Focus on French Cinema Says Bonjour to Belgian Films

Forced to cancel its 2020 edition last spring due to the pandemic, Focus on French Cinema is back with a virtual festival from April 21-30 and a spotlight on contemporary Belgian filmmaking. To discuss this 16th edition and the festival lineup, we sat down with Renée Ketcham, festival chair and president of the Alliance Française of Greenwich, Connecticut; Joe Meyers, director of programming; and Karine Nguyen, cultural counselor for Wallonia and Brussels in New York.
Jo Deseure and Jean Le Peltier in Madly in Life (2020), by Ann Sirot et Raphaël Balboni.

France-Amérique: First of all, welcome back! How did you manage to transform the festival, usually held between Connecticut and New York City, into an entirely remote event?

Renée Ketcham: We are thrilled to be back, albeit virtually! We turned to other film festivals for inspiration – I was invited to the Marché du Film Online in Cannes, I virtually visited Toronto, Berlin, and Cinemania in Montreal. We have a longstanding relationship with this last event and they helped us with logistical challenges such as choosing a screening platform. Unlike other online festivals that bombard audiences with content, we decided to offer one film per day [10 dollars per film, 75 dollars for a festival pass], with a 24-hour viewing period.

Joe Meyers: We really wanted to keep the feel of a real festival, with curation, guidance, and a set schedule of films. But instead of having in-person guests, which are the highlight of Focus on French Cinema, we organized Zoom interviews with many directors and actors involved in the movies we are showing this year, and people will be able to watch them during the festival.

Tell us more about the selection process. Was it different due to the festival’s virtual format?

Joe Meyers: We followed the same process that we follow each year. We watched between 100 and 150 films, and every Monday morning we got on a Skype meeting with our selection committee, discussed what we saw, and started winnowing the list down to 13 films. One of the challenges we had this year was to determine if distributors were willing to have a movie screened virtually rather than in a theater. It was a longer process to book each film. With only a couple of exceptions, we were able to secure all the movies we were really enthusiastic about!

Renée Ketcham: We wanted to screen Albert Dupontel’s Bye Bye Morons (Adieu les cons) – the most extraordinary film I have seen in years – but Gaumont is saving it for theatrical release.

Charles Aznavour in New York, in Aznavour by Charles (2019) by Marc di Domenico. © Arsenal Filmverleih

Joe Meyers: I think our selection is one of the best we have ever put together, though. It’s a variety of thrillers, comedies, dramas, family films. We even have a great documentary, Aznavour by Charles (Le regard de Charles), which presents Charles Aznavour’s life through footage he shot himself as he toured the globe as a singer and an actor. A remarkable film! And we were lucky enough to have an interview with his son, Mischa Aznavour. We also got the latest film by the great director François Ozon, Summer of 85 (Eté 85), which has been a hit on the festival circuit this year. It took some time, but we managed to secure the rights. It’s a nostalgic, bright-eyed story of a young man coming of age, dealing with his homosexuality and his first real relationship. Ozon blends comedy and drama beautifully, and the added bonus is the feel of the 1980s that he recreated with the music and the clothes. It’s a terrific movie! I also really enjoyed Ibrahim, another coming-of-age story, directed by Samir Guesmi. When I first watched it, it made me thing of Bicycle Thieves. The young man who plays the title character, Abdel Bendaher, had never acted before – the director spotted him at a soccer match and decided he was perfect to play Ibrahim, a boy on the cusp of manhood. This movie has the feel of a modern classic.

This year’s selection will pay homage to Belgian cinema with two films. What can you tell us about them?

Karine Nguyen: Madly in Life (Une vie démente) will screen on opening night, April 21. We had the honor of doing a Q&A with the directors, Ann Sirot and Raphaël Balboni, who are amazing filmmakers. Their movie deals with a very deep and serious subject – dementia and Alzheimer’s disease – but with a typically Belgian lightness and sense of humor. It’s a must-see. The other film is SpaceBoy, a family comedy directed by Olivier Pairoux, who has produced and hosted many shows on Belgian television and is making his directorial debut.

Albane Masson and Basile Grunberger in SpaceBoy (2020) by Olivier Pairoux.

Belgian cinema is not as popular in the United States as French cinema. How would you characterize the genre?

Karine Nguyen: A particularity of Belgian cinema is its simplicity and easy-going take on life. Belgian filmmakers are also too quiet. They should promote themselves more internationally!

Joe Meyers: Belgian films have a unique way of telling a story. In our interview with him, Olivier Pairoux said that Belgian filmmakers are “more pragmatic.” According to him, this is partly because they have to deal with lower budgets than the average French film. They have to work within strict limits and come up with solutions using less money, which stimulates their creativity.

Who are the other Belgian directors we should look out for?

Karine Nguyen: The Dardenne brothers, of course. I also recommend Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy, who all directed The Fairy (La Fée). It really showcases the specificity of Belgian cinema. I also love The Giants (Les Géants) by Bouli Lanners [the movie won multiple Magritte du Cinéma awards, the highest distinction in Belgian filmmaking] and Third Wedding (Troisièmes noces) by David Lambert. They both screened this spring as part of the Atlanta Francophonie Festival!

Focus on French Cinema

From April 21-30