22 years ago, VCU professor Peter Kirkpatrick and University Of Richmond professor Françoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick (who also happen to be a married couple) began a festival that would grow to epic propor
22 years ago, VCU professor Peter Kirkpatrick and University Of Richmond professor Françoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick (who also happen to be a married couple) began a festival that would grow to epic proportions. Since 1993, the French Film Festival has grown from a small Virginia Commonwealth University event to the largest French film festival outside of France. The 2014 edition of the four-day festival takes place at the Byrd Theatre during the last week of March, from the 27th to the 30th.
The first year of the festival, it was held in the Commons Theater and featured five films. Peter Kirkpatrick wanted to get his students engaged in watching French films and learning about the culture through film. “We created this for the students, for VCU and U of R students who are attracted to French culture. It grew into this important event in the French film industry,” Peter said.
The festival quickly outgrew the small Commons Theater. “We renovated the Biograph for the second and third festival. Then we grew out of that and then finally we needed a huge theater to handle the crowds,” he said. Eventually landing at the breathtaking Byrd Theatre, the French Film Festival has remained there ever since.
Each year the festival is put together by volunteers, many of which are students at VCU or U of R. “This office has French interns from France who are master students. Then we have our VCU and U of R students. It’s still a festival that is dependant upon the collaboration and the good work of all of our students,” Peter said.
Not only are the students dedicated to the festival, but the directors and actors are incredibly passionate about the weekend as well. They fly from France to Richmond just to experience the festival and share their work. Peter emphasized “the energy that the festival has, not just with the students and us and our classes, but also the energy that the directors and actors walk away from after the weekend here.”
In the weeks leading up to the French Film Festival, Carytown goes through a transformation. French flags line the streets and stores decorate their storefronts with French themed items. “The French see the flags and see that the whole neighborhood is trying to make them feel welcome. It’s a nice thing for creating the buzz,” Peter said.
The Byrd Theatre’s 1300 seats are all filled throughout the festival’s four days. “We have about 2100 admissions yearly,” Françoise said. They sell 1004 passes each year, and a ticket can be purchased upon entry for the remaining seats. Peter and Françoise suggest purchasing a pass in advance so you are guaranteed entry, especially if coming from out of town. “If you buy a pass you don’t have to wait in line,” Peter said.
“Some of the pass holders come in with a pillow and they sit down and they don’t leave. They want to have the whole experience, which is the way to do it,” Peter said.
This year, as in all past years, the first two screenings of the film festival are free. “We’ve been doing that still because it’s part of how the festival started. It’s a little homage to the way we created the fest,” Peter said.
The French actors and directors are amazed by the attention that their films receive in Richmond each year. “1004 seats packed with Americans watching their films–they are very struck,” Peter said. “They go back energized to make another film to come back to Richmond to show it.”
The films are hand-selected by Peter and Françoise. “The French make about 160 feature films a year, and we go out of our way to see them all. They make about 300 short films, we see them all in order to make our selection,” Peter said. This year there will be 20 feature films and 12 short films, covering a wide range of genres. “We have the comedies, the historical dramas, the documentaries,” Françoise said. Of the documentaries, Peter said, “They are all unique. They are about important subjects.” One is about French women directors, another is about the music scene in France in the 1950s and 60s, and the final one documents the French resistance fighters through a series of interviews.
In 2014, for the first time in its history, the French Film Festival will feature an Italian film. Directed by French filmmaker Jacques Perrin, Che Strano Chiamarsi Federico is a tribute to Federico Fellini, an Italian director. It will delve into his life and discuss some little-known facts about him, as well as teach the audience about his filmmaking.
Another exciting feature is Le Promeneur d’oiseau, a Chinese and French collaboration film directed by Philippe Muyl. The film’s dialogue is entirely in Mandarin. The director took classes to learn Chinese and spent two years in China in order to create this film, a story about a man returning to his native village after 20 years in Beijing and bringing his Beijing-raised granddaughter with him. “She’s a hi-tech child and she’s going to discover her roots, and he’s going back to his origin,” Françoise said.
At the end of each film, there is a Q and A with the actors and directors, in which the audience is given a chance to interact with them and learn more about the films and about French culture. The actors and directors enjoy getting a frank American perspective of their films. “Each film with the Q and A is going to be an event in itself,” Peter said.
With this festival, Peter and Françoise hope to show that Americans are still receptive to art from outside their own perspective. “There’s a hope for the future of cinema at having young Americans wanting to have this experience. People won’t just be watching films on the Internet,” Peter said.
While other film festivals that take place here in Richmond may give out awards, Peter and Françoise believe the true award that the actors and directors are given is the honor of being selected for the festival, and the experience of attending. To their minds, the palpable energy and camaraderie could potentially be tainted if some films won awards while others did not. “They say after the prizes are given, there is a separation between the ones who did get something and the ones who didn’t. In Richmond we can all be friends. It’s a wonderful experience and we don’t want to spoil it,” Françoise said.