As excitement for this year's 29th instalment of the French Film Festival UK continues to grow, Franco Files founder, Chris Thompson, sat down with festival director, Richard Mowe, to discuss the origins of the festival, what he's most excited about this year, and some of the other work they do to support and promote French/Francophone cinema. You can read more about Chris' own highlights from the programme in our review of the full line-up, which was published last week.
Chris Thompson - I think for most of us who have embraced French cinema, there was a particular scenario (and usually a particular film) that sparked our original interest. What was it for you?
Richard Mowe - As a child I fell off my cinema seat laughing at the antics of Jacques Tati (Jour de fête, Mon Oncle) and, of course, there was hardly any dialogue. Later, I was immersed in Truffaut, Malle, Godard, and the rest.
CT - What was the original inspiration for starting the festival, and what was it like trying to get things off the ground at that time? If this is the 29th instalment then you must have started before we had the Internet to rely on.
RM - The Festival began in Edinburgh and Glasgow during the European Council meeting in 1992, and the year after Glasgow had become European City of Culture. The city, among other events, hosted the European Film Awards and the FFF’s first patron, Jeanne Moreau, attended. At the time, only a handful of French and francophone titles were released in the UK, so the festival was started to help fill the gap. Now, of course, the situation has changed for the better, but there are still many exciting and original French-language titles that would not be seen on the UK’s big screens without the Festival’s support.
CT - How did you find the experience of running last year's festival virtually? Was it easier or harder than you expected, and what learnings are you taking from that time as we return to a more normal festival format?
RM - Although the Festival was hit by last year’s lockdowns, a few cinemas managed to have some screenings while a planned online programme proved highly successful - introducing the event to new audiences throughout the UK. Most online titles had pre-recorded interviews with directors and actors, and Isabelle Huppert, no less, provided a message of solidarity. Audience numbers across the board remained buoyant, thanks to the online presence. Some titles were reprised at the start of the year, and we had further online showings.
CT - What was the response like from distributors and filmmakers? Did you find they were keen to reach out and engage with their audiences post-pandemic?
RM - Despite lockdowns in France, the French industry continued to produce titles, and for this year’s edition we had a cornucopia of competing films vying for a place in the Festival, going back some two years. There was certainly a willingness among industry colleagues to participate once again - some directors are making the effort to attend in person including Bruno Dumont (France); Catherine Corsini (The Divide), Joachim Lafosse (The Restless); and Alexandre Astier (Kaamelott) while Jean-Pierre Améris and others will appear online.
CT - Obviously it's hard to pick a favourite, and with such a strong line-up it would be almost impossible, but were there any particular films that you went after right away or that took you completely by surprise?
RM - I was bouleversé (or knocked out) by Catherine Corsini's The Divide, which takes place in the A&E department of a Paris hospital during the aftermath of a Gilets Jaunes protest. At breakneck speed, Corsini combines elements of cinéma verité and farce, turning a relentless gaze on France’s political and economic woes under the reign of President Macron, and the overworked and under-resourced hospital staff trying to cope in the worst of all possible worlds. At one point, patients are locked out from treatment because of the chaos inside. Great performances, too, from Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Marina Foïs, and Pio Marmai.
CT - Outside of the usual festival programming, I know you and the team remain quite busy all year round. Can you tell us a little more about the activities you're engaged in between instalments?
RM - Outside Festival dates, we run screenings and special events, and work with a niche studio cinema close to our office space at the Summerhall TechCube in Edinburgh. It has now been re-equipped and has established a new audience. We often provide expertise to Festivals who seek to promote le cinéma français around the country, and are active at Festivals around Europe and elsewhere. Even outside the Festival we’re engaging with our followers, and produce regular and informative newsletters. We feel it is important that the Festival has a year-round presence, and we seek to build on that every year. Another important aspect of our activities is a vast schools programme, in which teachers and pupils can watch French-language screenings within a classroom setting, supported by learning packs prepared by the Festival - these are the audiences of tomorrow.
CT - Thanks for taking the time to speak with me about the festival, Richard. As I said in my review of the full line-up, last year's virtual event was the ultimate inspiration for me to finally launch Franco Files UK this year. Although it's still early days on my side, and the site is still developing, I'm so glad to have some small part in covering the 29th edition of your wonderful event.
This year's French Film Festival UK features over 30 titles (including UK premieres, exclusive previews, new talents, classics, and shorts) and opens at Ciné Lumière in London on November 3 with Bruno Dumont’s On a Half Clear Morning (France) starring Léa Seydoux, who can currently be seen in Daniel Craig's final Bond film, No Time To Die. For the full programme, please visit their website www.frenchfilmfestival.org.uk