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Something for Everyone: The Providence French Film Festival returns

Providence French Film Festival 2020

The Providence French Film Festival 2020 (“PFFF20”), now in its 22nd year, will screen all of its events on the Brown University campus at the Granoff Center for the Arts, 154 Angell St, PVD. All screenings are open to the public, and tickets may be purchased on the web either in advance or by entering credit card data at the door; cash will not be accepted. The festival offers its “CinePass,” a package deal to buy three film admissions and get the fourth free.

There are 14 feature films, most of which are screened twice and most are in French with English subtitles. The main festival runs Sat, Feb 29, through Thu, Mar 5, a more compressed schedule than in the past. Regina Longo, audiovisual archivist and historian at the Modern Culture and Media Department of Brown University, in her first year taking over responsibilities as programming director for the festival, said that she tried to group together films she thought would appeal to similar audience interests to create de facto double- and triple-features so patrons could enjoy them in a convenient schedule block. “I tried to encourage people that maybe they’ll stick around for two screenings because I think they pair well together,” she said.

The festival opens with a free reception on Fri, Feb 28, at 7pm in the Englander Studio upstairs on the second floor at the Granoff Center, which includes a free screening of a 9-minute short American film We Eat Socca Here (dir. Scott Petersen, 2019), “the hidden story of a savory local specialty found only on the French Riviera and the surrounding areas. Socca enjoys a historical and cultural significance that far outweighs its simple and rustic four ingredients.” Known as “farinata” elsewhere, socca is the definitive street food of the Côte d’Azur, made from gluten-free chickpea flour.

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Some films Longo wanted for the festival were unavailable, notably Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, dir. Céline Sciamma), because rights are locked up with streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. She sometimes even watches films on her smart phone. “I think that people should access media as they can, and I believe that the diversity of platforms is a good thing. But, in terms of what a festival to me has always been about, is that collective experience, bringing people together and thinking through curated content for local audiences, making sure that there are titles and subjects that appeal to a local audience, and then also challenging that local audience, giving them something that they enjoy and also giving them a challenge and creating a space where you spill out of the theater, you may see three shows in one day, you may see three over the course of the festival. We do have the Cinepass: buy three, get your fourth one free. So you may see four over the course of the festival, being able to extend those conversations. Go out to dinner afterwards, talk about what you’ve seen. Those spaces open up much more during a collective viewing experience. You can gather around the TV and watch things, you can stream something… in a college classroom and create a conversation in that sense, but the kind of dialogue that happens when it’s less constructed, but still a formal, theatrical kind of atmosphere, allows for people to keep a conversation going. I really do think that theatrical screenings, public screenings, collective screenings, do bring different elements than watching on a small screen or watching in the privacy of your own home.”

All of the films this year will be sourced from digital media, and Longo said she was disappointed that the festival would be unable to screen even a single historical work from 35mm stock because, she explained, Brown’s facilities require splicing reels together for use on a “platter” system to run through a single projector rather than changing over between multiple projectors, and most archival prints now are authorized only for change-over systems to minimize physical wear and tear. Brown’s digital projection is capable of 4K quality, she said, but most films are supplied in only 2K quality.

Longo said, “I’m happy with the program that we have. We have managed to do a number of different genres, a little bit of something for everyone… We didn’t get enough attendance from people not on [College] Hill or on the East Side of Providence, so I tried to reach out a bit more this year. We are hosting two screenings of a film called The Fall of Sparta, which is from Quebec, and it’s geared towards teenagers… a high school story – a Bildungsroman, I guess you could call it – and the struggles inherent in that, for the main character, Steeve, whose name is spelled with two E’s. He’s in love with the popular girl, he’s struggling in school, he’s struggling with friends, but that all plays out in a really creative way. He’s an avid reader, so he’s reading ancient Greek and Roman myths, and they play into his own imagination as he’s working out his anxieties with relationships and friends in school… We’re opening that to Hope High School students. I delivered a bunch of tickets to the principal there, Matthew Buchanan, and so that screening is happening on Sunday afternoon and on Monday afternoon after school. I’m really excited about that because I just feel like Hope High is so close… and we should be doing more to reach out to the community. I’ve noticed – I haven’t been here that long, so I’m learning the demographics – I’m learning how the city is divided in many ways.”

There is also an Animated Children’s Shorts Weekend Matinee (Sat, Feb 29, at 12:30pm and Sun, Mar 1, at 12:00pm) comprising nine shorts programmed by Eric Bilodeau, the artistic director of the Providence Children’s Film Festival. Longo said, “He had screened a lot of material that they didn’t program for the Children’s Film Festival that just ended, so we have a whole series of 75 minutes of French and Belgian short, animated films that we’re offering… We’re also partnering with the French American School of Rhode Island to get some complimentary tickets to those students. But that one hopefully should be well attended. Something to do where your kids… they’re looking at a screen but they’re not on an iPad, something a little bit bigger.”

An additional presentation of four shorts by legendary Nigerien director Moustapha Alassane, a major figure in African film from the decolonialization era in the early 1960s until his death in 2015, will be screened on Sat, Feb 29, at 2:15pm, followed by a conversation between Longo and restoration artist Bill Brand who worked on preserving Alassane’s films.

Highlights (with comments from Longo)

Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès, dir. Agnès Varda and Didier Rouget), 2019 – “I do encourage everyone who’s a fan of Agnès Varda, and I think that spans all ages. She really in the last decade of her life and career opened up to brand new audiences and younger cinéastes and younger filmmakers as well, and artists across the board. We are screening the final film that she made in conjunction with another director and that her daughter produced… that just showed at Acoustic Java, and that was the only other showing in Rhode Island… She’s a great proponent of her own work… She just died in 2019 and it’s her last work. She was terminally ill with cancer and was aware that the end was near, so she was cognizant of that as she was making this film. It’s a love letter to cinema. It’s a love letter to her collaborators, and in a way it was her chance to almost eulogize herself in some way, which not everyone gets a chance to do, not all of us get to write our own obituary… I think that there’s a lot of beautiful themes in that… but also the conversations that happen in the course of shooting for this film.”

On a Magical Night (Chambre 212, dir. Christophe Honoré), 2019 – “I love… Honoré’s latest film… It features Chiara Mastroianni, who is the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni… It’s a feminist tale and I think it’s kind of fun that it’s playing up here on College Hill. She’s a law professor at university in Paris. She and her husband have been together a lot of years. She’s the one stepping out, not him. So it’s a twist on that kind of tale in some ways… He’s the one who would never cheat on her, flip the standards in French culture, and she was constantly chasing her young students. So there’s a reckoning that she and her husband have. She leaves the house for a night to try to figure out, what are they going to do? She doesn’t want to leave the marriage, she thinks it’s working just fine. He can’t live with somebody who can’t be honest with him… She’s going through all of these relationships and everything plays out again, in her head, the cast of characters returns and she’s trying to come to terms with all of that. It’s comic, it’s poignant, sometimes it’s frustrating. It’s very well acted. It’s well written… It’s fun. It’s quirky. It ends in a way you don’t expect it to end. It plays with a lot of different tropes, it turns certain more conventional ideas of gender on their head and who plays what role in a relationship.”

Happy Birthday (Fête de Famille, dir. Cédric Kahn); 2019 – “This is Cédric Khan, who is a French comedic filmmaker. He’s actually in the film himself as the eldest son of [Catherine] Deneuve. She is the matriarch of a wacky family. They’re all getting together for her 70th birthday. All hell breaks loose. That one daughter who’s the wild card will come back from Los Angeles after a failed relationship there. One of the sons is living locally and he’s there with his family. Another son comes in from Paris where he’s kind of, sort of, an artist filmmaker in love with this Argentinian woman he brings with him. It starts off as kind of farcical, and then you peel back the layers and you see all the struggles that happen within families. So there’s some very tender moments, very funny moments and very tough moments. It deals with mental illness, it deals with betrayal and relationships. It deals with struggles of children growing up either parentless or with only a single parent. So it’s really putting it all out there.”

Zombi Child (dir. Bertrand Bonello), 2019 – “A fantastic film. It’s the follow up film… to Noturama that came out two years ago, which was a group of young people living in Paris who camp out in in a high-end mall and then end up involved in… murder and all kinds of things that ensue. Zombi Child is quite different. I would say Zombi Child is definitely a political film. Bonello cites Maya Deren as an influence for the kind of style he was trying to create with this film.” (Deren collaborated with the African American dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham on studies of Haitian culture and Vodou.) “It’s a group of young women who are in a very elite high school. Everyone going to that high school has somebody who’s been involved in the government in France or has received Legions of Honor, and so on. A new student arrives who is Franco-Haitian and she is living with her aunt who practices Vodou. One of the white French students who befriends her is obsessed with a relationship she’s had with a young man, and she’s trying to find a way for that to continue even though it’s ending, so she starts dabbling in Vodou despite warnings from her friends from Haiti and warnings from the aunt who actually lets her in to help channel her contact with this individual. And then we see a cross-cutting of scenes between Haiti and France… That [film] has a very political undercurrent, which is really trying to address France’s post-colonial legacies, and it’s doing it through a story that is personal and intimate, but making a much larger critique. Anyone who’s from 25 to 40, everyone’s dying to see that film: I had friends from New York saying, ‘I don’t even think it’s gonna play here at Film Forum, but maybe I’m going to come and see it while you’re screening it in Providence.’”

This Magnificent Cake! (Ce magnifique gâteau!, dir. Marc James Roels and Emma De Swaef), 2018 – “Critiquing the post-colonial scenario in the Belgian Congo that’s actually a stop-motion animation film… that takes five different individuals and traces their vignettes, their relation to Belgian colonialism in Africa… a mix of black Africans and a mix of white Europeans, who are re-examining their status and their role in the late 1800s.”

Marona’s Fantastic Tale (L’extraordinaire voyage de Marona, dir. Anca Damian), 2019 – “Animated film totally for adults… looking at adult relationships through the eyes of the dog.”

L.A. Tea Time (dir. Sophie Marcotte), 2019 – “A film by a Canadian documentary filmmaker from Quebec who is obsessed with Miranda July and does this documentary-slash-road movie where she starts contacting Miranda July to try and arrange a meeting, and then heads out cross-country to actually meet her in L.A., and everything that happens along the way.”

By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu, dir. François Ozon); 2019 – “It’s François Ozon who won the Silver Bear with this film at Berlin last year… It deals with pedophilia in the Catholic Church in the French Diocese of Lyon, which is the wealthiest diocese in France. Ripped from the headlines. As late as late 2018, the archbishop and the bishop who are featured in the film with their real names are still [awaiting] their sentences being handed down in the French public court. So the individuals who are involved are a group of victims who are now adults who band together and form a support group in France, and really start getting the message out and really wants to make a change and bring this to trial, and they actually succeed in doing that. So this film, again, is based on a true story, but with more nuance about the individual… It wasn’t just men who were abused in this diocese, but it’s all men who formed the support group and who push forward and make public their victimhood and push for the changes in the church, so it’s an intense critique.”

It Must Be Heaven (dir. Elia Sulemain); 2019 – “His first film in 10 years. He’s an actor and the director. And that one takes place in Palestine, Paris, Montreal and New York City. He speaks maybe four lines in the whole film. He’s considered a Jacques Tati-esque kind of character; that’s how the French press bills him. It’s another film that made huge waves at Toronto [International Film Festival] last year and also at Cannes. And that is an absolute political critique of contemporary global cosmopolitan violence in society. And the last vignette is in New York and it has a – I don’t want to spoil it, people should come and see it, it’s super fun – challenging ending, not violent or frightening to watch but like ‘whoa,’ just kind of hits you.”

The Girl with a Bracelet (La fille au bracelet, dir. Stéphane Demoustier), 2019 – “A courtroom drama… for parents of teens and for young adults… Effects of social media on relationships between teens. And a woman is accused of murdering her best friend because of things that appeared on social media. These girls were lovers and friends. They’re teens, they’re young, they’re experimenting, they’re bi, they’re involved in what a lot of teenagers are involved in. But the focus of this film is is less on what happens that causes this young woman to be accused of murder and put under house arrest. It’s more about how this is playing out in the courts and tensions within her family, and she maintains her innocence the entire time and how that has created a lot of tensions between her and individuals in her peer group, her group of friends, her family, even at the level of the court, how things are playing out and, again, not so subtle critique of how women, young women, are also stereotyped particularly in the way that things are portrayed on social media. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there. That actually is not based on a true story, but it’s an adaptation of an Argentinean film that got rave reviews and came out just one year prior, so they saw the Argentinian film, liked it, adapted that, and put it out.”

Africa Mia (dir. Richard Minier and Edouard Salier), 2019 – “A great documentary about the 1964 collaboration when a bunch of musicians from Mali were supported by the Cuban government to go to Cuba to record music and to study at the Cuban music conservatory, and then end up creating a group Las Maravillas de Mali which becomes a worldwide global sensation. The French filmmaker who made this film had seen one of the remaining members of the group perform a show in France, got enamored with the story, and then basically followed the story back to Mali, back to Cuba, to find out what happened to the members of the band – it took him about 10 years to make the film, great music – goes back to Cuba and he learned about all the intricate relationships but they they stayed a short time in Cuba – a year, year and a half, one of the members actually ended up living out his life in Cuba. But families, relationships, romance, children that were left behind, contacts that will maintain even after the musicians went back to Mali or to France. Great music, great stories, really poignant in so many ways. Definitely worth watching.”

Films, complete list with descriptions: https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/events/french-film-festival/film-descriptions

Tickets: https://tickets.brown.edu/arts/online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=3D73F548-39CA-4DAE-B8F4-ABFE36F83F78

PFFF20 is presented at Brown University by the Department of Modern Culture and Media and by the Department of French Studies, with support from Brown Arts Initiative, Sevaux Family Fund and Malcolm S. Forbes Center for Culture and Media Studies.

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