#IntoTheSpotlight – French Film Festival

French Film Festival has a special place and its own audience around the film festivals in Bucharest - and, as now, in 12 other Romanian cities. The festival manages to grow and promise more and more from year to year, being one of the longest running festivals in Romania. This year they reached the 23rd edition, but how did the first edition go? What was the beginning of the festival? But the plans for the future? Ioana Dragomirescu, co-programmer of the festival, answers all our questions.

French Film Festival has now reached its 23rd edition and will be held in 13 cities in Romania. How did the festival start and what was the stimulus for organizing the first edition?

French Film Festival is one of the longest running festivals in Romania, and has grown steadily over the years. The initiative belongs to the French Institute which has similar events in other countries where it is present – for example, fellows in Australia have just celebrated the 30th edition. It is not surprising to notice that the French Institute’s mission is to promote the French culture and language, and cinema is a significant component of this culture.

As far as we are concerned, even though the Festival has evolved over time, our motivation has remained the same since the first edition: to offer the Romanian public the opportunity to discover some of the best French films of the year, from well known productions (in the Panorama section) and up to surprising directorial debuts (in Competition), alongside classical films included in thematic and retrospective selections (this year we pay homage to Claire Simon).

Last year the festival took place in 9 cities throughout the country, and for this year’s edition Brăila, Pitești, Sinaia and Suceava were added. Since when is there an initiative to organize the festival at a national level and why?

If the first edition in 1996 took place only at the French Cultural Center in Bucharest – the official title of that time – the Festival has gradually extended to the other cities where the French Institute in Romania is present: Cluj, Iași, Timișoara. After 2010, other cities started to join the event, and this year we were pleasantly surprised to receive spontaneous partnership requests from cinemas in Brăila, Pitești and Sinaia, and to find a collaborator in Suceava. The structure has also evolved over time – if initially it followed the model of a “caravan” moving from one city to another over the course of a few weeks, in the past few years we have chosen the simultaneous alternative, for a period of 10-12 days, to increase the visibility and impact of the Festival at a national level. Obviously, as the number of screenings varies from one city to another, not all the selected films are presented in each city.

Although French cinema is the most dynamic cinema at European level as number of films produced annually (300 in 2017), on the big screens in Romania, French films are relatively rare. There are around 20 films released per year, but they represent only about 3% of all viewers – which means there are films that enter few cinemas and for a short period of time . That is if there’s even a cinema in the city… We would like French films to reach a large audience, and not just in the big cities where there are already film events. The festival is therefore a unique opportunity to see French productions for the first time covering a wide range of genres and we hope our invitation will convince culture, cinema and, last but not least, French language enthusiasts from all 13 cities!

What are the biggest challenges in organizing French Film Festival in other cities besides Bucharest?

If we talk about audience attendance,  in Bucharest and other big cities there is a larger audience sensitive to such events. Being accustomed to them, the public knows where to find the information and what to expect. In cities where there is not a definite independent film public, mobilizing viewers is a challenge – but every year we have pleasant surprises!

Regarding the organization of the Festival … where should I start? The first challenge is the coordination of such an extensive programming, negotiating a large number of screenings, and arbitration – as democratically as possible – to determine how the program of the festival will look in each city, depending on the specifics of the local audience and the length of the festival. Then there are obvious logistical challenges – films have to reach many locations simultaneously, in formats adapted to each screening room, the guests’ schedule resembles a tetris game in which we try to include within 2-3 days not only Bucharest, but other cities too… Coordination of communication is also a challenge because we want to have a unitary image throughout the country, not to mention that each added city means additional costs, whether we refer to screening rights, printed materials, transport costs, etc.

In conclusion, there is a need for very good coordination, hard work and nothing would be possible without the involvement and effort of the co-organizers in each city – whether they are colleagues from the French Institute’s antennas, the French Alliances or the managers which host the festival in their cinemas.

In the future do you plan to expand the festival to other cities in Romania? What places do you have in mind?

We don’t have an actual plan regarding an even bigger extension, we will draw conclusions after this edition, which is the biggest one so far. Of course, a possible decision on this matter will also depend on finding local partners interested in hosting the Festival in their own city.

Who is in charge of the film selection and what is the idea behind this year’s selection?

The selection is made by the cinema team at the French Institute in Bucharest, this year consisting of Ioana Dragomirescu, coordinator of the Elvire Popesco theatre hall, and Maud Halimi, responsible for the audiovisual projects.

The red thread that gives unity to this edition has established itself during the selection process when we realized that the vast majority of the films in all four sections had Paris as decor and sometimes even as the lead actor of the story. The 1789 revolutionary Paris, as well as the 2017 one, the simple Paris, the romantic Paris, the underground Paris, the Paris of the late 19th-century theater scenes or the one  found in the medical school – each film captures a different aspect of the same mythical city that transcends any cliché. Paris, toujours …

 What can you tell us about the Cahiers du Cinema Week – how long has it been in the program and how did it all start?

The collaboration with the prestigious Cahiers du Cinema magazine has reached its sixth year, and we are glad to be able to name the “Week” a traditional section of the Festival, and Joachim Lepastier, the critic of the selection, one of our regular guests.

The first collaboration happened in 2014, when Cahiers du Cinema proposed a burlesque film selection and a retrospective dedicated to director Pierre Etaix. Even though the Cahiers du Cinema Week later became more concise, with a selection of 4 to 5 films, mirroring themes such as architecture or theater, it undoubtedly represents the most surprising section of the Festival, which allows film enthusiasts to discover or rediscover films to which they wouldn’t normally have access.

The theme of this year, “la muse roumaine”, offers the unique opportunity to see Genica Athanasiou, Aurora Cornu and Elvire Popesco, Romanian Muses who inspired great French directors over time, once again on the big screen. The four films fit perfectly into the context of the Romania-France Season, which brings to light, through a wide range of events, the important cultural link between the two countries.

The winner of the Young Directors Competition (which brings together six French directors at their first or second feature) will be chosen by the public and will receive support for the distribution of the film in Romania. When did this initiative arise?

The first Young Director Competition was held on the 17th edition in 2013, and TV5 Monde was our partner in this initiative from the very beginning, by providing the funds for the prize. It has a dual purpose. On the one hand, the desire to make the films of the new generation of directors known to the Romanian public, promoting their talent, uniqueness and diversity (for example, this year’s section includes two dramas, an animation, a documentary, a thriller and a comedy). On the other hand, inciting the Romanian distributors to acquire the rights of the winning film – the audience’s favourite, so its potential has already been validated – and bring it to the big screens and allow an even larger number of viewers to discover it. To be honest, the second goal is not achieved every time, and we can not guarantee that the winning film will actually be distributed, but that does not prevent us from carrying on!

And last but not least, why do people need to go watch French movies?

Because they are inspirational, surprising, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing and intellectually challenging films. Because French cinema is among the most distinguished and prolific – to this day – national cinemas. And because in Romania, the opportunities to see French films are relatively rare, therefore more precious!

Whether it’s French film enthusiasts or viewers who discover it for the first time, we think French Film Festival offers choices for all tastes and we expect all of them at the cinema!

French Film Festival takes place between May 8th-19th in 13 cities in Romania. More details can be found here.

An interview by Romina Banu

Translation by Andreea Toader

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