Vesoul was the birthplace of arguably the most celebrated of the Orientalist painters, Jean-Léon Gérôme. It seems fitting that it is now the home of a film festival seriously committed to Asian cinema. FICA, the 18ème Festival des Cinémas d’Asie de Vesoul, was held between 4th and 22nd January 2012.
The Festival boasts a host of juries focused on its contemporary Asian cinema section. The main jury awards the (very attractive) Cyclo d’Or for best film; the festival also has a strong and longstanding connection to Netpac, the jury on which I served. The Awards were drawn from the eight contemporary titles screening in the contemporary fiction Competition section, Visages des Cinemas d’Asie Contemporains. Spanning East Asia (represented by Korea’s Dancetown, Jeon Kyu-hwan) through the South East with Cinemanila-supported film Niño (Loy Arcenas, Philippines), Central Asia (Sunny Days by Nariman Turebaev, Kazakhstan) to West Asia with Niki Karimi’s powerful Final Whistle (Iran). The range of themes and topics included the Kurdish and Armenian genocides in Özcan Alper’sThe Future Lasts Forever (Turkey), and veiling in Nurman Hakim‘s Khalifah (Indonesia). However it was Aruna Jayawardana’s August Drizzle (Sri Lanka) which walked away with the two main FICA awards - both the Cyclo d’Or, and the NETPAC Award for “its powerful and unsentimental depiction, rooted in its national cinema, of a rural woman struggling to establish her own identity”. NETPAC also awarded a special mention to the Taiwanese film, Return Ticket (Teng Yung-shin), which was making along with August Drizzle its European premiere, for “its sensitive and moving inter-generational portrait of a dislocated society still dreaming of home”. Niki Karimi’s Final Whistle picked up the most awards - the Emile Guimet Award (Friends of National Museum of Asian Arts of Paris) "for a very courageous film in such a difficult social and political background. We already knew of this talented woman as an actress and as a film maker and discover her today as a committed producer; a true cinema activist such as our friends Jafar Panahi and Motjaba Mirtahmasb”; the INALCO Jury Award (the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations, Paris) for “its commitment in defending social justice and women struggle which are meaningful to us”; and the High Schools Award from the youth jury. But awards are only a small part of the story of Vesoul’s FICA. In its eighteenth year this impressive specialized Asian film festival drew an attendance of 29,000, mostly from the town’s population of only 16,000, and saw many sold out sessions. Community involvement takes the form of more than large audiences - most of the organisation is achieved on a voluntary basis. The constant presence of some fifteen members of the local photography club and the continual flashing of cameras is indicative of engagement by both the local and the film community, from programming through to the generous hospitality. Vesoul’s reputation for “the love, courtesy and unprecedented hospitality of Jean-Marc Thérouanne, his wife Martine, and the entire staff of the film festival” as Aijuz Gul noted last year, begins with an opening night soirée in the Thérouannes’ home and stops only with an early morning farewell from Vesoul on the railway platform. Yet it is the combination of a carefully curated programme with the total community involvement, making this festival a real model for developing grassroots understanding of Asian cinema, that is most impressive. Undoubtedly because of the teaching backgrounds of the directors, Martine and Jean-Marc Thérouanne, there is an emphasis on youth participation through school attendances and a youth jury. An impressive project this year, which began life at Netpac’s Delhi Imaging Asia conference in 2010, involved student masterclasses with Lebanese French director and Netpac member Jocelyne Saab and resulted in a 25:00 film which screened daily at midday. For those who like facts and figures, ponder the 1500 lines of dialogue in electronic subtitling translated especially for Vesoul by Martine Armand and others, then manually projected. This included both competition and retrospective titles and really shows the festival’s commitment to Asian cinema. The quality of the retrospectives is a major strength of the festival. And this year’s four retrospectives made for some very difficult viewing decisions.
The comprehensive retrospectives of Tran Anh Hung and Kore-eda Hirokazu, with both directors in attendance, were drawcards for local and international attendees.
Les Brûlures de l'histoire (The Scars of History), this year’s twenty-two film thematic retrospective, embraced filmmakers’ perspectives of war, colonialism, and revolution throughout the Asian continent from Atiq Rahimi’s (Jury President) Earth and Ashes to Satyajit Ray. It was very well attended by all ages, including school groups, and can only be beneficial in bridging the gulf of understanding between East and West. It was a wonderful opportunity to catch that film you’ve somehow managed to miss at every festival or a rarity such as Jocelynne Saab’s 1979 L’Utopie en Marche, shot at the beginning of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
For me the Kazakhstan Retrospective was the highlight of the festival. Boasting a whopping nineteen titles made since 1938 and a twentieth, in competition, it must surely be the largest ever Kazakh retrospective outside the country. It was programmed by the festival’s central Asia programmer Eugenie Zvonkine and facilitated in part by Gulnara Abikeyeva, Artistic Director of the Eurasia International Film Festival. The Khazakstan delegation included Gulnara and director, Ermek Chinarbaev, a member of the main jury and represented by two of his films.
For FICA to seriously expand beyond France it would need to give more attention to English sub-titling. However the desirability of such expansion is questionable. This gem of a festival, with its wonderful ambience and its community involvement, has all of the virtues and few of the drawbacks of a small festival.
by Anne Demy-Geroe