When French and film studies professor Francoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick, and Peter Kirkpatrick, a French civilization, culture and film studies professor at VCU, started the French Film Festival in 1992, they had one modest goal in mind: to get more students interested in studying French.
“At the time, we were seeing a lot of Spanish majors, we wanted to have more students at both of our schools studying French, not just majors and minors, but taking entry level courses as well,” Kirkpatrick said. The pair had contacts in France who specialized in music and literature, but decided that working with the multidisciplinary medium of film had the most potential.
From the very beginning, the Festival was a hit. “We had to call up the production company we got the films from and ask them for permission to show them again because the auditorium we were using was standing-room and there were people waiting outside to get in,” Kirkpatrick said.
They moved the Festival the following year to the former Biograph Theater on VCU’s campus, but before they could show the films, they had to renovate the space, which had been vacant for several years. “We went to Baltimore to get chairs that we had to screw down into the floor, we had to take the projectors apart and clean them, we had to repaint the building and put carpeting in,” Ravaux-Kirkpatrick recalls. “And we did it all with students.”
By year four, they had outgrown the Biograph, and approached the Byrd Theatre about hosting the festival there. “The Byrd is one of the last ten cinema palaces in the world, so it had recognition from the actors and directors in France,” Kirkpatrick said. “We were just thrilled to be able to show film in front of so many people.”
And while the Festival has continued to grow over the past 25 years, its core principles remain the same. “By gathering American students and film fans with French actors and directors who come to present their films, we’re able to have very frank discussions about film,” says Kirkpatrick. “The actors and directors like to hear Americans ask ‘why did you do this in your film,’ where in France, because of the star power these people have, audiences are too timid to ask direct questions.”
The Kirkpatricks have more than exceeded their original goal of increasing student interest in studying French and French film, they have built something that is interwoven into the fabric of the city of Richmond. The Festival has impacted the curriculum at both VCU and UR with the creation of new courses on the history of film and French film, as well as to the creation of a narrative film program at VCU and the bolstering of the Film Studies program at UR. And those students who were involved in the Festival continue to support it years later. “Many of our former students come back to Richmond each year to meet for the Festival, to have a reunion, and we’ve also met families where the parents attended the Festival when they were younger and are now bringing their children,” says Ravaux-Kirkpatrick.
This year’s Festival attendees may want to plan their trip to Richmond a few days early. With help from the Tucker-Boatwright Festival for Literature and the Arts, the Kirkpatricks are also presenting a free three-day symposium at the University of Richmond to celebrate the Festival’s 25th Anniversary.
“French Film: Art, Science, and Technology at Work for Humanity II” brings French directors, producers, and other cinema artists together to discuss the role of arts, science, and technology in creating a moving cinematic experience. “We want to focus this year on authenticity and visual sovereignty,” Ravaux-Kirkpatrick said. “How are directors authors of stories? How does the voice of the author coincide with and respect voices of the subjects? How do music composers interact with filmmakers in the cinematic creative process? We wanted to unearth all of that to students, the public, and all people who come to the symposium.”