Try to count how many foreign films you’ve seen in your life. If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably only watched a handful.
“99 percent of the films on the screen in the United States are produced in the United States," says WMU French professor Vincent Desroches. "Which means that…to the point where the American public has lost the habit of reading a film with subtitles. We have to convince them.”
For the last 12 years, Desroches has helped organize the Francophone Film Festival in Kalamazoo. The festival this week will show seven feature films and six short films produced in the French-speaking world. Desroches says there are more people who speak French than you might think.
“About half of Africa has French as the official language. And we can even say that French is more an African language right now than a European one,” he says. “This is a great experience to see how they tell stories and what is the reality there.”
In fact, many of the films chosen for Francophone were shown at a Canadian film festival in Montreal called Vues d’Afrique, which translates to “visions of Africa” or “movies from Africa.”
Chad Burke was one of the WMU students who went with Desroches to the festival last summer. He’s been to Paris six times, but Burke says going to Vues d’Afrique gave him a glimpse of cities we know very little about.
“Certain cities that you might think antediluvian or outdated or out of touch, and seeing how much of a metropolis they actually are and kind of breaking down some of those stereotypes,” says Burke.
On Thursday night, the festival will show the film Grey Matter, the first film about the genocide in Rwanda to be made in Rwanda. WMU student Michelle Tomasko actually got to meet the film’s director.
“He did it in a way that wasn’t violent but still portrayed how much of a struggle it was for their country,” she says. “I feel like it served it justice because of the people that didn’t live through it have portrayed it in their own vision, which you know isn’t quite as accurate as someone who experienced it first hand.”
Desroches says while the U.S. makes films about Africa, we rarely get to hear from Africans themselves.
“Sometimes we have American films that will take place in Africa, but it’s always—nearly always—the story of one American person having adventures and they’re interacting for a brief moment towards terrible problems and then leaving.”
But the festival isn’t all documentaries. There are historical films like Toussaint, about the slave rebellion in Haiti during the 1700s. Dramas like Mesnak, a Native American version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The first Native American film in French. Some films defy genres, like Laurence Anyways, about a male-to-female transsexual and her lover.
The Francophone Film Festival not only brings world films to Kalamazoo, but also a few of their filmmakers. The audience will get to meet the directors of Mesnak and The Weight of the Oath, a story about two men in a mysterious West African hunters fraternity. The audience will pick their favorite feature film and a short. The winning directors get cash prizes and a golden kazoo.
All the films will have English subtitles. And though you may not be a fan of reading during your movie, Vincent Desroches says it opens up a world of creativity.
“We forget that cinema is a universal art, just like music is," Desroches says. "With subtitles, we can access cultures from across the planet and this is what we offer here.”
The Francophone Film Festival starts Wednesday at The Little Theatre in Kalamazoo. WMU Professor Vincent Desroches says registration is still open for his upcoming trip to the Vues d'Afrique film festival in Montreal in May. For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.