The 35th Créteil International Women’s Film Festival, which was held from March 22 to 31, featured several special events this year. First, tributes were given to veteran filmmakers and actresses who have attended previous festivals such as Margarethe von Trotta, Suzanne Osten, Mira Nair, Ulrike Ottinger, Agnes Varda, Carmen Maura, Maria Schneider and Anna Karina. These competent directors and actresses have created beautiful imagery and powerful stories on women through image and gestalt. This can only happen at a world-class panorama such as Créteil Films de Femmes. The international event language is French and English.
Créteil Films de Femmes celebrated its 35th anniversary as the largest festival that promotes films made by women in the world. The festival began in 1979 to profile the work of women at film festivals and we know this does not happen very often. Just look at Cannes this past year, where only one woman’s film was chosen in one of the major sections – Catherine Corsini’s Three Worlds in Un Certain Regard. During the 65th Cannes Film Festival a concerted protest was also made about the fact that only one woman had ever been awarded the Palme d’Or.
Today women are reluctant to have their film labeled as a “women’s film,” which is believed to limit its accessibility. However, for a generation nurtured on Créteil, there is no better festival than this one because of its focus on women. True, the place is not quite as packed as before, but at some events it still is. Créteil Films de Femmes has also had to contend with the commercial and cultural factors that shape programming at film festivals with a slimmer program this year, but the quality is still high.
The French government supports the festival, as does the Regional Council and the Créteil Mayor and Prefecture. Youth from the Créteil high schools and university are also involved in the festival, documenting the event on film. During the year, the festival creates video workshops for them with selected themes and their films are screened in the Créteil Prefecture where feedback is given by the audience.
The new Minister for Women’s Rights in François Hollande’s government, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, visited the festival on Day 3 and proclaimed how important the Créteil event was. “Even the Lumière Brothers had a sister,” she declared. In the festival catalogue, she was generous in supplying ample statistics defying the myth that equality has been reached by women in France: “Five percent of classical concerts are directed by women; 90% of the national dramatic theatres are directed by men; 4% of operas are directed by women, and 13% of the technicians in the cultural arena are women. For the world of cinema, it is the same,” wrote Vallaud-Belkacem. It is with astonishment that it seems generally accepted that despite this inequality, a women’s film festival is just not that important and today is regarded as “politically incorrect” for its focus on women. Créteil nevertheless continues to devote itself to “the privileged exhibition of film directors from around the world; it has become over time the only professional event on a major international auteur cinema long discriminated against and poorly dispersed.”
Créteil has many features that are popular with veteran attendees. There is a petite salle and a grande salle – a small and a large theater – in the same building, which builds a warm and intimate environment for spectators. Nearby is a bus shuttle to Cinema La Lucarne, a small theater five minutes from the festival that initially was a youth center that opened in 1966. In 1978 the cinema opened. One of the administrators of this cinema, Corinne Turin, told me that there are over 3,000 movie theaters in France and that the government wants to keep them all open and has footed the cost to digitize the projection equipment.
In San Francisco, for example, the Lumiere, and the Bridge, the Alhambra and the Coronet all have closed because of the high costs of converting the facilities for digital projection. Well, since France is the birthplace of cinema, it is understandable that the government would want to preserve the facilities.
The opening night of the festival featured the screening of two pioneers of French cinema – Alice Guy and Germaine Dulac, and one German pioneer – Lotte Reiniger.
On Day 2, a documentary by Nadia El Fani and Alina Isabel Perez was screened, Même pas mal (2012), which deals with El Fani’s fight against cancer while making her film Laïcité Inch’Allah! (2011), a story that received great attention in the French media. Franco-Tunisian El Fani began making Laïcité, a documentary on freedom of speech in Tunisia three months before the beginning of the Tunisian Revolution against the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and kept filming during this historical event. A film like this invited a strong political debate afterwards.
The guest of honor this year was Jeanne Balibar, an actress unknown outside of Europe who selects films that are noteworthy for their extraordinary themes. At Ellen’s Age (Im Alter von Ellen, 2010), by the German director Pia Marais was screened for the occasion on Day 2. It’s the story of a flight attendant (Balibar) who goes through a life crisis, suffers a panic-attack that causes her to lose her job and has a decisive encounter with a group of young animal-rights activists who do protests against the meat industry, wrapping themselves in plastic in public places and lying in huge cartons that look like packages in the meat sections of supermarkets.
A film like this is a rare treat, so you can imagine how extraordinary it was watching it. Balibar herself wondered why the film wasn’t better received. For her retrospective she had to point out that she wasn’t a “militant feminist,” which she finds “moralizing and reactionary.” Alas this is the obligatory reservation that comes when a woman points out the misogyny in the film industry as Balibar has done.
There were several sections of the festival in addition to the Balifor retrospective, including feature, documentary and short film competitions and a special competition of films about young people. The special geographical focus this year was entitled “Extreme Europe” – films by young women from the former Soviet bloc countries. Additionally there was a section entitled “Les Bonnes” (“The Maids”), that featured classics of women’s cinema and strong women’s portraits on the theme of servitude, such as The Housemaid, by the disturbingly creative Kim Ki-Young from South Korea, screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. The eerie film is about a young woman who is employed in the house of a school music teacher to help his wife. The maid becomes increasingly diabolical. Another film was Sally Potter’s Yes (UK, 2004) about a Lebanese man and Irish woman in love in London, whose relationship is commented upon by the people who serve them as a kind of Greek chorus.
On Day 4 in conjunction with Amnesty International the documentary Even a Bird Needs a Nest (Même un oiseau a besoin de son nid, 2012) by Vincent Trintignant-Corneau and Christine Chansou was presented. In an innovative style without voiceover the filmmakers show rather than tell the story of one million displaced Cambodians whose homes have been destroyed and the land sold for commercial purposes. A strong spokeswoman who has rallied together the people in protest is Tep Vanny who allowed the filmmakers to follow the protests under the condition that they got the word out to the world about the injustice of the Cambodian officials. The film is beautifully photographed and the composition has a free and independent spirit.
On Day 6 the MAC/VAL-Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne (administered by the Creteil Prefecture) was invited to present a program of short experimental films. The most prominent of them, The Capsule (2012), was made by the award winning Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari together with Aleksandra Waliszewska. Dakis Joannou, a Greek Cypriot art collector, and the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, commissioned the film for the Deste Fashion Collection. The film was shot on the Greek island of Hydra with a group of seven women dressed in wearable sculpture and led by a high priestess. Her coven is engaged in various rituals including dancing, walking goats by the dock, and metamorphosing into different forms. The lead actress is Ariane Labed winner of the Coppa Volpi for Best Actress at the 2010 Venice Film Festival for her role in Tsangari’s Attenberg (Greece 2010). The brilliant cinematography and disturbing story makes it one of the best avant-garde films made in recent years.
Following the short program was an event planned by L’Étrange festival (“The Strange festival”) in Paris, featuring two films by French filmmaker Angélique Bosio. The first was the world première of a documentary about a virtually unknown French designer, Fifi Chachnil, Pretty en Rose (2013). Fifi is known for designing fashionable lingerie and attire for women and has worked with filmmakers such as the gay team of Pierre and Gilles. The doc by Bosio is a rich tapestry of interviews with a refreshing use of backdrops including a flowered coach placed in the garden or Fifi’s bedroom. The designer’s creations and achievements are so extraordinary that one is enthralled by this homage to a very creative woman and mother of three daughters, who all appear in the film. Bosio spent six years making the film, which she also partially crowdfunded.
Bosio’s second film, Llik your Idols (2007), was about the “Cinema of Transgression” underground film movement of the 1980’s, a term coined by the American Nick Zedd. The films were inexpensive and created for shock value, often with a humorous effect.
On the final evening of the festival was a special screening of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (Germany, 2012). Barbara Sukowa plays the German-American political theorist. Arendt wrote several important books and also covered the trial of Eichmann as a reporter for the New Yorker. She was critical about how the trial was conducted and a large part of von Trotta’s film treats this.
In a parallel screening, the experimental new work of a woman whose films always debut at Créteil was screened: Catherine Corringer’s Queens, a film that deals with the intersections of childhood, aging, and gender identity.
On Day 9 of the festival, the international jury selected Hemel, by Dutch director Sacha Polak as the best feature film of Créteil this year. This is the story of a woman who is lost in a series of relationships and whose father soon becomes seriously interested in a new woman, which shakes Hemel’s foundation.
Other prizes awarded include:
Mention special/Honorable mention: The Mirror Never Lies by Kamila Andini (Indonesia, 2011). The story of an Indonesian mother, Tayung, and her 12-year-old daughter Pakis, whose husband/father is missing at sea. The film is set in the Coral Triangle and portrays the lives of the Bajo people today.
Prix du Public: Meilleur long métrage fiction/Audience prize for best fiction feature film: Inch’Allah by Anaïs de Barbeau-Lavalette (Canada, 2012). The story of Chloe, a young Canadian obstetrician working in a makeshift clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp of the West Bank.
Prix du Public: Meilleur long métrage documentaire/Audience prize for best documentary feature film: Even a bird needs a nest, by Christine Chansou and Vincent Tritignant-Corneau (France, 2012). The film about one million Cambodians who have lost their homes to make way for commercial development, and the massive protest movement this led to.
Prix du jury Graine de Cinéphage/Jury youth prize for best feature: The Bag of Flour (Le Sac de farine, directed by Kadija Leclere, Tunisia, 2012). The story of a young girl in Belgium whose father one day arrives at her school to take her to live in Morocco. She grows up learning how to sew and knit rather than study math, science and art. One day everything changes.
Créteil is clearly up to date, but defies the protocol of rival festivals, and after 35 years remains a maverick in the arena. 35 years is a sign of longevity. Anyone attending Créteil will walk away enriched with some of the following experiences: an insight into a special genre of cinema with a special focus on films from a particular geographical area, intense political debates on the themes of the films, paying tribute to a body of work by a prominent director or actor, access to veteran and classic films and new work, and an exhilarating feeling of coming close to the French cultural politics of cinema. France is after all where cinema began and was born.
Moira Sullivan is an international scholar, lecturer, film critic, promoter and experimental filmmaker based in San Francisco. She is a member of FIPRESCI (Federation of International Film Critics) and has a PhD in cinema studies. Her graduate studies in film were conducted at San Francisco State University. Sullivan is one of the world’s experts on the work of the legendary filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961). Since 1995 Sullivan has been a staff writer for Movie Magazine International, and does weekly radio reports on film reviews, film events and festivals. She served on the Queer Palm Jury in Cannes 2012. Sullivan has attended the Créteil Festival since the 1990s and is the Nordic consultant for the festival.