Taking the Cannes Festival to the Burbs

The gritty suburbs of Paris are getting a taste of the glamorous Cannes Film Festival. French filmmaker Luc Besson is seeking to reach out to young people who fueled riots in the suburbs in 2005.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

Coming up: a band made up of people from everywhere. But first, the Cannes Film Festival, which opened Wednesday on the French Riviera celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. And for the first time, the festival's top selection of world films won't be screened exclusively in Cannes. Thanks to the efforts of French filmmaker Luc Besson, some films will also be shown in poor neighborhoods in the Paris suburbs.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: Eleanor Beardsley sends this report from the suburb of Saint-Denis.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: There is no red carpet and the Blue Mediterranean is missing, but there is plenty of enthusiasm among the hundreds of people gathered in front of a giant screen in a small park between several concrete tower tenement houses.

This year, the Cannes (French spoken) Festival will bring Cannes movie premiers to 10 Paris suburbs. With the idea of filmmaker Luc Besson, who says he was deeply disturbed by the 2005 riots that shook suburbs like Saint-Denis.

Mr. LUC BESSON (French Filmmaker): This year was the 60th birthday of Cannes, so that was a good opportunity to link the two things and say okay, you can't go to Cannes so Cannes comes to you. And the Cannes Festival were - was kind enough to give us films every night so we can show to all these neighborhoods so they feel respected first.

BEARDSLEY: On a warm spring evening, a crowd had shown up several hours before the movie began to enjoy local performers and even a double Dutch jump rope competition. There is colorful African dress and lots of Muslim headscarves. Local singer Abu(ph), who moved to the Paris suburbs from Mali when he was two, says he's happy he was able to perform here tonight.

ABU (Singer): (Through translator) Cannes is very prestigious but it's far, so this is a great idea. This event can inspire young people because it will give them the chance to see a film they might not go see. We could call it a sort of bridge between two universes.

BEARDSLEY: Not everyone is so enthusiastic about tonight's event. Take, for instance, this group of young men in their early 20s who said they have no jobs and nothing to do.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: This isn't like Cannes. There are no buildings like this in Cannes and there are no blacks and Arabs, they say. We'd like to go to Cannes but we've been stuck in this crappy place for the last 20 years.

Mr. BESSON: (Speaking in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: At twilight, film director Luc Besson takes the stage introducing a surprise guest, a French comedian and film star of Moroccan origin, Jamal Debbouze. Debbouze's arrival generates a surge of excitement and screams.

Mr. JAMAL DEBBOUZE (French Comedian): (Speaking in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: Saint-Denis, screams Debbouze. Oui, answers the crowd. We're going to dream tonight. Dream, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, we want to dream, yells the actor to the ecstatic crowd.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Mr. DEBBOUZE: (Speaking in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: In the place that was ablaze in riots just a year and a half ago, Debbouze calls out to a very unpopular figure, former interior minister, now French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr. DEBBOUZE: (Speaking in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: I hope the new French president will consider the people of Saint-Denis and all the suburbs, said Debbouze.

Mr. DEBBOUZE: (Speaking in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy was blamed for aggravating the 2005 violence with his harsh words and rough tactics. The new president, obviously, has a lot of work to do if he's to earn the affections of this crowd.

But 23-year-old Sisey DeBivrio(ph) says he's not interested in politics.

Mr. SISEY DeBIVRIO (Resident, Saint-Denis): (Through translator) For me, Cannes is magic. It's a childhood dream, and it's my dream to be an actor. If I had the money, I'd go to Cannes today. I want to be the French Eddie Murphy.

BEARDSLEY: When darkness falls, the movie starts and the crowd grows quiet. Families gathered to watch from the windows of the surrounding high rises. If only for a short while, it seems that the magic of Cannes has come to Saint-Denis.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Saint-Denis, France.

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