After eight years, scores of films, dozens of actors, directors and producers, and thousands of fans, Virginia Commonwealth University's French Film Festival has the world taking notice.
"They call us 'The American phenomenon,'" explains founder and co-director Peter Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., with a wry smile. "We're now recognized as the most important French film festival in the U.S." That acclaim isn't just for the number of premieres screened or the caliber of actors and directors who fly over to introduce and discuss their work. Other colleges and universities look to VCU's thriving fest as a model for reversing the downward trend in foreign language majors in general, and in French specifically.
From the start, Kirkpatrick envisioned the festival's goal to be twofold: to encourage the study of French by university and high school students and to further the distribution of French films. While the world recognizes the French Film Fest, the same does not hold true for its tireless creator. At least not at home. So who is this bilingual mover and shaker? This man who award-wining actors and directors know on a first-name basis? Is he French? Is he a frustrated filmmaker?
"First and foremost, I'm a teacher," says Kirkpatrick, who for nine years now has managed to juggle his classwork as professor of French civilization and culture at VCU with the time-consuming work of coordinating each festival. "The festival could definitely be a full-time job," he admits, "but I'm a professor at heart. I just need to figure out how to stretch 24 hours a day into 38."
The time involved in putting the festival together has grown with each year. Thousands of hours have been spent on the phone and at the fax machine, securing rights for films, inviting guests, coordinating reservations and promoting the festival. The amount of time spent in flight between Richmond and Paris would almost qualify Kirkpatrick for a pilot's license.
Incredibly, the jet-setting Kirkpatrick is a hometown boy, having moved to Richmond with his parents before turning 4. No one spoke French around him, and he wasn't all that interested in the movies. Things changed, though, when he was 15 and one of many Richmond teens who assembled every morning on the quad at Benedictine High School. That's where he started studying French. Although Kirkpatrick has that de rigeuer professorial air of studiousness about him, there's also a hint of boyish mischief.
When people seem stunned that he was a part of the uniformed discipline of Benedictine, Kirkpatrick is always eager to toss in his rank. "Captain," he says proudly, "In fact, they used to call me 'Captain Kirk.'" So what was the turning point? When did he go from just studying French to wanting total cultural immersion?
"Ah," he says with a smile, "You'd like me to say I met this French girl wouldn't you? Well, I was 17 and in Paris, but it wasn't anything like that. I was standing in front of a newsstand and I remember looking at the number and variety of newspapers there. And I wanted to understand each of them, each of their differing politics. That's when it hit me that to understand the country's politics, I'd also have to know its culture and history."
So that's what spawned one of Richmond's highly anticipated and star-studded film events? Poli sci? "Yes," says the proud pedagogue, "Political science."
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