The 2016 French Film Festival delegation of French actors and directors gathers in front of The Byrd Theatre. The young actor in the foreground is Félix Bossuet, star of the film "Belle et Sébastien, l'aventure continue." (Photo by Pierre Courtois)
“That [first] year we had already realized we outgrew any auditorium, whether it was VCU’s or at the University of Richmond or even the Biograph Theatre [the former theater at 814 W. Grace St.],” says co-director and co-founder of the French Film Festival Peter Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick, an associate professor of French at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Françoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick, a professor of French and film studies at the University of Richmond, developed the idea for a French film festival.
In 1993, it had only been two years since the couple’s wedding in France, but they were looking for a way to engage their students through their shared passion for French culture. After considering events related to music and literature, film seemed the best format to share the creativity and culture of France.
“We wanted to create a well-known event that would attract students, first of all, to the language and French major … but also a cultural event that would allow students and community members and the larger public to gain new perspectives in looking at the world,” says Kirkpatrick.
The first event, in 1993, was held in two auditoriums on the campus of VCU, but after immediately selling out all of the screenings, Kirkpatrick and Ravaux-Kirkpatrick realized they would have to find a bigger venue. The second and third festivals were held at the former Biograph Theatre. Kirkpatrick says they virtually renovated that theater, painting, screwing down seats and bringing a 35mm projector for the films. Even so, space was still an issue.
By the fourth year of the festival, Kirkpatrick had reached out to the manager of The Byrd Theatre to see about moving the event to the 1,300-seat venue. Kirkpatrick says it was the perfect choice. “The Byrd Theatre is one of the last 10 cinema palaces in the world,” he says. “There are very few venues today where you can be in a space designed just for cinema.”
After teleconferencing with film professionals the first three years, this was also the first time filmmakers traveled to Richmond for the festival, including renowned French comedic actor Thierry Lhermitte, who was the first guest speaker to make an in-person appearance. “Françoise and I will never forget the look on his face when he looked up and saw the chandeliers of The Byrd Theatre for the first time and he said, ‘I’ve been in theaters all over the world, but to share these films here is truly a treat.’ ” The festival is still held at The Byrd today, with the film projections still controlled by the same industry professionals responsible for the Cannes International Film Festival.
Over the past 25 years, the French Film Festival has shared numerous award-winning cinematic masterpieces not only with Richmond, but also a national audience. Last year alone, people traveled to Richmond from 42 U.S. states and numerous foreign countries. More than 700 films and 850 actors, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers and artist-technicians have been brought from France to Richmond over the history of the festival.
High-profile film-industry professionals have made appearances in Richmond, including director Rachid Bouchareb; director Bertrand Tavernier; and actress, writer and director Josiane Balasko. All the guests — whether they’re cinematographers, directors, actors, producers or others involved with filmmaking — are available for questions and discussion after each screening, and they remain accessible throughout the festival. “They have genuine conversations, and some of the people who come don’t know how important these people are and so they don’t have that star-struck mentality,” Kirkpatrick says. “[The filmmakers] like the experience of having these types of questions asked and respond to them.”
However, at its core, the French Film Festival was created as an educational experience. “It still is actually driven [by] student interest, and ... it has always been about that. It’s for the students, and it’s also run by the students,” says Kirkpatrick. Over the past 25 years, more than 100 French undergraduate and graduate students have come to Richmond using international exchange visas to complete internships for which they get credit in their respective universities overseas. New courses have been created at both VCU and the University of Richmond as a result of the festival, including a course that covers subtitling technology.
Kirkpatrick and Ravaux-Kirkpatrick are proud of the accomplishments of their students on both the French and American sides. Many have gone on to be a part of the film industry as directors, producers, technicians, screenwriters and other roles. Kirkpatrick says, “Its been very rewarding to see how our students who have graduated out of VCU and the University of Richmond, [to look] at what they’ve done.” They’ve even had past overseas students come back as guests of the film festival in which they presented a French animation they produced or a short film, he adds.
There’s an academic component to every festival with a symposium held at the University of Richmond. For the first time this year, the symposium will last three days. It’s a free event held at the University of Richmond. Attendees will be able to engage with filmmakers, cinema technology specialists and film music composers. These in-depth discussions with industry professionals with give attendees insight into advanced filmmaking technologies and allow them to explore French film as an art form.
This year’s French Film Festival will feature nearly 70 special guests including Oscar, Golden Globe, César and Molière award winners. With a focus on film and music, there will be a live acoustic guitar performance by Henry Padovani, the original guitarist of the rock band The Police. Padovani recently performed with Sting for the reopening of the Bataclan music hall in Paris following the terrorist attack there in November 2015. He will play after the screening of his film “Rock N’ Roll … of Corse!”
More than 30 world- and North American-premiere screenings will take place this year. French actor and director Jacques Perrin, composer Bruno Coulais and American animation director Henry Selick will also be present.
A unique experience featured during the 2017 festival involves a performance with rare "magic" lanterns that use hand-painted glass slides to create images. Kirkpatrick says, “If people just knew what was involved with importing these things … it’s like importing the Mona Lisa.” In partnership with the Cinémathèque Francaise, this is the first performance with the lanterns in the United States, and due to the difficulty of arranging such a performance featuring the rare equipment, it will most likely not happen again for quite some time.
“This is the one chance for Americans to see these images [created by the lanterns] and really understand the precursor to cinema,” Kirkpatrick says. “This show has only been shown once in France, so this is truly a one-time event and there’s no replicating it. This is not a film, this is a performance.” The performance, titled “The Magic Lantern, Resuscitation of a Lost 17th Century Visual Art,” features a story by Laurent Mannoni and Laure Parchomenko accompanied by the Harpist Aliénor Mancip and narrated by actor Nathan Willcocks. After the show, participants will have the opportunity to view the lanterns and the glass sides and ask questions.
This year’s festival will close with a special event featuring a live performance of “Mec!” with award-winning actor Philippe Torreton and percussionist Edward Perraud presenting Allain Leprest’s poetic texts and lyrics.
The impact of this Richmond-based festival has spread internationally. Students worldwide have created short, documentary-style films about the event itself. Virginia filmmakers have collaborated with French directors after connecting during the festival. Some French directors have even returned to Virginia to shoot films, including Claude Miller, who directed a film in Richmond called “Marching Band.”
Jean-Jaques Bouhon, Pierre-William Glenn and Rob Tregenza created “The Sad and Lonely Death of Edgar Allan Poe.” There’s even a French documentary about The Byrd Theatre titled “The Byrd: A Love Affair.” Kirkpatrick says that every year, on average, two or three festival films that are selected for screening end up being distributed throughout the United States.
“There’s an energy that’s created that goes well beyond Richmond and well beyond the United States,” explains Kirkpatrick. The guest filmmakers stay in Carytown for the festival and are accessible not only to the local public, but they also get a chance to spend time with one another, something that can be difficult to manage when they are in the midst of creating their films.
Kirkpatrick and Ravaux-Kirkpatrick were in France for the premiere of the film “Intouchables.” Directors of the film, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, noticed them in the audience and approached them. Kirkpatrick says, “They said, ‘You don’t realize this, but this film would never have existed if we didn’t come to Richmond, because in Richmond we met our first producer for the film.’ ”
Kirkpatrick and Ravaux-Kirkpatrick have also received distinctions from the French government for creating the festival. They have been awarded Knights of the Order of Arts and Letters which recognizes those who have made significant contributions to furthering the arts in France and globally. They have also been recognized as Knights of Academic Excellence (Palmes Académiques); and received the Beaumarchais Medal, the highest award from the French Writers Guild (SACD).
While the festival has been a Richmond staple for a quarter of a century, to its founders it feels like yesterday. “It feels like just a couple years ago [we started the festival], because its been nonstop and its been growing and growing and growing,” Kirkpatrick says. “I think if you asked us 25 years ago if we thought it would reach this status, nobody would have ever thought that, and it just grew into this internationally renowned festival.”
The French Film Festival runs March 27 through April 2. Screenings will be held at The Byrd Theatre. Festival passes are $115 (discounts for students and teachers). Individual tickets are $15 and only available 30 minutes before each show, depending on availability. For screening times and to purchase festival passes, visit frenchfilmfestival.us.