Film festivals entertain, inspire and often can launch new talent in front and behind the camera. But few festivals, especially in the US, run purpose-built programs to develop young audiences.
Going into its 26th edition, the American French Film Festival (the LA-based festival focused on French cinema and formerly known as COLCOA) has hosted Southern California high school students since 2008. The festival now opens its theater doors at the Los Angeles DGA to more than 3,000 students a year. This year, the total number of high schoolers to have watched a French film at the festival over the years will tick above 32,000.
It all started with an idea hatched by the American French Film Festival (TAFFF) founder François Truffart to invite students to share in the Francophone fun, says Pascal Ladreyt, who heads up the foundation European Languages and Movies in America (ELMA), the key sponsor behind the TAFFF’s education initiatives.
ELMA, a nonprofit that focuses on showcasing European films, acts as a booster to festivals seeking to add an educational component surrounding cultural exchange and young cinema-audience building. “ELMA tries to help festivals go above and beyond,” says Ladreyt, who has a background in business and also worked in foreign affairs as a director of French cultural centers on both sides of the Atlantic. “Festivals are run by passionate people who work with very small teams, and oftentimes all this work goes into something and there is no money left for marketing, so no one comes.” Or a festival merely is able to bring out a dwindling coterie of foreign-language film buffs — the “expats and the older cinephiles, but it’s missing the target really.” ELMA steps in to help expand the reach to younger and more mainstream American audiences. In addition to TAFFF, this fall ELMA will be supporting festivals including Screamfest, Animation Is Film, Polish Film Festival LA and AFI Fest.
TAFFF’s deputy director, Anouchka van Riel, who has overseen the fest’s educational component for six years, says “the program is unique and a tremendous amount of work went into it.” With help from the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF), the program annually draws students from about 50 to 70 high schools throughout Southern California, from both public and private schools. Students bus into the DGA from far and wide. “Some wake up at 4 am, coming in from Santa Barbara or Victorville,” says van Riel.
“The format for the high school screenings is the same as when we started, and works really well,” says Ladreyt. The screenings take place every weekday during the festival, which runs Oct. 10-16 this year. Students will have the opportunity to pose with French props (berets and baguettes) on a step-and-repeat before the screening of high-concept buddy comedy. Two of a Kind (Jumeaux mais pas trop) — about brothers, one black, one white, who discover they share the same DNA — in the DGA’s largest theater, which seats 600. A first-time narrative feature directed by Olivier Ducray and Wilfried Méance starring popular up-and-comers Ahmed Sylla and Bertrand Usclat, Two of a Kind won the Audience Award at this year’s Alpe d’Huez International Comedy Film Festival and was just released in France on Sept. 28. Students will be able to interact with writer-director Méance and actor Usclat during the Q&A.
Van Riel says the intercultural exchange and the surprising dialogue emanating from the Q&As after the screenings make for a “very magical” experience. “Some of the best conversations happen when high school students ask questions to the talent in attendance. The questions are very uncensored and genuine.”
“The cultural landscape is so dry here,” she adds. “We live in a city that has been built on cinema, but some kids have never attended an American film screening with talent attached. They are floored when they can interact with people who made the film.” Van Riel, who grew up in Europe, says “I was kind of spoiled” in France, where cultural programs and field trips for students are abundant. “In France, culture is totally subsidized.”
The fest communicates with schools throughout the year to coordinate the program. Public high schools have a higher head count, some coming on multiple buses, while private schools come in smaller packs, notes Van Riel, adding that many of the public schools find it difficult to afford the bus rentals to transport students to the DGA: “ Kids have to wash cars over the weekend to pay for the bus.” While the turnout comes from an even mix of public and private schools that teach French, the outreach has broadened to performing arts schools and magnet schools that have a focus on the arts, or schools that are “interested for the sake of having conversations around culture.” ,” she says.
Post screening surveys from teachers and students, collected by ELMA, show “amazing data,” says van Riel. “Almost 80 percent of students were saying, ‘We don’t mind at all about subtitles. We are just happy to be introduced to these films. When we see them, we want to see more.’ It’s a virtuous circle.”
Before wider American audiences discovered foreign-language treasures, such as South Korean content, largely through the various streaming platforms, van Riel says TAFFF’s programs were already building bridges for subtitled films. She points to South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s quote, whose Parasite won the 2020 best picture Oscar: “’Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” She adds, “It’s what Pascal has been doing for more than 15 years with us. Subtitles are not an impediment.”
To help prepare students and teachers for the TAFFF film as well as a post-film conversation, an extensive syllabus document is created and shared with teachers in advance.
“The writing of the syllabus is a huge task divided among three to four members of the AATF Committee,” says Inès du Cos de la Hitte, president of AATF’s Southern California chapter and the world languages upper school teacher at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth. Calif. “Those teachers collaborate, do a lot of research to substantiate the material, and create grade-appropriate activities with different degrees of complexity. Several activities geared towards AP students follow the guidelines established by the College Board.” She adds it’s a “fun and enriching way to complement the rigorous course.” The students who participate in screenings are also eligible to submit to a film critique essay contest. “The winner is rewarded during a ceremony in late May.”
Among the feedback shared on TAFFF’s website is a note from a teacher who attended with students in 2019 from Camino Nuevo High School (a charter school serving the Westlake/MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles): “(We are) a small French program in a low-income charter. Attending the screening was extremely valuable for my students — simply to share that space with all of the other students from other schools who study French, in addition to the film itself, and the conversations around the film and French culture that took place in our classroom. . … My students don’t have much contact with French culture in their neighborhoods, so this was really great for them.”
In addition to the high school screenings, TAFFF also runs Master Class programs, organized with the support of the film and TV department of the French Consulate, alongside ELMA. The Master Classes bring talent from the festival films to university campuses. This year, filmmakers will be heading to Chapman University in Orange County and Pasadena City College.
“It was important to open programs to more varied crowds, not just film schools,” says van Riel. “We got requests from community colleges, and discovered that there was a huge potential and asked from these places.” Headed to Pasadena this year is Anissa Bonnefont’s Nadia, a doc about Afghan soccer player Nadia Nadim. It will involve an in-depth interview around the film and filmmaker (Bonnefont also directed the doc Wonder Boy, about fashion house Balmain’s creative director Olivier Rousteing). Chapman will welcome writer-director Céline Devaux, whose first feature Everybody Loves Jeanne will be shown to film students. The Master Class program is restricted in part due to the fact that licensing fees must be waived by the films’ sales companies for these on-campus screenings, says van Riel. TAFFF and ELMA organizers say they’d like to grow the Master Class program to be as robust as the festival’s high school screenings.
The wildly popular high school screenings have some fest backers positing that the program may have become a raison d’etre for the festival. “With 3,115 students attending TAFFF in 2021, we broke the record of attendance,” says François Besson, who is a member of the main organization behind TAFFF, the Franco American Cultural Fund. “We could ask ourselves whether the educational component of the festival is a side-event, or if, on the contrary, it has become the core mission of the festival.”
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