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Holiday Vérité

A Francophile immerses herself in French and film in Montreal

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 2003


The plane couldn't have climbed more than 10,000 feet when that sinking feeling came over me. I had forgotten to pack my French dictionary. The immersion would commence in two hours, and to fill in the gaps in my vocabulary, my hands would have to make themselves useful with charades instead of paging through a phrase book.

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I concentrated on my list of cinematic words to distract myself from doubts. For the next three days, I would be part of a language course built around Montreal's 19th annual African and Caribbean Film Festival, the centerpiece of a cultural event known as Vues D'Afrique. We would be meeting directors and actors, but would I be prepared enough to engage in the discussions? At least, I reassured myself, I'd be able to get a decent croissant for breakfast.

As I stood in the customs line at the airport, a woman nearby caught my eye. Her black skirt fell in arrow-like points around her ankles, and her skin glowed like a fashion model's. I would find out later that I had just glimpsed the star of Africa's first musical comedy.

The welcoming remarks by local organizers (yes, all in French), primed my ears for the first film, "Royal Bonbon." But with most of the dialogue in Haitian creole, I had to speed-read French subtitles to keep up with the story of a homeless man who's convinced he is a king. Throughout the weekend I would be speaking French, but the mélange of dialogue in the films would also include Portuguese, Arabic, and indigenous African languages.

Add to that another layer of complexity I hadn't anticipated: the emotional impact of films born out of people's struggles against poverty and violence.

I welcomed the escape from the normal pace of office life, but it quickly became clear that I had signed up for a different kind of work. Rather than sightseeing, I'd be touring an interior landscape, with no map to predict the twists and turns.

Total immersion

The next morning, Friday, our "course" got under way at the Centre Afrika, a small cultural center just down the street from our hotel in the Quartier Latin.

The 15 students included a researcher for National Geographic TV, several teachers of French, a former Peace Corps volunteer who had been stationed in Togo, and an English teacher who writes academic papers on African films. There were also a cluster of us whose connections to both French and cinema were more casual. Aside from a night course last year and a few brief trips to France, I hadn't exercised my French skills in more than a decade.

Our teachers from the nonprofit Penobscot School in Maine were prepared for the gamut. Julia Schulz, co-founder of the language school, has been running French immersion programs for 10 years in places as varied as the woods of Maine and the beaches of Guadeloupe. Ours was the seventh group to attend this course at Vues D'Afrique.

During a fast-paced discussion with the film's director and lead actor, many of us struggled to keep up. But eventually I heeded our teacher's advice to relax. It turned out that I had followed the film's blend of history, myth, and metaphor better than I had realized.

Francophone's gem