UVA’s French department ventures out with a film festival

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Natalia Verbeke stars as a maid in Les Femmes du Sixième Etage (The Women on the 6th Floor), written and directed by Philippe Le Guay. Photo credit: Vendame Productions. Natalia Verbeke stars as a maid in Les Femmes du Sixième Etage (The Women on the 6th Floor), written and directed by Philippe Le Guay. Photo credit: Vendame Productions.

This weekend, UVA’s French department will show a selection of recent French films at various locations around town. The festival is aimed at both casual filmgoers and academics, and the organizers hope to draw French-speaking and subtitle-reading viewers. Speakers from the University will present the films and offer their own perspectives on the screenings and their subjects.

The series is an outgrowth of a program from past years, which was sponsored by the French-American Cultural Exchange (FACE). “It was an annual event for five years, funded by FACE, with the provision that they wouldn’t provide any funding for three years after that,” explained Hannah Holtzman, one of the series’ organizers. “The idea was that we would go out into the community and get involved and build these other relationships so that it could be self-sustaining. So it’s really forced us to do that, which has been great. All the locations around town have been really gracious. Milli Joe is donating Belgian waffles. We also have a bunch of undergraduate volunteers, students from one of the undergraduate film courses, who made a little promo video. It’s been fun to see who’s interested. People have been getting involved in whatever way they want to get involved.”

“We began by working from a list of 50 or so films, provided by FACE, and narrowing it down from there,” Holtzman added. “The films are all recent. The oldest one is from 2009. We wanted a variety. There’s two documentaries, a couple of comedies, and a historical drama.” The list includes Ismaél Ferroukhi’s Free Men, Philippe Le Guay’s The Women on the 6th Floor, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Henri-George Clouzot’s Inferno, and Mona Achache’s The Hedgehog. All the screenings are free and open to the public, and each will have English subtitles.

“Free Men is interesting, because it’s a World War II movie, but it’s got a different twist to it,” said Liz Groff, another of the festival’s organizers. “It’s about Jewish-Arab relations in Paris at the time of the occupation, so we have someone coming from the Middle Eastern studies department to talk about it.”

“The Women on the 6th Floor is cute, it’s a fun comedy,” Groff said. “It takes place in the ’50s, after the Spanish Revolution. It’s about Spanish and Portuguese maids. One of the speakers who’s going to come had written about this era in France, about the immigration of Spanish and Portuguese workers as maids. They had their own community, and [the film depicts] the contrast between the sixth floor where the maids live, and the aristocrats in the rest of the building. The guy who lives downstairs gets involved with one of them. He’s bridging the gap between the classes.”

Inferno is an interesting case. Though the film is from 2009, it is the result and remains of an uncompleted film from 1963, originally directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the acclaimed director known for classic thrillers like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique. “It was actually so hot in Paris that year that they had to stop filming, and then Clouzot died,” Groff said. So it’s a documentary about the making of that film, and Clouzot’s footage is in there as well.”
“That’s one that’s not available yet,” Holtzman said. “I’m excited to have the chance to see it. Some of the other ones are streaming on Netflix and things like that.”

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is another documentary, one with even older roots. The 2010 film by prolific and provocative German director Werner Herzog, was originally filmed in 3D and depicts a series of 34,000-year-old cave paintings, which are the earliest instances of manmade art (by a significant margin). Herzog’s film also details the process of gaining access to the cave, which is tightly restricted by the French government due to fears about preservation. Only a few dozen people have ever been inside it. The film is a fascinating and valuable document, enlivened by Herzog’s trademark wry commentary and occasional wild conjecture.

One of the most appealing aspects of the festival is the attempt to invite members of the wider community in addition to academics. Often, film and arts events are open to the public, but aren’t widely promoted outside of Grounds, or even outside of a specific department.

“The French department is large for a French department, but it’s small in the context of the University,” Holtzman said. “So one of the goals [of the festival] is to make connections within the University, with people from other departments who have similar interests. But it’s also an effort to bridge the gap between the University and the community a little bit.”

“So many people in Charlottesville are interested in French, are interested in film, or are Francophiles,” Groff said. “We wanted everyone to come. There’s a lot of these little things that go on, little film groups at the University, but nobody else ever hears about it. But everybody loves film, so we wanted to get everyone who loves film together.”

UVA’s French film festival runs from February 21-24, at City Council Chambers, the Nau Auditorium, and the Jefferson-
Madison Regional Library. A full schedule can be found at pages.shanti.virginia.edu/UVA_French_Film_Festival.

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