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Cannes is also a classroom

In the swirl of the world’s biggest film festival, students learn the ins and outs of the movie industry with the French Riviera as a backdrop.

By Alex Crevar (AB ’93)

Cydnee Murray has a red flower behind her ear. The third-year journalism student from Atlanta also has a worried look on her face, which is strange considering she’s standing under a palm tree on the French Riviera. Surrounded by film fans clamoring to see if that is, in fact, Charlize Theron’s limo pulling up in front of the huge signs that read “57th Festival De Cannes,” Murray raises a sign that reads: “Invitation?” (As in “Do you have an extra ticket?”) Across the sidewalk, two more UGA students dressed in black cocktail dresses like the ones Robert Palmer’s back-up singers wore are also hoping to score a ticket to a sold-out, black-tie, world premiere film—and to the red-carpet stroll that precedes it.

Surprisingly, this ticket-hunting trip to Cannes is actually schoolwork for these 25 film students who are enrolled in the University’s four-week Cannes Maymester program.

Unconventional? Oui. But it’s exactly what telecommunications professor Nate Kohn envisioned when he launched the first stand-alone Cannes Maymester course in 2003.

“Being in Cannes helps demystify the film business for students,” says Kohn, who, before coming to UGA, spent 15 years as a producer and writer of independent theatrical films and television shows in Europe, Africa, and Hollywood. “They have a chance to meet successful people and see what it’s really like to work in the industry. Students talk to professionals they never thought they’d meet, and see films from places they’ve never heard of—much less know that there’s a film industry there.”

Following the excitement of Cannes, which lasts 12 days, students settle in for two weeks of classes in “Critical Writing and Reviewing” taught by Kohn and “Topics in Film” taught by drama-film studies professor Charles Eidsvik. An added benefit of this star-studded study abroad program is that amidst press conferences, screenings, parties, and free tickets to a number of premieres, the students return from long days in Cannes to the neighboring town of Juan-les-Pins—where they live in apartments, thus dealing with everyday problems like shopping at a foreign market and unclogging their own sink. They also write non-stop, with their professors demanding incisive journal entries and film critiques. And all the while the Mediterranean is making gentle waves outside their windows.

Cannes came into being as a festival because Mussolini couldn’t be trusted to run what was then the world’s biggest film festival—in Venice—without giving undue attention to fascist propaganda films. The first grand prize for a single film went to Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” in 1949. Over the years, Cannes has honored the works of such legendary directors as Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder, Roberto Rossellini, and Orson Welles. This year’s jury president was Quentin Tarantino and out of the 2,200 films that were entered only 55 officially competed for the Palme d’Or.

For UGA students, a typical day at Cannes starts with a 10-minute train ride from Juan-les-Pins. The Maymester program secures badges that enables students to all festival films in smaller theaters, though sometimes in small theaters. Students are on their own when it comes to politicking and lobbying for tickets to the evening features.

“You never quite catch up,” says John Hadden, a third-year telecommunications major from Gibson, Ga., whose parents insisted that if he was interested in working in the film industry his study abroad experience should provide a head start. “At first, you feel like you’re never going to get into any movies because you don’t speak the language and you have to learn how to manage your time. But eventually you figure it out. When you start to understand how things work, it’s easier to be exposed to the industry side of the business—and there’s no question that this is an industry.”

Applicants to the Cannes program are accepted based on GPA, writing samples, and an interview, and a variety of special events are available to students, including private audiences with directors of note. Because of Kohn’s reputation in the industry, this year’s perks included a question-and-answer session with “Innocence” director Paul Cox and a panel discussion by American directors moderated by Roger Ebert and starring Michael Moore—winner of this year’s Palme d’Or for “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Nate Kohn dresses more like a film director than a professor. His typical attire in Cannes consists of faded black jeans, black t-shirt, and nondescript black sneakers. He holds three degrees from the University of Illinois and he came to UGA in 1997 following a career that started when he brought a film of his own to “shop around” in Cannes in 1974. (The film, “Shot,” was a ripoff of “The French Connection,” according to Kohn.) His high point in the business came in 1980 when he produced “Zulu Dawn,” which starred Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole.

“These are larger-than-life people,” says Kohn. “It is one of the real thrills in the business to be able to meet and bring together such interesting people.”

In addition to teaching such courses as “Writing for the Screen” and “Televisual Programming and Criticism,” Kohn serves as associate director of the UGA-sponsored Peabody Awards and as director of “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival,” which is held every April at Kohn’s alma mater. (Kohn met the popular newspaper and TV film critic—who is also an Illinois graduate—in 1997.)

Kohn’s most recent undertaking is the annual “Robert Osborne’s Classic Film Festival,” held for the first time in Athens last March.

“It’s worth the price of admission to hear him on the phone,” says Eidsvik, Kohn’s teaching partner in Cannes. “Because of the way he can work the phone, students are able to meet with directors, get badges, and gain a whole different perspective. Of course, they might be cursing us right now . . . with all of that perspective, they also have a lot of essays and reviews to write.”

“We treat them like adults,” says program coordinator Allison Firor. “Their safety is our paramount concern, of course, but we don’t chaperone them and when they are not in class, they are on their own. Because of that, they are more interested in different cultures.”

On one of their last afternoons in Cannes, the students meet on the lawn of the Noga Hilton to talk with director Jonathan Couette about his film “Tarnation,” an autobiographical look at his severely dysfunctional childhood that has gotten rave reviews. The young director and the students sit on the grass cross-legged and engage in a discussion that feature writers and film critics would love to be having.

Student: “What did you do before this?”

Couette: “I was a doorman in New York writing screenplays on sticky pads.”

Student: “What’s it like having your whole life out there for everyone to see?”

Couette: “Very strange. But it’s one of those things where you have to learn to love yourself before you can pass it on to others.”

Kohn: “What can you say about this business?”

Couette: “Honestly, don’t trust anyone . . . this is the darkest industry.”

The session ends when a handler touches the director on the arm and tells him he’s late to an interview. The students, who wear tuxedos and cocktail dresses in preparation for the evening’s feature films, thank Couette for taking time to meet with them. Then, under a lapis sky cased in palm fronds, they walk with “Invitation?” signs into a throng of tourists in plaid shorts and floppy white hats who are starting to gawk at the spot where the stars will be.

Alex Crevar (AB ’93) is a former assistant editor of Georgia Magazine. He now lives in Zagreb, Croatia.

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photos by Carly Calhoun (AB ’02, ABJ ’02)

Click on image to enlarge

They may look like actors, but these young hunks in tuxedos are actually UGA students: (from left) John Hadden, James Ross Massey, Matthew Burch, and Logan Smalley. Their goal: score tickets to a Cannes screening.

Kohn serves as associate director of the Peabody Awards and director of “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival.”

One of the perks of the Cannes program is comparing films at the beach.

Kohn’s classroom partner in Cannes is drama-film studies professor Charles Eidsvik, who teaches a course titled “Topics In Film” that requires students to write a lot of essays and film reviews.