The Focus on French Films
festival, now in its 11th year, came again to Greenwich last weekend,
captivating us with the ambiance of foreign language films and giving us
an appreciation for the creative people who make them.
Renee Amory Ketcham
who chaired the festival, reported the same number of attendees this
year as last despite the fact fewer films were shown: "4,500 cinephiles
from the tri-state area."
The 20 films with newly added shorts selections were thoughtfully vetted, said Anne Kern
, of Riverside, an associate professor of cinema at Suny Purchase, who was involved in choosing the films.
"The French produce 200 films a year," she said. "What we are doing
for our festival audience is curating these French films and winnowing
them down to choose what pleases and delights our audience."
A survey of last year's festival viewers showed more than a third had
attended the festival for five years or more, indicating they approved
First on my list to see was the premiere of the documentary "The
Pursuit of Endurance -- On the Shoulders of Shackleton," an inspiration
realized by Luc Hardy
, our hometown explorer, entrepreneur and venture capitalist.
Since learning of that great survival tale of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton
1914 Antarctica expedition aboard the ill-fated ship "Endurance," Hardy
determined to trace Shackleton's footsteps. It took him two years to
build his team, first enlisting David Hemplemann-Adams
the British first-climber of all seven of the world's highest summits,
plus five other men and two women. A sailboat was found, as was a
captain able to traverse such a course and cameramen brave enough to
capture it all.
Of the courageous females, one was a scientist and another an
extreme-sport snowboarder who dazzled viewers as she risked all shooting
straight down snow-encrusted mountainsides.
The gorgeous shots of the expedition, showing the explorers' group
stretched across vast snowscapes, were accomplished in part with drones,
a technology embraced by Hardy. The drones afforded unforgettable
images of the masses of seals, penguins and elephant seals on South
But having the most impact was the sudden and formidable sight of
Elephant Island rising out of the ocean in all its dark and fearful
grandeur, a jagged mountain of rock, snow and ice where Shackleton's
crew managed to survive for five months eating penguins and seals while
waiting for rescue.
Other festival film highlights included the slow-moving but
architecturally ravishing film "La Sapienza," focused on a Swiss
architect in love with the 7th century works of Italian architect
Borromini. The story was told in both French and Italian. Over 100
showed up for that one, including U.S. Rep. Jim Himes
, D-Conn., and wife, Mary.
A film set amid the lushness of the Angkor Wat Temple in Cambodia
called "The Gate" -- its French title was "Le Temps Des Aveux" -- told
the stark story of a French ethnologist captured by the Khmer Rouge
But the real standout for many was the film "Once in a Lifetime," or
"Les Heritiers," the true story of a charismatic teacher in a Parisian
suburban high school who involved her disparate class in an essay
contest and, for inspiration, invited a Holocaust survivor to address
them. The result was a transformative experience for the class.
Anne Kern, post screening, introduced the film's director,
Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, a former American journalist and
now-naturalized French citizen and director who had received the
screenplay from one of those transformed students.
Mention-Schaar spoke of following the teacher with a camera for a
year, then added a footnote. When the Buchenwald concentration camp
survivor told the class the date of the camp's liberation in 1945, he
mistook the date as Jan. 29. The survivor, said Mention-Schaar, had died
this year -- on Jan. 29.
It's the sharing of stories like this that make a film festival with the creators intriguing.
Missing in the Bow Tie cinema
lobby this year were the few small tables where film-goers and -makers
could converse. The sit-down area was available when the festival was at
SUNY Purchase, said Kern. She said she believes in the value of viewers
able "to share their love and their opinions of films."
"This is the reason for a festival," she said, "It really creates a cultural event."
Also viewing these films are the thousands of students in the
tri-state area that come to the festival, some 6,000 students in 10
years, Kern said. One hopes a good number of them saw the film "Once in
Sitting in front of me for "The Gate" was Roger Lurie
, whose wife, Claude, is French. He finds French films to have more depth than American films, he said.
Time did not allow catching one of the 10 comedies in the mix this
year, including, "I Kissed a Girl." Kern described it as "about a gay
man going straight."
"People were crying with laughter," she said.
Kern said she couldn't imagine such a film being made in America,
"But the film portrays a vision of the world where homosexuality is no
longer a special category.
"French films afford an expanded vision of what cinema can be," said
Kern, talking about the support artistic cinema gets from the French
government. Every movie ticket sold in France she said, has a portion
held back for first-time film directors.
Anne W. Semmes
Updated 10:09 am, Friday, April 3, 2015