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The Tournées Fest -- Diplomacy Through French Film

In the 15 years since the Tournées Festival began bringing contemporary French films to campuses across the U.S., it has stirred that warm, bubbly feeling for Gallic cinema normally induced by champagne. The Festival’s creators, Cultural Services of the French Embassy and French American Cultural Exchange (FACE), are downright giddy about its stats.

As well they should be. Some 350 films have reached 450,000 students in 350 universities since the program’s founding in 1995; and in 2009-2010 alone, 100 or so universities from nearly 40 states and Puerto Rico benefited from its largesse.

French cinephilia has even spread to l’Amérique Profonde. This includes a state school in Maine and a small bible college in Alabama, as FACE Chairman of the Board Jacques Bouhet told a glittering crowd assembled last night at the French Consulate in New York to fête the program’s anniversary.

Following the wine-leavened reception, guests were shuttled across Central Park to Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, for a screening Of Gods and Men at the New York Film Festival. The new drama by Xavier Beauvois is France's submission for the 2011 Academy Awards, and it’s also one of the selections on this year’s Tournées slate.

University partners that choose it for their festivals will need a minimum of four more films – shown within one month -- in order to qualify for a grant. But any five titles among this year’s menu of 70 films will do.

In the mix they’ll find festival award winners by veteran French directors such as André Téchiné (The Girl on the Train/La fille du RER) and Agnès Varda (The Beaches of Agnès/Les plages d’ Agnès), not to mention the last work from the recently deceased Claude Chabrol (Comedy of Power/L’ivress du pouvoir). They'll additionally discover festival favorites of younger talents including Ursula Meier (Home) and Serge Bozon (La France).

The films span a range of genres and topics, and give a broad sampling of the aesthetic and storytelling currents wafting through the Hexagon of late.

Nurturing this Francophilic renaissance in America is a shiny pot d'or. Each year the Festival offers more than $200,000 in grants for the nation’s institutes of higher learning to showcase new works from French filmmakers – and to continue doing so on their own after their eligibility for funding expires five years hence. Depending on the format in which films are shown, annual handouts range from $1,800 to $2,300, with the plumper tab reserved for 35mm.

Not since the Rockefeller initiatives uniting the Hemisphere has cultural diplomacy seen such a neighborly embrace.

On this side of the Atlantic, a near minion of film mavens make up the programming committee, including the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Richard Peña and Marian Masone as well as film critic Melissa Anderson.

Co-founder of arthouse distributor Rialto Pictures, Adrienne Halpern, is also among the braintrust. To be sure, the short- and long-term success of the Tournées Festival hinges on close collaboration with stateside distributors.

Once campus programmers draw up their shopping lists, it’s up to them to reach out to the films’ distributors. By working directly with the industry, they can cultivate the contacts and savoir faire to be self-sustaining producers of French film festivals.

Napoleon himself couldn’t have forged a better strategy.

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