French film festival Panorama tours China

Art, not politics, the goal of sixth annual event

BEIJING -- With relations between the two countries strained by disagreements about Tibet, China and France are seeking a little common ground this week at the cinema.

The sixth annual French Film Panorama in China will officially open Thursday in Beijing as Juliette Binoche and director Cedric Klapisch will screen their 2008 film "Paris" and follow that with a Q&A with the audience.

The program of 12 recently released French titles began two weeks of screenings April 1 in Chengdu and, for the first time, in the South China city of Guangzhou.

Christine Pernin, chief representative here for cultural promotion agency UniFrance, said French films have suffered no ill effects from China's displeasure at French President Nicolas Sarkozy's December meeting with the Dalai Lama nor from a Chinese boycott of French products last spring after the Beijing Olympics torch relay was disrupted in Paris by pro-Tibet supporters.

Chinese moviegoers are eager to see imported films and the Panorama is a rare opportunity to see French cinema on the country's growing number of big screens.

Despite adding an average of two new screens a day last year to reach about 4,000 for the whole country, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television still limits to 20 the number of annual imports allowed to share in boxoffice sales. Most imports come from Hollywood.

Pernin said the Panorama was scheduled between the Berlin and Cannes film festivals to allow French filmmakers to travel to China. Planning the Panorama in April also helps fill a void at Chinese theaters stuck between the February and May peak moviegoing seasons.

"We have a good relationship with SARFT. The Chinese have come to expect a film festival, not a discussion of politics," Pernin said, adding, "The theater owners are happy we're bringing them movies in a slow time."

After the opening Thursday, a dozen visiting French filmmakers and industry figures -- including "Sagan" actress Sylvie Testud, "Two Alone in Paris" actor-director Eric Judor and UniFrance President Antoine Clermont-Tonnerre -- will split up and travel to Chengdu or Guangzhou for more screenings.

The group will reunite in Shanghai on April 14 for the last leg of the Panorama, which runs through April 30.

The Panorama was made possible with the support of a series of French companies, some of which, such as Societe Generale and Carrefour, saw business suffer in China because of the 2008 boycott.

At that time, Paul Delbecq, co-chief of Beijing-based distributor Domo Media, said that the French film "Taken" suffered at the boxoffice after it opened in China on April 7, 2008, just days after the Olympic torch fiasco.

Delbecq attributed the lackluster performance directly to the ripple of rejection for all things French. "Groups of Chinese nationalists went to theaters to say it should be taken off screens," he told The Hollywood Reporter at the time.

"It had bad luck," Pernin said, noting that despite a staggered opening that was interrupted a second time by a giant earthquake in Sichuan on May 12 "Taken" earned 13.5 million yuan ($1.9 million) on 200 prints. "It could have done better, but it wasn't a disaster either," Pernin said.

Organized by the French Embassy in Beijing in cooperation with UniFrance and the State Administration of Radio, Film Television, the 2009 Panorama also will feature two series of short films, which will include "Make Yourself at Home" by Gautier About and "Man Is the Only Bird That Carries His Own Cage" by Claude Weiss.