The American French Film Festival (TAFFF) is using cinema to bridge the gap between French and American culture.
Presented by the Franco-American Cultural Fund (FACF), the 26th annual festival returns this year for a second time after a pandemic hiatus in 2020. This year, the festival is committed to not only highlighting the similarities between the two cultures, but also zeroing in on the differences to shine a light on how each culture can better understand the other.
“When you organize conversations in a bicultural setting, it’s always full of surprises, and that’s the point of conversations,” festival deputy director Anouchka van Riel tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And for me, it’s not so much about commonalities, as it is about differences. The tropes, the codes, the stereotypes are very different from one culture to another. It’s a very strange feeling when you work with two countries that are Western countries and you think that actually they’re very similar. Then, you actually find out that there are huge cultural differences. That’s where we have that core cross-cultural exchange. This festival is really a bridge.”
Previously known as City of Lights, City of Angels (COLCOA), the festival rebranded this year to TAFFF — a move that brings cinema to the heart of the name. The approach behind the name change was also to find a moniker that was not only more clear to filmmakers and the public, but also more in line with the brand and mission of the FACF.
“It’s a fresh new name that speaks clearly about what this festival has to offer to a fresh new generation of viewers who are embracing international film, television and streaming content like never before,” says FACF board member and Motion Picture Association EMEA president and managing director Stan McCoy. “Getting young people interested and passionate about this phenomenal industry is one of the aspects that I love most about the Franco-American Cultural Fund’s work and mission, and the name change is right in line with that mission.”
The weeklong festival will kick off at the Directors Guild of America on Oct. 10, with the North American premiere of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Notre-Dame on Fire, which re-creates the historic events of April 15, 2019, when the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire. This year, Annaud will serve as TAFFF’s honorary chairman. The festival will feature 75 films and series, along with 20 shorts, including Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret’s The Worst Ones, Alexandru Belc’s Metronom, Kevin Ossona and Fabrice Garçon’s Blazing Neon and Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s Divertimento.
The films will compete for The American French Film Festival Awards, in which the audience will vote in three categories: cinema, television and shorts. Additionally, a student jury of high school and college students will vote for the American Students Award, while a professional jury will vote for best short film.
“This selection of French films and series in competition for The American French Film Festival Awards underscores — despite the two-year pandemic period — the astounding dynamism of the French production community,” says festival executive producer and programmer Francois Truffart. “This 26th edition of the festival is notable for its diversity of genres, the emergence of new talent and particularly for the creativity coming from new female filmmakers.”
He adds, “It’s very important for us to be able to give [the new filmmakers] this first opportunity. For newcomers, being at the DGA, being in Hollywood, with their film is like a dream.”
In programming the festival, Truffart strives for the filmmakers — veterans and newcomers alike — to have the chance to make connections within the industry. Franco-American Cultural Fund president Cécile Rap-Veber emphasizes the “business dimension” of the festival that allows for exchanges between professionals, whether it be in panels, Q&As or dedicated meetings.
“The creators [get the opportunity] to sit down with their fellow filmmakers,” adds former longtime DGA national executive director Jay D. Roth about the festival’s industry presence. “There are events where the filmmakers get together [and] evenings where the filmmakers get together. There are visits to studios to introduce people to possible means of distribution. That’s the other side of the festival. It’s not a film market, but it has aspects of really trying to be a place where it’s not just a place for people to see movies. It’s a place that can be a launching pad for those movies to get outside those theaters and into North America.” Roth is also an FACF board member.
Closing day on Oct. 16 will screen Dominik Moll’s mystery thriller The Night of the 12th, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. The Alicia Vikander-starring series Irma Vep, from A24 and HBO, will also have its North American theatrical premiere on the last day of the festival.
“So many of these films are representative of various issues that will be universal,” says Writers Guild of America representative and Franco-American Cultural Fund board member Andrea Berloff. “I think that the goal of the Franco-American Cultural Fund is trying hard to bridge the gaps and have people understand one another better. I think a lot of these films help with that.”
“When we launched the festival in 1997, no one could have imagined that the American French Film Festival would become the largest French film festival in the world,” adds Rap-Veber. “Today, it is a recognized and respected event, symbol of sharing, discoveries and cultural exchanges. For the Franco-American Cultural Fund, it is a unique way to link France and America around a shared passion for film, television and those who create them.”
While Hollywood studios previously thought subtitles to be a hindrance on the viewing experience, that’s changing. In recent years, the rise of foreign language films like the Oscar-winning Parasite and TV shows such as worldwide phenomenon Squid Game has opened the door for even more international projects to speak to a broader audience.
“There was a kind of dark period, where it was the belief of studios and television networks that people don’t want to read subtitles, and therefore foreign films were considered uninteresting financially, and therefore, uninteresting culturally or aesthetically,” says screenwriter, FACF board member and former WGA president Howard Rodman. “Because of the streaming services, there is now far less xenophobia about world cinema, and far less xenophobia about people speaking in foreign languages.”
And it’s not just a feeling among industry insiders. Van Riel, who works largely with TAFFF’s education and youth programs, claimed that more than 80 percent of high-school students surveyed by the FACF did not care if subtitles were playing on a film — they simply wanted to watch the film.
“Almost 10 years ago, 80 percent of our students said, ‘We don’t care about subtitles. Just show us films like this, we want to see them,’” says van Riel. “The problem is the pipeline is very restricted in the United States, it’s hard to distribute a French film. A place like The American French Film Festival allows this to happen on a bigger platform for young people to discover this.”
In this cross-cultural exchange of cinema, the Franco-American Cultural Fund also hopes to expand how mainstream audiences typically view French society. In order to do this, TAFFF is focused on bringing more diverse stories and filmmakers into the program.
“When Hollywood [portrays] France, we think of every grocery bag having a baguette sticking out,” says Rodman. “Somewhere in the background of every romance, there’s the Eiffel Tower, right? That’s France. But France is as complex a place as the United States. And finally, United States audiences are able to see that. I see this as another part of a dialogue that’s been going on for well over a century now. I love that the American French Film Festival gets to continue that dialogue deep into the 21st century. It makes us understand that that was not a one-off thing, but a cultural exchange and a conversation, which will continue and continue.”
“French society is not a monolith, and French cinema is not a monolith anymore,” adds van Riel. “There are new voices coming from places where filmmaking was not available for a long time. The American French Film Festival is programming the voices of diversity, the voices from the projects in France that — if you’re an American tourist — you will not necessarily see. These are powerful stories, and these are powerful people. It’s very important for our festival to show the diverse voices of French society. Because cinema is obviously what makes this city Los Angeles, but ultimately, cinema is made out of real stories from real people.”
The American French Film Festival kicks off on Oct. 10 at the Directors Guild of America Theater Complex in West Hollywood.