In honor of the Oscars this weekend, join me for a visit to the International Political Film Festival. It’s fairly new–this year was only its fifth–but growing very fast. It has an interesting concept–the point is to see as many films as possible, so you buy a pass for a day or the weekend rather than tickets for each film. There are five screens around the center of Carcassonne within a few minutes’ walk of each other, with the theaters ranging in size, so you have to be sure to reserve your seats for some of the smaller sites. But for a very reasonable price, (13€ for a day; 25€ for the weekend; 60€ for the weekend plus the opening and closing ceremonies and the cocktail party at the end), you can see dramas and documentaries all day.

I went last year and was blown away. There were several premieres, including “Belfast,” with an intro from Kenneth Branaugh (lots of premieres this year, too). A number of directors and/or actors came in person for post-screening discussions. This year, in addition to in-person appearances, videoconferencing setups provided even more participation by those involved in the films. The local theater, Le Colisée, which always shows films in their original language and one of the festival sites, hosts events pretty much weekly or more, with either a director or somebody who’s an expert on a topic related to the film. I find that these opportunities add a deeper dimension than just seeing the film, especially when you get to ask questions about artistic choices.

Actors are a different breed. Really. The ones I saw give Q&As had SO MUCH charisma. Last year, I saw “Municipale,” a movie about a municipal election, in which an actor, Laurent Papot, shows up in Revin, a town on the decline in the gloomy Ardennnes, to run for mayor. He is absolutely charming, but loses the election. He was in the theater in Carcassonne, along with the director, for a Q&A after the screening. And he was tiny. His height didn’t come across at all in the movie–he seemed bigger than life onscreen. And he was just as mesmerizing and bigger than life in person. I guess that’s what it takes to succeed on the big screen.

This year, I saw “Marchands de Sable,” a film about the terrible clandestine housing for illegal immigrants in France. The kid had met two men earlier in the day and had gotten into a discussion with them. Turns out they were the director and lead actor. I won’t spoil the film, but it’s no surprise that it doesn’t have a happy ending–how could it with such a topic?–and at the end everybody was teary if not outright sobbing. “How could they do this to us?” the kid moaned in pain. “They seemed like such nice guys!”

We got to hear them discuss the movie and their own backgrounds, and let me tell you both of them–director Steve Achiepo and lead actor Moussa Mansaly–were larger than life, in every way. Both were tall, with athletic builds, and so intense they seemed to be speaking directly to you privately even as they addressed the room of a couple hundred people from the stage far away. Later, we did get a moment to speak to them one on one, and the kid read them the riot act for how emotional the film was. They were dazzling, they were thoughtful, whether speaking to the theater or to just us. Their film won Best Director and Audience Pick for Best Full-Length Film at the festival.

If you can find it, I highly recommend “Le Marchand de Sable.” The name is a play on the sandman, the mythical character who sprinkles sand in children’s eyes to make them go to sleep. But it’s also a play on the marketplace of illicit lodgings where desperate migrants pay too much for a room or just a mattress to sleep on at night in a relatively safe place. And it shows some really terrible conditions. The director explained that he wrote a fictional story because there was no way any real people in these situations would allow themselves to be filmed for a documentary. Achiepo explained how real-life experiences and cases got translated into the script and how he held back from showing reality’s worst–as bad as things look in the film, they are more dire for real people.

Another movie, now in theaters in France, is “La Syndicaliste,” which means “The Trade Unionist,” but the title in English is “The Sitting Duck.” It’s the true story of Maureen Kearney, who was the top union representative at Areva, the former French nuclear power company. There’s a shakeup, involving politics as the company is state-owned, and some shady dealings with China. Kearney tries to rally the powers that be against the deal because it could decimate jobs (which it did). The less they listen, the more she becomes a whistleblower, gathering evidence. She earns the ire of the new CEO and, apparently, other people. Kearney is attacked in her home (tied up, with a big “A” carved into her abdomen, and sexually assaulted). The investigation of her assault goes nowhere, and the victim is eventually tried and convicted of having staged the whole thing! Kearney is played by the magnificent Isabelle Huppert, and OMG does she ever manage to look like her. Marina Foïs plays Anne Lauvergeon, whom I met back when she was CEO (things turn south for the company after she is ousted), and there, too, the resemblance is uncanny even though Lauvergeon had an Anna Wintour bob. Kearney herself appeared at the festival for a Q&A.

The festival honored the career of Vincent Lindon, who gave a very moving speech. He really has played a lot of beleaguered, upstanding average joes. I recently saw him in “Avec Amour et Acharnement” (“With Love and Ferocity”) by Claire Denis, with Juliette Binoche. He was great, such a complex character. I didn’t much like the film overall, because I just couldn’t relate to the infidelity, especially with such a nasty creep (obviously not the Lindon character; he’s the one whose heart is broken).

There is something very French about how events like the film festival unroll. When I signed up to volunteer, I got an invite to a press conference some weeks before the festival at which various news bits were announced and local eminences got to speak about the importance of the festival for Carcassonne and their satisfaction with it all. You know you’re at a press conference in France because there are men wearing big scarves. And skinny suits with gleaming white tennis shoes. (Not the scarves and skinny suits together, though.) Casual chic.

Volunteering gave me a way to meet a lot of people. I went with one woman around the center of town, distributing festival posters. And got to chat with various people while making sandwiches and washing dishes at the cantine. Lots of film talk, which was very interesting, because these films are all about political issues–the opioid crisis, women’s rights, LGTB rights, end-of-life care, retirement, international trade, immigration, and many wars and conflicts. So the films became a launchpad to personal, vivid stories. The kid and I also did translation for some of the Q&A sessions with non-French-speaking directors. Live translation is hard! I felt a little better after hearing somebody else translate, not quite keeping up. But most people here, especially the type of person who goes to a festival of international films on political subjects, understand English even if they miss a word or nuance here and there. So they probably follow 80%-90% and the translation confirms what they thought they heard or fills in some blanks.

The ceiling in le Colisée, our downtown cinema. Gorgeous.

After the final film, there was a cocktail party, then the volunteers went for drinks at the festival’s very cute salon where, during the festival, audience members could go for a snack or drinks between films. Then we wound up at Hôtel de la Cité for a somewhat wilder party (DJ, dancing, champagne). We all got together again for a dinner at a restaurant. Really a broad cross-section of people. So fun.

Since then, the volunteer WhatsApp group has lit up a few times–a picnic was organized in conjunction with a visit to see one volunteer’s internship artwork. Somebody else asked for a jump for her car and various people responded that they could come but had no jumper cables or that they had jumper cables but couldn’t come but would lend the cables if somebody could pick them up. Then somebody else suggested a garage nearby, and there was a whole string around the garage’s rather strange name and jokes about that. And then another thread around a dinner and exposition around the International Women’s Rights Day on Wednesday.

France is famous for the Cannes Film Festival, but it has many others, dedicated to some special niches, like animation, romantic movies, films about gastronomy (how French is THAT?), historical films…. Something to check out on your next trip.

So, movies: have you seen anything good? Who are you betting on for the Oscars?

A little more love for that Colisée interior.

8 thoughts on “A Festival of Film

  1. What a wonderful post! Like sitting down to a perfect croissant with my morning coffee… I would love to attend a film festival like this, and even better with all the comeraderie and social interaction that goes with it. Sadly, we got out of the habit of going to the cinema during Covid (I’ve always liked it far more than my husband), and haven’t gotten back into it – but this encourages me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really was set up, from the little salons to the timing of the showings, so that people could discuss the films they had seen.
      I hope you can find some of these films, whether in the theater or via streaming. Excellent stuff, and one doesn’t always hear about foreign movies.


  2. How wonderful to have such a film festival in your home town. Living in Chicago, there are a number of festivals throughout the year, including a French one. I will look for these films when the next one takes place. And yes, the pandemic has disrupted movie going. So much easier to stream from home. Partly it is to avoid crowds and partly it is simply easier. However, your post reminds me that in person has many rewards that streaming can’t offer. Thanks for this heads up on some great French films

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Last year, everyone was carefully masked. Some people continue to wear masks, and I think other people figure they have their reasons—no raging. But it’s nice to get out and mingle.


  3. What a fabulous thing for Carcassone to do! Quite a feather in their cap. And, good for you and The Kid for volunteering your time. It sounds like it was a very rewarding experience.

    We haven’t been to a theater in years, sad. A combination of covid and dearth of films for grownups. My favorite part of flying to Europe is getting to watch foreign films on the flight…one after another. Movies that never come here.

    I’ll be watching the Oscars tomorrow night with my bowl of popcorn, rooting for Michelle Yeoh.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I’ve seen Everything, Everywhere 👍🏻👍🏻, and Tar 🤷🏼‍♀️. I’m grateful for streaming yet watching on a small screen is less than ideal. Long gone are the days when I would have seen all (or nearly all), of the Best Movie contenders…at the theater.

        Liked by 1 person

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