CANNES, France — On one afternoon at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Massoumeh Lahidji could be seen on a rooftop terrace interpreting Farsi into English for the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, and an hour later sitting on a stage with Martin Scorsese translating the famously verbose filmmaker into French.
For most, interpreting the long rat-a-tat answers of Scorsese, which can at any moment bound into a past realm of film history, would be a herculean task. Lahidji calmly, seemingly effortlessly translated it all, like a magic act, without so much as a pen or paper.
"I'd rather look at the face," Lahidji said, sitting recently in a cafe in Cannes. "I don't retain words. I work with artists who express themselves with images."
The official language of the Cannes Film Festival is, like the Olympics, French. But Cannes is also a Babel, teaming with the tongues of every film industry from around the world. In the international village, where nations have tented gathering places, wave the flags of dozens of countries. On the streets, almost any language can be heard. And on the movie screens, films from every corner of the globe line up alongside each other: one universal language of cinema.
But for Cannes to function, interpreters like Lahidji are a seldom noticed necessity, a lifeblood. Through them pass the cacophonous dialects of the festival, like go-between vessels connecting audiences with filmmakers, and vice versa.
"You're here to have a transmission through you," says Lahidji, an Iranian-born, France-based interpreter who works in Farsi, French, English and Spanish. "Ideally, you're not there. You're there to let an energy pass from one person to another."
Twenty-one countries took part of the first Cannes film festival in 1946; it was partly imagined as a way to unite Europe after World War II. Over time, it's grown increasingly global, as films from South America, the Middle East and Asia have grown commonplace. Last year, Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are again permitted, announced itself open for business at Cannes. This year's festival jury is, for the first time, headed by a Latin American, director Alejandro Inarritu.
"What's quite extraordinary is that everyone comes together whatever their language or background because they love the cinema," says Sarah Combette, who with Yannick Gautier, simultaneously translates Cannes' much-watched press conferences into French and English for headphone-wearing journalists. "Every single language under the sun, even some I haven't been able to identify."
As it is many places, English is often treated as the presumed lingua franca of Cannes. But Lahidji believes for most artists to authentically communicate — even good English speakers like Farhadi, who has made movies in French and Spanish — they are best understood in their native language. Language can also confer power.
"In a jury, when you have a male American film director, he speaks English and of course he feels much more in power than an actress who's not comfortable speaking English," says Lahidji who, like Combette and Gautier, has interpreted private jury deliberations. "The difference from when I started 12 years ago is that nobody dares say, 'I don't speak English.'"
Working from a booth behind a bank of photographers and cameramen, Combette and Gautier have the high-anxiety task of immediately interpreting the press conferences of each film in Cannes' competition. They prepare for each by seeing the films and studying the filmmakers. But in such media circuses, anything can happen and anything can be said. (A Cannes press conference is where Lars von Trier made his infamous Nazi comments.)
"We have to be so adaptable. We're constantly adapting to different speakers. It's a huge leap each time intellectually," says the Canadian-born, France-based Combette. "But that's what's so much fun about it. It's quite exhilarating."
Is it less enjoyable if the movie being discussed isn't any good? "Yes, it is," chuckles Gautier, a French 30-year veteran of Cannes, without hesitation. "But it's more pleasant than a medical conference."
Cannes is where Lahidji first met Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Though she trained to be one, Lahidji initially didn't want to become an interpreter. But excited by both Kiarostami and his films, she was his regular interpreter up until his death in 2016. "I became his alter-ego," she says, smiling.
Lahidji spent 12 years on the staff at Cannes before setting out on her own. At the festival this past week she's interpreted for Laurie Anderson, horror director John Carpenter and Pedro Almodovar, who marveled at her mastery after an interview Sunday. Her multilingual life in movies has made her a familiar face to many on the festival circuit, including British producer Jeremy Thomas, who stopped by for a drink while Lahidji chatted.
In their humble, unassuming way, Lahidji and her interpreting colleagues are an essential part of the sound of Cannes. Lahidji compares her role in cinema to that of a midwife or a smuggler.
"I didn't know it was a possible job, to be an interpreter for film," says Lahidji, still amazed she's combined her twin passions. "I can't imagine it being May and being anywhere else in the world."