DorothÃ©e Mertz-Weigel remembers well the very first Armstrong State University Francophone Film Festival.
"We started in April 2009 with just a couple of people and handmade food for the reception, to save money and have a variety of different Francophone cultures represented. Our expectations were quite low as to how many people would come, or if we would even be able to do it another year," the French language professor and director of the school's Office of International Programs and Services explains somewhat wistfully.
On the eve of the 10th installment of this free, community-oriented showcase of award-winning French motion pictures, Mertz-Weigel (who has overseen each of the Francophone Film Fests to date) is clearly proud of the event's steady growth in those intervening years.
"Now, we have the reception catered and important French dignitaries attend every year," she contrasts. "This year it is the vice-consul from the French consulate in Atlanta, Madame Veronique Pret. Many followers have come to expect the festival and attend every single screening every year.
"Plus, many different organizations on campus help us finance the event. While it has become bigger, it is now easier in some ways, such as organizing, and harder in others, such as finding the funds for more advertising!"
The Francophone name refers to anyone who speaks French and to the twin missions of the event: to not only promote a greater understanding that this beautiful language is routinely spoken on all five continents, but also to celebrate the internationally admired French filmmaking industry.
This is the first to take place since Armstrong was consolidated into Statesboro-based Georgia Southern University, and Mertz-Weigel says the logistical and managerial changes that have come along with that merger have had "no impact" on preparation for the festival, and that all involved hope this change will not have an adverse impact on future annual installments of this well-received cultural salute.
As in years past, five feature-length motion pictures will be shown one time each over the course of the event, all in their original French - with English subtitles for those who do not speak the language. However, for the first time in the event's history, the length of the festival has been truncated to only two days. This was accomplished by restructuring the times at which the films were screened: historically, most if not all of the Francophone's shows took place in the evening, yet this year finds two matinees offered. Mertz-Weigel says the reasoning behind this was simple.
"Over the last few years, local French teachers have expressed sadness in not being able to bring K-12 students to the festival, because of the showtimes. Culture is an important part of education, and a big part of our goal is to bring Francophone culture for free to all, kids included!
"We work closely with Chatham County public schools and other area school systems, and listened to their feedback. We have third-graders from Heard Elementary coming with their teacher, Madame Hayden, and Dr. Mark Linsky has been instrumental in getting the word out and helping to coordinate buses so the children can attend."
In addition to local schoolchildren, the public will likely make up a sizable portion of the audience at each of the handful of screenings. "Attendance depends on the time of day, and the theme of the film," says Mertz-Weigel. "However, in recent years it has probably averaged 75 percent from the Armstrong campus and 25 percent from the community at large.
"We even get some tourists who are brave enough to make the drive from the other side of DeRenne Avenue," she says with a laugh.
When asked about her favorite selections contained in this year's lineup, Mertz-Weigel allows that she is impressed by and excited about all five titles being screened.
"We try to catch everyone's interest through variety," she explains. "Our opening night's feature presentation, 'Borders,' offers very timely themes on the global controversy surrounding refugees and the complexity of human nature and human relations, while 'The Big Banana' is a documentary that will make us think about the impact that huge corporations and their high profits can have on local populations. 'Un Monstre a Paris' was chosen because it is rated PG, so all can watch. It is also hilarious!
"My personal favorite, though, is probably 'My Life as Zucchini,' because of the quality of the animation, and its theme of friendship helping to overcome all adversity. 'Louise en Hiver,' on the other hand, is probably the most reflective piece, as the main character, Louise, deals with life and the interconnectivity of French cinema."
While this event marks the final Francophone Film Festival that Mertz-Weigel will personally oversee, she says she has every expectation this wonderful tradition will continue as planned for years to come, and encourages anyone even remotely interested in gaining a different perspective on human nature to come see the world through the eyes of the global French speaking community.
IF YOU GO
What: 10th annual Francophone Film Festival
When: Feb. 22-23
Where: GSU's Armstrong Campus, Ogeechee Theatre, 11935 Abercorn St.
1 p.m. Feb. 22
"Ma Vie de Courgette" aka "My Life as a Zucchini"
This bittersweet 70-minute stop-motion animated comedy is geared toward adults. It follows a police officer and his friends who attempt to assist an orphan to adjust to life in a new foster home. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film and enjoys a 98 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com. (2016, Switzerland)
6 p.m. Feb. 22
"FrontiÃ¨res" aka "Borders"
This poignant, 90-minute drama follows four women from different West African regions who develop friendships during a lengthy bus journey across the continent in which they realize they all face the universal challenge of being independent women. There will be a complimentary dessert reception afterward sponsored by the university's French Club. (2017, Burkina Faso/France)
10 a.m. Feb. 23
"Un monstre Ã Paris" aka "A Monster in Paris"
This 85-minute CGI-animated musical sci-fi fantasy-comedy deals with an escaped monster on the loose in 1910 Paris. It was produced by famed filmmaker Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element") and directed by the co-director of "Shark Tale" and "The Road to El Dorado." It was nominated for the French Oscar for Best Animated Feature. (2011, France)
6 p.m. Feb. 23
"The Banane" aka "The Big Banana"
Banned in the country of its origin, this 85-minute documentary was shot over a two-year period in the remote countryside of Cameroon. It exposes the environmental and financial devastation caused by multinational corporations through their profit-driven business model - as well as the small groups of Fair-Trade organizations resisting these unfair and immoral practices to pay small farmers what they deserve for harvesting bananas to be sent around the world. (2011, Cameroon)
8 p.m. Feb. 23
"Louise en Hiver" aka "Louise by the Shore"
This 75-minute hand-drawn animated drama was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the European Film Awards. It tells the story of an elderly woman who spends the winter months in a deserted French seaside community, with only her loyal dog for companionship. A leisurely and rather dark character study, it is recommended for fans of the similarly paced foreign animated feature "My Dog Tulip." (2016, France)