It all started at the beginning of 1998. UW-Milwaukee French professors Martine Darmon Meyer (1929-2013) and Gabrielle Verdier had just received a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council to celebrate the Sesquicentennial of Wisconsin’s statehood, in 1848. Inspired by all the French place names in the state, partnering with French professors at UW-Green Bay, UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse, and K-12 teachers from across the state, the “Wisconsin’s French Connections” project proposed to explore the connections between France and what would become Wisconsin, from 1634 — when French explorer Jean Nicolet arrived in Green Bay — to the present.
The Cultural Services of the Consulate General of France in Chicago were so supportive of the project that Deputy Cultural Attaché Didier Rousselière encouraged the UWM French Program to apply for the newly created TOURNéES Festival annual grant, which would provide funding to bring five French films to UWM in 1998. Since it was already well into the academic year, the only venue we could find for the first festival was a lecture hall, seating about 140. But thanks to our partners, the Alliance Française of Milwaukee and the newly-formed K-16 SWAAF (Southeast Wisconsin Academic Alliance in French), we were able to organize the festival of five films from the TOURNéES list in just a few weeks, complete with a New Orleans style French café (with beignets and café au lait) during Intermissions.
From 1999 to the present, FFF has been scheduled in February, a month we tend to spend indoors. It has taken place in UWM’s Union Theater, a much larger venue, and has been co-sponsored by UWM Union Programming. With the help of Jonathan Jackson, UWM theater programmer and graduate student in Film from 1999 to 2002, we were able to increase the number of films in the festival. Jonathan went on to become artistic director of the newly founded Milwaukee International Film Festival (MIFF) in 2003 and is now the executive director of the very successful Milwaukee Film Festival.
FFF & MFF cosponsor films and collaborate on programming. For example, when MFF brings a French film dubbed in English (such as the animated film The Rabbi’s Cat), FFF offers the original French version (with English subtitles) to the Milwaukee community and K-12 students in French. In partnership with SWAAF, we developed French Day on a Friday during the festival, and have been inviting 500+ middle and high school students to UWM to view a film and play games related to it — all in French! Most of these films, such as Le Petit Nicolas, Kirikou and the Sorceress, Azur et Asmar, and Persepolis, allow high school students to explore themes that could be considered taboo and world cultures beyond Europe and the U.S.
Our goal has always been to include many French-language films from across the world. After all, Milwaukee was founded by the Quebecois Salomon Juneau, and the state was settled not just by Germans, but also by French-speakers from Belgium, Luxembourg, and Canada. Milwaukee now includes communities of French speakers from Senegal and other African countries, as well as Haiti. Starting in 2005, with the enthusiastic support of Timothy Rogus of the Québec Government Office in Chicago, we were able include several films from Québec rarely distributed in the U.S. We have continued to include films from Québec with the support of the Québec Delegation. And so, in 2006, the FFF—French Film Festival—became the Festival of Films in French.
Programming The Rabbi’s Cat in 2014 stemmed directly from the grant we received from the Helen Bader Foundation in 2004: “Displacement and Diaspora in Recent Francophone Cinema: Representing Jews, Resistance Fighters, and Collaborators During World War II, and Postcolonial Migrants from French-speaking Africa.” This project has resulted in a close collaboration with the Jewish Studies Program and the Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at UWM. They have helped us bring films and documentaries to campus and to organize lectures and talkbacks through out the years. And so, southeastern Wisconsin’s Jewish community has become a faithful supporter of FFF, as well.
Other wonderful partners on campus and in the community have joined us in this effort. Our Monday screening is now devoted to African and Caribbean-themed films and is co-sponsored by Union Sociocultural Programming, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the Department of Africology. For several years, we showed films by Haitian filmmakers. This became all the more relevant in 2010 when the earthquake devastated Haiti. With our partner Youthaiti, we added the bake sale for Haiti, with delicious Haitian and French pastries prepared and sold by high school and college students and community volunteers. The proceeds are used for building sustainable sanitation in the country now devastated by cholera.
FFF has worked with numerous other co-sponsors on the UWM campus including among many others the Department of French, Italian, and Comparative Literature (FICL), the Department of English, the Master of Arts in Language, Literature, and Translation (MALLT), the Center for International Education (CIE), the Center for 21st Century Studies (C21), the Women’s Studies Program, Union Programming’s “Share the Earth”, the Milwaukee LGBT Film Festival, and Marquette University. These collaborations have led FFF to show an extremely wide range of films in French.
FFF challenges the stereotype of French cinema as verbose, static, and elitist by including silent and classic films, in collaboration with the Department of Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres, as well as the Film Studies Program. Tuesdays are devoted to silent films with live musical accompaniment provided by Renato Umali, a very popular evening for both film buffs and specialists (with films such as The Seashell and the Clergyman by Germaine Dulac, The Faithful Heart by Jean Epstein, J’accuse by Abel Gance, as well as Money and El Dorado by Marcel L’Herbier). Film Studies professor Tami Williams obtains hard-to-find prints from France and leads the discussions. Our Thursday Classic Film Night includes the latest re-mastered prints of iconic films released in the U.S., as well as original prints of films unavailable in this country (such as Fire and Ice by Alain Cavalier, Pierrot le fou by Jean-Luc Godard, Army of Shadows by Jean-Pierre Melville, and La Grande Illusion by Jean Renoir). In 2007, the French Cultural Services transported the hilarious comedy The Big Runaround (La Grande Vadrouille by Gérard Oury, 1966) for us in a diplomatic valise. It was the most popular film in France until 2008, but impossible to find in the U.S., and it brought down the house at UWM. A few years later, a new print of Jean Cocteau’s film Beauty and the Beast packed the Union Theater and some people had to sit on the floor.
Since 1998, the TOURNÉES grant offerings have included more and more francophone films; more recently, they have again expanded their catalog with the new Classics Selection. FFF looks forward to continued collaboration with the TOURNÉES Festival, our community co-sponsors (the Alliance Française of Milwaukee and SWAAF) as well as our co-sponsors on the UWM campus.
Thanks, especially, to the very generous support of Doctor Richard Stone, a great lover of French-language films who has been subsidizing many of the costs since 2005, we have been able to offer everyone free admission to all the films. And we are confident that FFF will be enjoyed by lovers of film for many years to come.