March 1, 2018 | Feature
faces, places, cable car spaces
bringing french film to providence
I walked down College Hill to Cable Car Cinema on a rainy Sunday. That afternoon, I planned to see the Academy Award-nominated film Faces Places (Visages, villages), screened as part of the Providence French Film Festival.
I predicted the scene I would be met with: a quiet, cozy space soundtracked by the hum of a coffee machine and the comings and goings of occasional customers. I thought I might even get some work done before the movie started.
Instead, I found Cable Car full, in every sense of the word.
College students made up just a fraction of the afternoon rush. Alongside them crowded middle-aged and older adults, couples, families with young kids. The festival was organized in collaboration with Brown’s French department, but the day’s attendance was by no means limited to campus dwellers.
Cable Car’s eclectic decor and merchandise echoed the lively, varied crowd. On the brick wall behind the counter, beers, juices, copper tea containers, and decaf espresso beans sat alongside T-shirts and tote bags, arranged like 3D wallpaper. Cable Car’s snack selection, simultaneously old-fashioned and hip, featured individually-wrapped brownies and peppermint patties alongside whole food protein bars. Popcorn toppings included Old Bay seasoning, curry powder, and nutritional yeast, labeled with colorful markers in home kitchen-style shakers.
Every couple of seconds, cafe employees slid fresh orders across the counter. With every announcement, another item from Cable Car’s extensive menu came to life. One tomato basil panini with a soup of the day! Toasted sesame bagel! Red eye, London fog! With all of Cable Car’s six round tables occupied, I noticed many orders were eaten standing up. Behind a roomful of conversations, the espresso machine whirred and the ceiling fan buzzed. I overheard customers ordering tickets days in advance. A bell rang after each transaction.
“Sold out,” the cashier told me. “I recommend buying in advance.” I bought a ticket for Tuesday’s showing of 12 Days (12 Jours).
By 1:30 p.m. a line extended out the front door and into the rainy drizzle.
Cable Car may be known for its intimate, idiosyncratic space, but since its founding 40 years ago, the cinema has also acted as a community hub. Its showcases of recent independent and art films, roster of guest speakers, and abundance of panels draw an audience from across the city of Providence. According to Richard Blakely, French film festival director and research associate in French studies at Brown, the festival represents this same collective, communal effort, both past and present.
Beginning in October, an informal committee headed by Blakely worked to brainstorm and assemble the 2018 film selection. The group included Cable Car owner Daniel Kamil, professors, graduate and undergraduate students: in Blakely’s words, “whoever’s interested, really.” As the festival drew closer, a range of Brown administrators helped design the festival’s web presence and promotional materials. Kamil reached out to film distributors, gradually narrowing down a preliminary list of about 150 films to just 15.
Blakely feels especially excited about this year’s film festival lineup and high audience turnout. Besides a retrospective showing of The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le crime de monsieur Lange), Blakely said all films shown were made within the past year and a half. For instance, the festival makes Cable Car one of the first theaters in the United States to screen Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx.
In many ways, the festival has remained consistent over its 21 years of existence. For instance, it has always taken place at Cable Car during the final week of February—“a nice time to signal the beginning of springtime,” as Blakely put it. The festival began when a group of interested Brown students and faculty began working together to seek out films and funding; today, Blakely still views active student involvement as a hallmark of the festival’s success.
For example, I ran into Angie Kang at the festival, a sophomore Brown-RISD dual degree student studying comparative literature and illustration. On Sunday, she saw two movies in a row: The Big Bad Fox (Le grand méchant renard et autres contes) followed by Faces Places (Visages, villages).
Angie was required to attend the screenings for her French course, but she is a long-time French film enthusiast. Since last summer, Angie has spent a portion of her free time watching French TV shows to practice listening comprehension outside of class (without “slaving over a textbook”): Her favorites include Call My Agent! (Dix pour cent), about the lives of film agents, and Miraculous, an animated children’s show.
Angie described the vibe of Faces Places as playful but also meditative, even existential. In the film, Angès Varda and street artist J.R.—also the film’s writers and directors—travel around France to take pictures of strangers and paste the photographs in public spaces. While Angie admitted some of her French classmates considered the assignment a burden during midterm season, she said the films prompted her to notice nuances in French humor and colloquial speech.
Angie also paid attention to the festival’s attendees: While she heard “a lot of squeals and little kid laughter” in the earlier screening of The Big Bad Fox, a middle-aged and older crowd arrived for Faces Places.
“Two distinct generations,” Angie called it—although, she noted, one guy slept through both.
Over the years, Blakely has noticed a group of faithful attendees take shape in the audience, a group he describes as “people retired and involved in the community but not necessarily affiliated with Brown.” Blakely said he thinks more community members anticipate the festival each year, looking forward to a quality selection. The French Film Festival recently gained funding support from the city of Providence, a nod to the festival’s growing local identity.
“The [festival’s] aims have always been to provide a link between the community and France,” Blakely said.
In the future, Blakely said he hopes the festival will just “keep doing what it’s doing.”
When I arrived at Tuesday’s 5 p.m. showing of 12 Days (12 Jours), Cable Car was nowhere near as crowded as it had been on Sunday afternoon. Half of the cafe’s tables were unoccupied; the loudest noise came from the popcorn machine.
But even on a weeknight, the auditorium was about three-quarters full—about half the audience members appeared college-aged. Two student volunteers checked my ticket as I entered.
12 Days, a documentary directed by Raymond Depardon, addresses the French law that requires people checked into a psychiatric hospital against their will to be assessed by a judge after 12 days. The film showed a series of these assessments punctuated by long, lingering shots of hospitals, inside and outside. Uninterrupted by narration, statistics, or interviews, this was unlike any documentary I’d ever seen.
There I was, seated in a soft leather couch, watching a movie alongside mostly strangers. Some attendees, I assume, showed up for French language and culture; others, an assignment; others yet, out of habit or invitation. For a little while though, the festival brought us all a little closer to something far from home.