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Cinema and the Class Struggle

How a French film festival programs for teenagers and makes film into a school subject.
Les Soviets plus l’électricité
France’s central place within film culture may have its ups and downs when it comes to adventurous film-making, but its reputation as a hub of international film viewing holds strong. Yet beyond the central role of Cannes in the yearly festival rigmarole, and references to the riches of the Paris film-going scene and to vaguely understood state subsidies, little attention is actually paid to the wider infrastructures of a film-going culture which, after all, provided more ticket sales for Uncle Boonmee than the rest of the world combined. To say this is not to trumpet French exceptionalism far and wide: Olaf Möller has spoken lovingly of the key role of film programming on West German television in the 1970s, and Italian critics would no doubt be able to provide similar insight into the workings of Rai 3 or the myriad smaller festivals which continue to provide demanding viewing to local audiences far from Venice or Rome. Still, the political choices underlying this famous wealth have held more firmly in France than elsewhere, and the international focus on the Paris-Cannes axis has come at the expense of understanding a key variable in the formation of a wider culture, what the French call “le maillage du territoire”: the ability to cover a territory with a network (be it culture, healthcare, internet…) leaving as few loose links as possible.1
Such were the thoughts prompted by attending the Belfort Entrevues Film Festival, a festival which was initially founded in 1969, a few months after you-know-what, as a platform for young filmmakers to meet each other, compare notes and share funding. Given the revolutionary atmosphere, it might have been no coincidence that Belfort and its region were then home to the Peugeot factories, one of the biggest working class areas in France, now more aptly described as its rustbelt. Re-organized by Janine Bazin in 1986, and devoted to first, second, and third films only, the festival has been kept off the international map by the fact that few of its entries are actually premieres, despite having played a part in the consecration of, among others, F.J. Ossang, Pedro Costa, and Jafar Panahi. The disappointing level of this year’s competition may have hinted at another reason for its obscurity, should it prove that it was a regular occurrence: none of the twelve shorts proved exceptional, and of the twelve features, only Hassen Ferhani’s Dans ma tête un rond-point, already awarded a prize at this year’s FIDMarseille and discussed on the Notebook in the first Partycrashers video, stood out as a truly remarkable début. It was certainly thrilling to see this documentary about workers in an Algiers slaughterhouse—a work whose attention to the comradeship of work, and sympathy with the frustrated ambitions and desires of its subjects, is matched only by its knack for making the most of locale and lighting in organizing its frame around the human figure—receive two awards in a multiplex… which once served as a slaughterhouse!
Yet despite the low level of the competition, the festival offered ample opportunity for fertile thinking about cinema. Celebrations surrounding the 30th edition provided one of the most original curatorial projects I’ve had the pleasure of coming across in my short festival-going career: a programming variation on the surrealist exquisite corpse game, in which 30 festival alumni each picked and introduced a film based on the final image of the film selected by the previous participant. Besides the chance to revisit old favourites (Last Year at Marienbad) or discover previously unseen ones (Touki Bouki) in pristine 35mm prints, this section included such delights as seeing Serge Bozon cheerfully admit that his choice of Marlen Khutsiev’s It Was the Month of May had nothing to do whatsoever with the image he received but was tied to his desire to screen the film after having seen it in Locarno, before immediately going on to compare his perception of the French tradition of improvisation, springing theatre (Renoir, Rivette, Pialat), with the Russian one, springing from singing. The funniest and fondest moment came in a sparsely attended (and all the warmer for that) discussion between José Luis Guerín and Nicolas Philibert, two filmmakers with quite obvious respect for each other’s work. Discussing the question of portraiture and of empathy with the subjects of one’s films, Guerín suddenly mentioned a meeting with Philibert in the Milan zoo, during which Philibert confessed his desire to make a film about a monkey, and then proceeded to observe the zoo’s apes with such absorption that his face and body unwittingly started to mimic their gestures. When Guerín went to see Planet of the Apes, he left the cinema with a burning desire to call Philibert and tell him how poorly imagined the 3-D creatures had seemed in comparison with their bodily re-enacting in Milan years earlier. “That, for me, was the best example of empathy I ever saw in a documentary filmmaker.” Indeed.
Most interesting of all, perhaps, was the sidebar entitled “Premières épreuves” (an untranslatable pun, “épreuve” meaning both an exam and a photographic print), designed to accompany the high school film programme, thus taking us back to our initial topic. The film added to the curriculum this year being Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light, the section focused on documentaries dealing with the memory of historical events, and the problem of physically representing that which is past, and by definition impossible to film. Ranging from Claude Lanzmann to Werner Herzog through Georges Perec and Yann Le Masson, comprising many rare and formally adventurous films, the selection would have seemed exciting anywhere; taken as an offering to 15- to 18-year-olds taking their first steps in film analysis, it appears as a formidable gesture of trusting an audience’s intelligence, no matter what age, and its ability to connect the dots and form its own analysis when given enough food for thought.
Belfort’s focus on budding filmmakers and the questions related to beginning a career doubtless gives it added incentive to pay attention to film education: approximately 400 high school students come descend on the festival for thee or for days, from 15 different schools throughout the country, and are offered access not only to the section designed for them, and to the wider competition, but also to lectures on the films they will study. Yet such an event only becomes possible in a context where access to film culture is considered as important enough for a citizen’s education that it becomes worth investing time and money for teaching it as a school subject.2 Of course, this potentially sits quite uneasily with the vibrant strain of cinephilia, embodied most clearly in Antoine Doinel’s memories of sneaking to the cinema to steal images of Citizen Kane, which sees cinema as a quasi-scandalous pleasure, opposed in every way to the pretensions of official culture; and what better representative of official culture than one’s teacher? For those less attached to a combative vision of loving film, this argument makes little sense; but even those for whom the dirt of cinema remains an indispensable part of its appeal, it should be possible to yield to no-one in one’s contempt for middlebrow New York Times standards of taste and still remember that teacher who managed to make Balzac (or Melville, or Goethe, or Dante) come truly alive, and to imagine that a similar role might be played in setting one off on the road to becoming a true, card-carrying Straubo-Verhoevenian (or wherever else such adventures may take one).
To cut a long story short: it was curiosity about how exactly one makes film into a school subject, and how exactly one goes about programming for teenagers, that prompted me to sit down with Lili Hinstin, the section’s programmer, and Isabelle Duperrier, a film teacher at Belfort high school who works with Lili on film selection in the run-up to the festival. My own high school didn’t offer cinema as an option, so that I had no experience of my own to offer as a counterpoint or basis for my questions. Most probably, I would have approached it with the same measure of excitement and suspicion which I saw in the students around me during the festival. As is, interviewing Lili and Isabelle as a film lover already ten years older than their students, there was precious little suspicion left, but certainly excitement to share.

NOTEBOOK: Maybe if you could start by describing the way film teaching happens in France, before we move on to the festival itself. What is the structure of the courses?
ISABELLE DUPERRIER: High school students who pick cinema as their special subject have five hours of teaching a week. There are regular sessions with technicians who come and teach their area of expertise (cinematography, sound, editing…), and students have to make a film in their final year. There are also theoretical classes spent teaching film history and film analysis. The exam is weighted at a coefficient of six, so it really is a very important grade for them.3 They have a written and an oral exam, each weighted at three.
In the oral exam, they’re asked a question on one of the three films in the programme, and they also have to present and discuss their film. For the written part, they have a choice between two sets of questions: they can write a script for four short sequences based on a still they get, and write the corresponding statement of intent. Or they can write an analysis of one of the three films they’ve studied; after which they’re given an excerpt from a script for which they have to give a shot breakdown, with diagrams and camera positions…4
NOTEBOOK: Moving onto the festival, then, how does programming for that work on a general level?
LILI HINSTIN: There are always three films in the programme, and each year the oldest one is taken out and replaced by a new one. Belfort builds a programme around the latest addition; this year, it was Nostalgia for the Light: a relatively straightforward film, clear about what it wants to say, with a precise, classical directing style. It’s political, militant thinking, organised so that we will end up thinking the same way as him. I thought that everyone would end up talking only about the content, and as people forget that documentary is as much about the mise-en-scène as fiction, I decided to offer a variety of documentary directing styles. That’s too big a theme so I had to restrict it to the current heading: Matière et mémoire, matter and memory. The films share a concern with articulating the personal and the political… It’s a question which arose rather late in the history of documentary cinema, and it was an interesting realization to make.
As to how to program more generally… The programme has to fit with the tastes of Entrevues, but be directed at high school students. The other two films currently on the programme are Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica and Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped. For Oliveira, a retrospective wasn’t necessarily the best way to approach things; Oliveira can be a bit destabilizing if you’ve never encountered his work before, and going all the way…
NOTEBOOK: I can imagine, the seven hours of The Satin Slipper
HINSTIN: Precisely. So we decided to go for a thematic approach: “Love Beyond Death.” So we had examples from throughout the history of cinema: A Matter of Life and Death, Corpse Bride, Portrait of Jennie, Solaris... The film added last year was the Audiard, so the programme was built around sound in the cinema, the place of sound within film directing: Blow Out, The Conversation, Duras, Godard… The regional arts council offered sound installations, we had sound experiments in dark rooms… It was a good way to expand the thinking beyond cinema.
NOTEBOOK: One thing that struck me was that it’s pretty demanding cinema for an adult audience, let alone a seventeen-year old one.
HINSTIN: You think so? No, it’s designed with them in mind.
NOTEBOOK: Well, maybe not demanding in the sense that the films are hard to understand, but certainly they’re out of the way, not necessarily something the students would have heard of.
HINSTIN: In that sense yes, maybe. But even then, I tried to include a variety of different things… I included the Rouch film (Couleur du temps: Berlin août 1945) because I thought he was a big name in documentary film-making and they would maybe have heard of him, but that was a mistake I now regret, it’s not one of his best films and it’s not representative. But still, I tried to include stuff that they would have heard of: Herzog, Lanzmann.
NOTEBOOK: How do the reactions go? In terms of obscurity, I went to see Nicolas Rey’s Les Soviets plus l’électricité yesterday—
HINSTIN: And there wasn’t a single high-school student in the room! That’s rare, usually there’s always a certain number. But that one… It’s three hours long, and they probably wouldn’t have heard of it, and their teachers either, which is also a factor: if at the same time Marienbad is playing, that’s got name recognition, and the teacher might recommend that. But I was disappointed, it’s a film I love, I think it’s one of the most important essay films of the 2000s… What did you think?
NOTEBOOK: Like he himself said, I was unsure of how to make my way in, and I was tired so I’m afraid I slept a bit. By the end I was very much in it though, and the Q&A was fascinating.
HINSTIN: Yes, Charlotte Garson, the person running it, is wonderful. We try and have as many directors present as we can, to talk to the students. But that film must have been a challenge to them.
DUPERRIER: To come back to the question of the teachers, it really depends on the individual teachers. Some build a programme, some let their students make their own choices… It’s usually somewhere in the middle: some films you have to see, and then the teacher recommends a few films and the students are free to do their own thing, taking recommendations into account or not.
NOTEBOOK: And how do the students take the festival experience? Are they eager, or do they reject it, because it’s what the teacher says…?
DUPERRIER: They almost never reject it. It’s usually the event of the year, they get three or four days off classes… There’s almost never any rejection. The Seconde5 students, for whom it’s the first time, are sometimes slightly wary: anything before the eighties is old, so black and white films, or non-American films with subtitles… But after they’ve been through the festival that kind of thing is not an issue anymore.
Then after the festival obviously we discuss the films we saw, and there are debates. “How could you recommend something like that?” and such like. I ask them to write reports about what they saw, the aim being that it should be readable for someone who hasn’t seen the film. But some of them go for pretty adventurous stuff: I had a group tell me that it was strange and they didn’t understand it all, but they were impressed by Werner Schroeter’s The Rose King.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe this is a question that only arises because of the particular film selected this year, but what about the speakers you have? The lecturer I saw yesterday wasn’t a film scholar per se but a professor of Hispanic civilisation. Do you consciously try and tie it to other disciplines?
HINSTIN: The kids don’t just have the films in the afternoon, they also have a morning programme. On the first day, they see each other’s films (remember there are students from 15 different schools, so they haven’t seen each other’s films). I get all of them and select the ones I want them all to see. And then on the next two mornings they have a conference. We try and organize it so that one of the conferences is about the film specifically—that’s the one you saw—and the other is about the wider cinematic question: documentary, sound… Those conferences are compulsory; they have to go to them.
DUPERRIER: It depends on the teaching team. Of course history is fundamental for a film like this one, and a history teacher might be involved. And if you don’t know enough about the subject, you do the reading: I might not know all I should about the Algerian war, or whatever else… But the teachers aren’t supposed to draw the teaching towards their own subject, they’re supposed to work on film analysis. I’m certified as a film teacher, so are the others, and we’re supposed to be working on mise en scène. The core of the subject is aesthetic, and the approach should be aesthetic.

1. For wider considerations on this in relation to French culture, I heartily recommend Perry Anderson’s Forget about Paris, a characteristically stimulating personal follow-up to his absolutely essential two-part essay about French culture since the post-war era.
And lest anyone consider this a “the-French-do-it-better” type piece – something perhaps forgivable when foreign critics use a comparison to point to a specific example of what could be improved, but very egregious when served by French critics in large chunks of self-congratulatory narcissism of the “the rest of the world envies us” kind—it must be made clear that it only intends to serve as an exploration of a particular type of initiative. Not only would other examples, such as those mentioned above, make for fascinating and equally enlightening comparative reading; it should also be enough to mention the uninspiring record of the FEMIS, the country’s foremost film school, to point out that all is not well when it comes to film education in the land of camembert and the nouvelle vague.
2. Concerning this, a discussion with an art teacher friend of mine who put me up during the festival (may my thanks be expressed here) was illuminating: when I told her about having interviewed a film teacher about film education in high school, she remarked that the fact that it was still left to the school’s principal to decide whether or not to accept film as a subject offered in the school, with all the inequalities in access to film culture that entails, was yet another mockery made of the ideal of republican equality.
3. Different subjects are weighted differently for the Baccalauréat. As a comparison, for a literary Baccalauréat, philosophy is weighted at 7, French lit at 5, languages at 4, and sports at 2.
4. The word used in French was “découpage”: for considerations on this particular little untranslatable nugget, go to or Noel Burch’s Theory of Film Practice.
5. First of the three years spent in French high schools. Students are aged 15-16.
Great post, many thanks. I’m curious about where I might read more about this: “Olaf Möller has spoken lovingly of the key role of film programming on West German television in the 1970s”—can you provide a link/cite?
Thanks! It’s on the Notebook itself: I also remember a piece about Filmkritik where he mentioned the ties that many of those people had with publically funded TV (Bitomsky, Farocki). It might be this one but it’s too late for me to read it all and check, and even if it isn’t the one I’m thinking of, it’s probably worth reading anyway ;-):

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