Though it was bizarre to emerge from the theater and come face to face with the actor you just watched standing outside smoking a cigarette, being part of the hubbub made the eight-plus hours squeezed into the seats of the Byrd Theatre worth it.
The crowd of film enthusiasts varied from college students to more mature audiences with a taste for French film. Kathleen Walsh and her husband, Touraj Khalepari, of Washington, D.C., have attended the festival for the last three years after hearing about it through the French Embassy. "I really enjoyed the variety, the comedies, the animations, the thrillers," Walsh said after the final film. "It always seems to be a nice balance."
A group of French-speaking middle-school students from the Lycée Rochambeau French International School in Bethesda, Md., had the opportunity to become French film buffs overnight. "At first I thought the kids were too young," said English teacher and chaperone Teresa Conlin. "When they had the opportunity to speak to the actors and directors and got autographs, I saw a fever go through these children. They went from very young children to a very mature audience with enthusiasm."
Director Bertrand Tavernier was one of the autograph targets at Saturday evening's post-screening reception at the Landmark Theater, but he didn't mind the attention. "I think it's marvelous to get an audience that's not snobbish," he said. "People come and they are eager to love and to understand. It's probably one of the greatest things it fulfills the hope we have when we make our films, which is to bring people together and to talk to a lot of people we do not know."
Director Patrick Braoudé agreed with his compatriot. "We see real people here, and that is why this festival is so different from the others," he said after the screening of his feature "Iznogoud" and the subsequent Q&A session.
Star of "Jean Jaurès: naissance d'un géant" and "€a commence aujourd'hui," Philippe Torreton thinks the festival can help break down the barrier between French films and American audiences. "There is a wall of protectionism you can't pierce because you need money," Torreton said through a translator. "If we can develop more and more small initiatives like festivals, we can create little by little an audience."
Star-gazing and film distribution aside, it's the enthusiasm and dedication of the festival organizers and staff that are unique. Take, for example, Richard Haselwood the associate director of the festival who spends the other 361 days of the year as a humanitarian aid worker in Nairobi. A former student of festival director Peter Kirkpatrick, he returns every year to help organize. "Every time somebody new comes, they are pretty awestruck and it is something you have to experience," he said during a brief lull between herding the throngs of audience members and fielding questions from other volunteers. "I always wonder every year, what are we going to do next?" S