, stating:
‘…no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator’s true name or specific whereabouts. This information was gathered through other intelligence means.'”

Yes, as I said, in the film it is a 2002 file (not torture) that reveals his true name, followed by tapping the courier’s mother’s phone after bribing a Kuwaiti informant to get her number, tracking his cell phone on the ground in Pakistan and tailing him to the compound. Never does the film propose that it was anyone in CIA custody or anyone coerced or tortured that named or disclosed the location of the courier. The only other thing I will say about that sentence from Leon Panetta is that, knowing what we know about renditions and the role of other nations in that program, the phrase “no detainee in CIA custody” (emphasis mine) doesn’t foster a lot of confidence.

Not sure if serious, everyone?