Now in its 18th year of existence, Paris’s L’Etrange Festival continues to mine the past and present of cinema to unearth beautiful rarities, weird gems and forgotten masterpieces. The remarkable knowledge of cinema that informs the programming, the rich selection of films, and the opportunities for discovery it offers mark it out as a unique event in an increasingly busy festival calendar. It was founded in 1993 by Frédéric Temps, a TV director, music producer, musician and journalist, who somehow has managed to find the time to put together 16 editions of the event, with a two-year break in 2007-2008 when its host venue, the Forum des Images, closed for refurbishment. Helped by a team of four other people – who also all have day jobs in the audio-visual industry – Temps has this year again traced a wonderful path through cinematic strangeness for adventurous audiences.
Virginie Sélavy had the pleasure of talking to Frédéric Temps about the origins of the festival and its aims, as well as the unavoidable topic of the moment, A Serbian Film.
VS: How did the festival start?
FT: As journalists we were seeing a lot of films on VHS and in festivals (at the time DVDs and the internet didn’t exist), which, surprisingly, were not being released in France despite their quality, and one day we decided to create a festival to show the films that we, as viewers, wanted to see on a cinema screen. It started in this way in 1993 and it grew successfully, and now it’s a big festival that is almost international.
You don’t get paid for the work you do on the festival, but do you at least manage to cover your costs?
With difficulty, but these days we’re doing better because it’s better managed and there are more people attending. But after 18 years we still have to do this as volunteers because the state and private funding that we get is not enough to produce an event on this scale, with so many guests and films.
So it’s a true labour of love.
Absolutely, it’s really a passion for the whole team, including the 80 volunteers who help us during the festival and the five members on the main board.
It’s obvious that a lot of care and thought goes into the programming and you always have great guests.
It’s more interesting and enjoyable for everyone if we have guests when we’ve found a rare film. It’s good for the guests themselves to see that 20 or 30 years later their film is still greeted with the same enthusiasm by much younger generations. That was our aim when we restarted the festival last year, we were wondering if the generation that was very young when we started and was now reaching 18 would be interested in discovering those works. And it’s working. Last year we saw a new generation of viewers come to the festival, which was completely different from what we’d seen before the festival took a break in 2006. That’s wonderful, it means that the work we have been doing for the last 18 years goes in the direction of the filmic tastes of other generations, and that’s the best compliment, the best reward we can have.
You don’t just programme new films, as in the case of so many other festivals, you also dig up lost films and obscure rarities from the past.
That’s how it started. The festival was created to give audiences a chance to rediscover films that we knew were gathering dust on the shelves of certain distributors or producers. In France, there are far too many festivals that aren’t really properly curated, so we had to differentiate ourselves from them and do something really specific. But with time, we also followed more new releases because there are still directors who make films today and are not necessarily recognised. It’s good to try and bring recognition to new works that may go unnoticed. The festival is now as much about keeping an eye on the films of the future as those of the past, while trying to discover and support new directors.
This year for the first time, we have created a feature film competition with our partner Canal+. We didn’t have a competition until now because for us all the works had the same value, even if they were badly made or a bit fragile. But the partners of Canal+, in particular the Cinema TV channel, are very close in spirit to us. Unlike many festivals, including the biggest, where the prize is just a worthless trinket, we offer as a prize a direct TV purchase, which represents a large sum of money and is a big boost for the film. We decided to do this to give a chance to a film that maybe would not get a general release.
What is also great about L’Etrange Festival is that you go beyond specific genres to delimit the territory of the strange in a much wider and interesting way.
Exactly. Sometimes it’s a problem, some people don’t get it, and we are still categorised by some as a ‘chainsaws and raped Japanese women’ kind of festival. Those people have clearly not worked out what the programming is about because of course we are interested in all genres. There are films that, unfortunately, we couldn’t get because there are still distributors or people in the media who have a negative view of the festival. For instance, we wanted to show Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, Boxing Gym, which is very important for me because he’s a giant in the history of cinema, but his French distributor did not want to give us the film because he thought it was not the place for it. We still face this sort of problem but I think that, with time, people will understand that we can show Walt Disney films – I’m referring to the programme curated a few years ago by Roger Avary, the co-writer of Pulp Fiction, who had chosen a rare film by Robert Stevenson, the Walt Disney musical Darby O’Gill and the Little People – as well as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or A Serbian Film, which everyone is talking about this year, after what happened last weekend at FrightFest. [The film was pulled by the festival organisers after the BBFC and Westminster Council demanded cuts. Read more about this.]
Will you be showing A Serbian Film uncut?
For the moment there’s no problem because, despite the untruths circulated on the internet for a few months, the film has not been censored in France. No film has been banned in France for at least 30 years and unlike the BBFC, the CNC [French censorship board] has no jurisdiction over films shown for the first time in festivals. There was an article in the music magazine Les Inrockuptibles on what happened in the UK, which concluded by saying that maybe the CNC would get involved here, but that’s not the case at all. For the past year, non-profit-making festivals like ours don’t have to submit the films they are presenting to the CNC. This means that the organisers and the venue take responsibility for screening films that haven’t been shown before. Of course, A Serbian Film is extremely violent, one of the most violent films you can see right now. So we have indicated everywhere that the film can only be seen by over-18s, in agreement with the CNC’s guidelines.
It is indeed a very disturbing film, but I can’t quite understand where exactly the cuts imposed by the British censors will be made, given that the whole second part of the film is essentially one unbearable scene after another.
There has always been very strict censorship in Britain. A Serbian Film was first shown at South by Southwest, then at the Brussels Fantastic Film Festival, and no one said anything. It is only since it was shown at Cannes that things have heated up. The problem is that A Serbian Film, like Pasolini’s Salò, or the Chinese film Corps 731 (Men behind the Sun) by TF Mous, which we have shown, are not for everyone. The scenes that are problematic for some people are the ones involving children. But if those scenes are removed, it changes the film. As the director and scriptwriter have said clearly, the film denounces the crimes committed during the Yugoslav conflict, which is something we all know about, it wasn’t that long ago, and we also know that, as the authors have said, their fellow countrymen have suffered worse things than what they show in the film. If you know this, you can understand that the film is not an apology for ultra-violence or paedophilia but, on the contrary, a denunciation of it.
If people can’t see that, I think it is also because the film is extremely well made, even though it’s a first film. It has sumptuous 35mm cinematography and well-known actors, who have appeared in Emir Kusturica’s films, for instance, and I think that has disturbed people because what is called trash porn films are generally cheaply and quickly made, with a very specific image and grain.
Of course, you can criticise the film like any other film. I know some people who didn’t have a problem with the content but didn’t agree with the point of view and found the film clumsy. They thought it should have included scenes connecting the story to the history of Serbia, with TV images of the time, for instance. They thought the film was not clear enough even if it is metaphorical.
Aside from A Serbian Film, what other films do you think are particularly interesting in this year’s programme?
It’s difficult to say, but Quentin Dupieux’s new film Rubber was a great revelation, and we almost picked it as the opening film because it represents the spirit of the festival so well. It’s a perfect genre film, very respectful of the rules and full of references to Romero, Carpenter, etc., but it also has something that subverts the genre in a completely surrealistic way: the tyre. When I see this film, I imagine Quentin Dupieux watching Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher, the ultimate serial killer film starring Rutger Hauer, for the umpteenth time and thinking that it would be funny to transpose the story with Hauer replaced by a tyre. The idea is fantastic because you can apply it to everything: you could remake The Umbrellas of Cherbourg replacing the actresses with tea pots! It’s a proper serial killer film, very well paced, with actors who are used to this sort of film, including Wings Hauser, who is a well-known American B-movie/genre actor, but it goes off on a completely mad tangent. This is exactly what L’Etrange Festival can be.
Every year you ask film personalities to curate programmes, and this year you’ve asked Alejandro Jodorowsky, among others.
Alejandro is one of the ‘godfathers’ of the event in a way. The first year, one of our coups was to find prints of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, which hadn’t been seen in France for 25 years, and Alejandro was very excited and came to present them. He came back again four years ago when El Topo was re-released. So it’s almost like coming full circle this year. Alejandro has been following the festival for all these years and is in complete harmony with what we do.
You also have an event called L’Etrange Musique.
We’ve had this for the past five or six years. If we had the means, and I hope it will happen in the future, we would like to take the festival into other directions, such as exhibitions, readings with writers and scriptwriters, performances, concerts. The first of those is music. One of my biggest dreams was to see The Pop Group play live and as it happens they reformed this year. So I contacted Mark Stewart straightaway and wrote to him saying how much I would love for them to play and they said yes. For me to have The Pop Group on our stage is one of the most fantastic dreams in the history of the festival.
There is some cross-over in the films shown at L’Etrange Festival and FrightFest. Do you work together?
No, not at all. We know each other. I’ve been following Alan Jones’s work for a long time. They present films that we show a week later, so in some cases the distributors tell us that the prints will be at FrightFest before they get to us. But for the first time this year, we’ve collaborated on the homage to Tobe Hooper because his first film Eggshells has been restored by an English company.We were in contact to organise Hooper’s guest appearance and take advantage of the fact that he was coming to London to bring him to Paris, which is something we’d wanted to do for a long time. That was an exception, but if FrightFest were interested in collaborating on the restoration of a print or the visit of a prestigious guest for instance, we’d be very positive because they do a fantastic job, you can see that they’re passionate about what they’re doing. We’re very open to collaborations with people who have the same passion for what they do as we have for our festival.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy