John Cameron Mitchell Leads Cannes’ Queer Palm Jury: ‘Any Awards Help to Dignify Work’

How did John Cameron Mitchell become the head of this year’s Queer Palm award jury in Cannes? “Sexual favors,” he quips.

While the director of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (which played out of competition at Cannes) is joking, sexuality is at the heart of one of the world’s most prestigious LGBTQ+ film awards. And with more anti-queer legislation being enacted around the world than at any time in recent memory, the attention it brings to films that humanize this scapegoated population is arguably more important than ever.

“The Queer Palm, the festival and any awards help to dignify work, so that it often can be distributed and sometimes celebrated in its own queer-phobic country,” says Mitchell, who helped start a queer dance night at the American Pavilion in 2004 and DJs when he’s in town. “[The trans-themed] ‘Joyland’ was banned in Pakistan until it got a lot of attention in the press, and [the government felt] that the ban was not worth the bad attention.” His fellow jurors are actress/director Isabel Sandoval, actress Louise Chevillotte, director Zeno Graton and film critic Cédric Succivalli, who’ll reveal the winner at a ceremony and party on May 26.

Queer Palm president Franck Finance-Madureira, initially inspired to launch the award in 2010 after seeing Mitchell’s “Shortbus,” is trying to meet the moment by starting a Queer Palm Lab to help first-time directors. “We [hope to] launch an open call at the end of the year to select our first five projects for 2024,” he says. “We’ll mentor them for a year, and Belgian director Lukas Dhont (“Close”) will be the godfather of this first edition.” [The Lab was announced in 2022 and set to begin this year, but is still seeking sponsorships]. And the Queer Market for producers, directors, distributors and programmers is now open for the first time since the pandemic began.

It may surprise some to learn that not all Queer Palm nominees have LGBT content. “[Our definition] of the word ‘queer’ is not only LGBT. It’s more the political sense of the word,” he says. “Our selections can include movies about feminism” — like the 2022 nominee “Riposte féministe” (“Feminist Retort”) — or fighting “against the patriarchy, not respecting gender codes and similar topics.”

The award has also had its critics, even from within the queer community. In 2014, two years after he won but refused the honor for his romantic drama “Laurence Anyways,” filmmaker Xavier Dolan, who is gay, said the Queer Palm and similar awards “disgust” him, calling them “ghettoizing” and “ostracizing.” What wasn’t as widely reported was that Dolan backtracked on his criticism in a 2019 French interview with Finance-Madureira. “It was not [spoken] out of pettiness, but out of clumsiness,” he said in a translation of the interview. “[I’ve] often regretted the way I expressed myself, because it was really a sordid choice of words which did not represent what I deeply thought … I’m not saying these awards shouldn’t exist, but I aspire to prizes that we can all win!”

This year’s 11 features and seven shorts in contention showcase impressive work, though the shortlist is a bit shorter than the 17 features in 2021 and 2022, Finance-Madureira says, due to financing drying up for independent cinema in general and queer films in particular.

The finalists include the first two episodes of Sam Levinson’s controversial Out of Competition HBO series “The Idol,” Justine Triet’s French competition thriller “Anatomie d’une chute” and Catherine Corsini’s French competition drama “Le Retour.” Un Certain Regard entries are Molly Manning Walker’s British drama “How to Have Sex,” Monia Chokri’s Canadian romantic dramedy “Simple comme Sylvain” and Stéphanie di Giusto’s French historical biopic “Rosalie.” The Directors’ Fortnight section is repped by Bertrand Mandico’s queer French/Luxembourg take on “Conan the Barbarian,” “Conann,” Pierre Creton’s French drama “Un Prince” and Zihan Geng’s Chinese drama “Xiao Bai Chuan” (“A Song Sung Blue”). Rounding out the features are Katell Quillévéré’s French/Belgian Cannes Première romantic drama “Le Temps d’aimer” and Lillah Halla’s Brazilian Critics’ Week abortion drama “Levante.”
Of the seven shorts, one attracting the most attention is Pedro Almódovar’s “Strange Way of Life,” featuring Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke as queer cowboys.

Dolan may have changed his opinion about the honor, but there appears to be a lack of support from the festival itself. The Queer Palm still does not have a place in the official program, or an office in its Palais du Festival headquarters. By contrast, the Berlinale’s pioneering Teddy Award was founded in 1987 and made part of its official program in 1992, and the Venice International Film Festival’s Queer Lion launched as an official part of its program in 2007.

“I’ve been asking the festival to officialize the award since I created it, but the last time I asked was two or three years ago, and [the answer] was ‘no,’” Finance-Madureira says. “I hope that one day the festival will understand that it would be important to [acknowledge] the large number of people who are struggling for visibility — and to exist.”

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