The Alliance Française in Cannes
Nabella Shunnarah


The impressive Palais de Cannes looms large in the resplendent evening sky. The red carpet is in place, awaiting glamorous film stars and VIPs, who like those before them, walk through these doors in hopes of coveting the prestigious Palme D'Or (the equivalent of the Oscar). Guards and paparazzi line both sides of the stairway. Penelope Cruz will soon make her entrance for the premier of the premieres at the 25th Annual Cannes Film Festival.

Film stars from around the world begin to arrive amidst whistles and cheers from the thousands of people lining the streets. Meg Ryan, one of the Film Festival judges, is greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm. Finally, Cruz is spotted and pandemonium strikes. The crowds are not disappointed. She steps out of her limo dressed to kill in a stunning, exotic black gown. The long procession up the red carpet gives her fans a good look at the talented actress. Escorted inside Cruz officially opens 2003 Le Festival du Cannes with her latest film, Fanfan La Tulipe.

To be a part of this dramatic event was exhilarating to me and my friends from L'Alliance Française of Birmingham last year. Strolling up the famed red carpet dressed to the nines, flashbulbs flickering in our eyes, the magic of the moment made it impossible not to pretend we were just a little bit famous.

If you love stargazing, fine art films, the alluring French Riviera, quaint mountain villages, then a trip to France during the Festival is a bit of paradise on earth. The most prestigious Festival of its kind in the world, the Cannes Film Festival is an opportunity to see premieres of the world's most avant garde films and the stars who made them. Thanks to the skillful orchestration of UAB professors Jean Bodon and Serge Bokobza, l'Alliance members were given the bonne chance to view an array of films which would never make it to U.S. film theaters.

The Festival is a place where over 30,000 film distributors, producers, directors, actors, technicians and the media, and over 200,000 people, meet in Cannes for 900 screenings at the Palais and numerous cinema events.

The Cannes Market has been organizing the acquisition of cinematographic rights for the last 40 years. Every year, over 6,000 participants from 70 countries submit close to 2,000 films to the Festival whose judges watch over 1,000 screenings, and in a few days, make important final decisions part of their annual trade volume.

The aim of the Festival is to reveal and focus attention on works of quality in order to contribute to the progress of the motion picture arts and to encourage the development of the film industry throughout the world.

Among American films and stars we saw at the Festival were Mystic River, produced by Clint Eastwood; Dogville, with Nicole Kidman; and The Matrix Reloaded with Keanu Reeves. Attending with Clint Eastwood were some of the film's stars: Kevin Bacon, Tom Robbins and Laura Linney.

Springtime in France is a routine trip for members of l'Alliance, thanks to the dedicated work of its president since 1982, Bokobza. Bokobza, UAB professor of French and a native of Paris, arranges tours to the romantic city during UAB's spring break every year.

The Alliance Française is a nonprofit organization for people who love French language and culture and congregate for conversation, lectures or just to have a good time. Founded in the 1950's the Alliance also provides French classes and boasts a roster of over 100 members. Another of its functions is to grant scholarships to college students.

"The trip was an incredible bargain and a succession of good luck to get good airline tickets and reasonable rates at the hotel because of my connections," Bokobza says.

Bokobza's passion is to familiarize his students with his native country. "When you go to a foreign country, it unlocks something for you. I hope people go to Paris to build ties to France and with the language."

Bokobza stresses that one-third of the participants who travel with him have been to Paris more than twice. Joining Bokobza in Cannes were his ex-wife and his daughter, Aurore who was stunning in her evening gowns. "With me in a tux by her side, people wondered 'what is that gray-haired man doing with that gorgeous girl?"

Mingling with French stars in the many hotel parties also made the trip enjoyable for Bokobza."This trip was so good that even my ex-wife wanted to remarry me!"

Others who made the trip to Cannes were impressed with different aspects of the Festival.
Bob Shelton, professor of art and film at Birmingham-Southern College, wrote a two-volume text about film entitled, A Cultural Study of the Art Film, and International Film, which he promoted at the Festival.

He says, "Over the years, film makers have been challenged to use new technology with a substantive direction rather than flaunt the sensational. So far this has been a miserable failure."

Shelton considers how American films fared at the Festival. "Brown Bunny was grossly misunderstood and Mystic River is a rather typical morality play with good acting that didn't get recognition. Wenders' Soul of a Man was the best film I saw. I especially enjoyed meeting Wim Wenders, a long time idol. The Palme d'Or has international credibility where Oscars are fodder for personality and the entertainment venue. "

Kim Thomas and Scott Brown say they did not choose Cannes, Cannes chose them. As the Director of Communications for the Birmingham Alliance Française,
Thomas helps Bokobza organize group trips. "He sprung this on me out of the blue when he was able to get the Film Festival passes. I figured it was a once in a lifetime opportunity."

Thomas and Brown are huge fans of foreign and independent film. "I loved seeing the offbeat original stuff that never comes to Birmingham," says Thomas. "Of course, it was also great fun to walk up the red carpet with the stars for the premiers."

The quality of the films at Cannes impressed Thomas." Since they are original prints, the colors are much more beautiful than what we see on a third or fourth print at the cinema at home." Brown, owner of Car Circus, was an expert at finessing his way in line at 6 a.m. everyday getting
tickets for the premiers.

Julia Matson, Fine Arts' Program Specialist for the Speech Arts (K-12) at the Birmingham Board of Education, believes experiencing films and art forms from other countries give a glimpse into their world. Her concern is about children and what they learn.

"Life was once learned more from literature but now we have soap operas and movies with easy access into the minds of our young people," Matson says. "Somebody has to create these and arts educators need to know who and what is being created that influences the minds of their students. Strong Social Studies instructors have used films from the countries studied to introduce or close a unit of study. It's an interesting way to 'see' the country through their clothes, customs, homes and food."

Real estate developers Walter Wilson and wife Janie's interest in the Festival concerned the caliber of the films presented. "It's film as art rather than pure commercialism," says Walter. Janie recalled the long lines we all had to stand in to get tickets for the premiers. "It made standing in line so much fun because we got a chance to converse with people from all over the world."

They rented a car and explored the area from Cannes to St. Tropez, stumbling upon an Arabian sheik of Dubai who invited them to a party upon his yacht. Alabama artist Nall and his wife Tuscia who make their home in Vence gave a dinner for them. "We drove to Gorges de Verdun, the Grand Canyon of France, and had lunch at Alain Ducasse's restaurant in Moustiers St. Marie."

Jacqui David, veteran of the real estate business, says, "The highlights of the our stay in Cannes was attending premieres of stars such as Nicole Kidman and Clint Eastwood and viewing them climbing the red carpet with TV cameras flashing in their way; but when we climbed the stairs, TV flashing had subsided. I'll never forget the 'outdoor with a view' evening gourmet dining en français at the Résidence Rachel hotel that was our home outside Cannes."

Solmaz Oget, retired doctor of anesthesiology, is originally from Turkey and got to see her countrymen win awards for Best Actors and Best Director for the film Uzak by Nuri Bilge. One of the highlights for Oget was watching Fanfan La Tulipe on the beach. "The trip was a wonderful experience and I enjoyed every minute of it."

"For travelers who undertake this journey to Cannes during the Festival, be sure to brush up on your French", says Walter Wilson. "It's a challenge to ask for directions, order food or find anything without knowing a few French phrases. If you have no French to speak of, get a tape or join the Alliance's classes for a beginner's course."

"Investigate ahead of time the places, hotels, and restaurants you want to visit," saysWilson. "Always leave enough time for a change of plans, don't worry about making mistakes, you'll just see something new."

Thomas says, "In Cannes, the further you go off the Croisette, the better. La Colombe d'Ore in Saint Paul de Vence is a 'must-see' because the food is great, and the restaurant itself is an amazing museum of major 20th century artists."

Come prepared with beach gear, for the springtime weather on the French Riviera is unbeatable; but if you forget to pack your bikini top, that's ok, too!