On Monday afternoon, Olivia Wilson had arrived from her home in Tennessee to the Cannes Film Festival, where she’ll be working as an intern at the American Pavilion. But before she got to enjoy the flashiest film festival in the world, she had to spit over and over again in a plastic tube to make sure she didn’t have COVID-19.
In Cannes, the saliva test will be the preferred method of checking for COVID by Biogroup, the laboratory hired to fight the spread of the virus that has killed 4 million people around the world. But while the process didn’t involve sticking a swab up her nostrils, it wasn’t so easy.
“It was difficult for me,” Wilson says. “I couldn’t produce enough saliva.” She estimated that she had to spit “more than 15 times” before she’d collected enough of a sample.
The annual Cannes Film Festival launches this week in sweltering July beach weather with a formidable roster of auteurs, Spike Lee as the jury president, soon-to-be-unveiled couture and face masks. For the first time since World War II, Cannes was canceled last year, due to COVID-19. While infection rates from the global pandemic have dipped as a result of massive vaccination efforts, the Delta variant has produced hot spots around the world. For Cannes — a gathering that draws filmmakers and journalists from all over the world — that has led to new complications for one of the first film festivals that’s trying to make a comeback during the COVID era.
French laws require that those who gather indoors either must be vaccinated or show proof of a PCR test. But because of the limitations of an app that the French government uses that allows citizens to show they’ve been vaccinated, those coming to Cannes from countries outside of the European Union’s COVID-19 tracking system — including the United States, Canada, England and all of Asia — won’t have a transferable bar code to show they’ve been vaccinated.
Thus, they’ll essentially be treated as if they haven’t been vaccinated. The mandate has already led to confusion — and complaints — from festival-goers on the ground.
According to the latest rules, non-European attendees at Cannes will need to be tested for COVID every 48 hours to enter the Palais, the building where scrappy producers set up tables to market their films and movie stars whisk in through a back door to hold press conferences. (France doesn’t require proof of vaccination inside movie theaters, so those attending screenings only will be exempt from these testing protocols.)
Saliva tests for COVID have been praised for their efficacy and efficiency, with some finding them less invasive than nose swabs. They require fewer technicians since those who are being tested can collect their own samples.
Hours before the festival’s launch on Tuesday, the scene at the makeshift COVID testing center just steps away from where Cannes movies premiere was the opposite of glamour. Festival attendees were ushered into a large room that had all the glitz of a polling center. They were handed a plastic container, along with a funnel where they were instructed to aim their spit, while standing behind a socially-distanced partition. Some missed, hitting the floor or their clothes.
“It has to be liquid,” a laboratory employee instructed. “Foam doesn’t count.”
There were audible sighs of frustration among those waiting in line when they realized just how much saliva the lab needed from them. Festival-goers who didn’t collect enough were sent back to spit some more. And there were other reasons for being disqualified. A Variety reporter witnessed a vial of spit being discarded because someone had coughed up a piece of food, thus contaminating the sample.
To be fair, instructions from Biogroup advise: “It is recommended that you do not eat, drink, smoke or brush your teeth in the 30 minutes [before] the sampling.”
“I found the test to be really gross,” said one person who participated in the process.
Others praised the festival for creating a testing system that had short lines for now — and simple instructions for registering appointments online. Testing is free for Cannes badge holders, and results are ready within six hours. “It was quick and easy,” said Lucy Holman, another intern who got tested on Monday. And, she added for good measure: “I spit extra.”
Those who couldn’t produce enough saliva were taken to a second line, where they were given a traditional nasal swab by a nurse.