Monday afternoon, Olivia Wilson arrived from her home in Tennessee to the Cannes Film Festival, where she will work as an intern at the American pavilion. But before she could enjoy the flashiest film festival in the world, she had to spit over and over into a plastic tube to make sure she didn’t have COVID-19.

In Cannes, the saliva test will be the preferred method of screening for COVID by Biogroup, the laboratory engaged to fight against the spread of the virus which has killed 4 million people worldwide. But even though the process didn’t involve putting a tampon in his nostrils, it wasn’t that easy.

“It was difficult for me,” Wilson says. “I couldn’t produce enough saliva.” She estimated that she must have spit “more than 15 times” before she collected enough samples.

The annual Cannes Film Festival kicks off this week in sweltering beach weather in July with a formidable roster of writers, Spike Lee as jury chairman, couture clothes and face masks soon to be unveiled. 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 plummeted following massive vaccination efforts, the Delta variant has produced hot spots around the world. For Cannes – a gathering that attracts filmmakers and journalists from all over the world – which has brought new complications for one of the first film festivals trying to make its return to the COVID era.

French laws require that those who gather inside must be vaccinated or show proof of a PCR test. But due to the limitations of an app the French government uses that allows citizens to show they have been vaccinated, those coming to Cannes from countries outside the European Union’s COVID-19 tracking system – including the United States, Canada, England and all of Asia – will not have a transferable barcode to show they have been vaccinated.

Thus, they will be essentially treated as if they had not been vaccinated. The mandate has already sparked confusion – and complaints – from festival-goers on the ground.

According to the latest rules, non-European attendees in Cannes will have to be tested for COVID every 48 hours to enter the Palais, the building where disjointed producers set up tables to market their films and movie stars enter through a back door to hold press conferences. (France does not require proof of vaccination inside movie theaters, so those who only attend screenings will be exempt from these testing protocols.)

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A plastic tube that collects saliva for the PCR test.
Ramin setoodeh

Saliva tests for COVID have been praised for their effectiveness and efficiency, with some finding them to be less invasive than nasal swabs. They require fewer technicians since those who are tested can take their own samples.

Hours before the festival kicked off on Tuesday, the stage at the makeshift COVID testing center just steps from where the Cannes film premiere was the opposite of glamor. Festival participants were ushered into a large hall that had all the pomp of a voting center. They were given a plastic container, along with a funnel in which they were asked to aim their spit, while standing behind a socially distant bulkhead. Some missed, hitting the ground or their clothes.

“It must be liquid,” said a lab employee. “Foam doesn’t count.”

There were audible sighs of frustration among those in line when they realized how badly the lab needed them. Festival-goers who did not collect enough were sent away to spit again. And there were other reasons for being disqualified. A Variety a reporter saw a spit vial discarded because someone had spat out a piece of food, contaminating the sample.

To be fair, Biogroup’s instructions advised, “It is recommended that you do not eat, drink, smoke or brush your teeth within 30 minutes. [before] sampling.

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COVID-19 saliva test guidelines.
Ramin setoodeh

“I found the test really disgusting,” said one person who participated in the process.

Others praised the festival for creating a testing system with short lines at the moment – and simple instructions for registering dates 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 was tested on Monday. And, she added for good measure, “I’m spitting more.”

Those who could not produce enough saliva were taken to a second line, where they were given a traditional nasal swab by a nurse.

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