Holiday Vérité

A Francophile immerses herself in French and film in Montreal

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.

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

Afternoons were free for roaming. Some dashed off to watch more films at the two host cinemas, while others shopped or walked through nearby Vieux Montréal.

What an underutilized resource Montreal had been for me since I came here with my junior-high French class. How could I have overlooked the fact that the second-largest Francophone city in the world is within driving distance of Boston?

"You aren't exactly the same person in French," Ms. Schulz told us. I agreed, and was glad to knowthat I didn't necessarily have to plan an overseas trip to become that person.

That night we gathered at Cinéma Beaubien for "Nha Fala," starring Fatou N'Diaye, the actress I had spotted. Translated from Portuguese creole as "My Voice," it's about a young woman who leaves Cape Verde for France, falls in love with a music producer, and decides to record a CD. The catch: There's a superstition that if the women in her family dare to sing, they will die. But she decides to flout it. The next morning, I awoke with one of the melodies replaying in my mind.

Strong views, deep emotions

On that cold, rainy Saturday, it was helpful to remember "Nha Fala's" joyous scenes as our conversations turned more serious. We talked with Yamina Bachir-Chouikh, an Algerian film editor whose directorial debut, "Rachida," would be screened that night. She answered questions about the broad themes of the story, in which a young woman and her mother try to escape terrorism in the city by retreating to a small village.

Strong views and deep emotions also surfaced during our discussions the next day. Some of us had viewed a documentary about female genital mutilation - opponents' term for a practice that's traditional in some African cultures. And all of us had watched "Rachida," emerging from the theater dismayed at the violence but moved by the main characters' compassion and courage. (That potent blend earned "Rachida" the grand prize at the end of the 10-day festival, which screened 152 films from 38 countries.)

So much of what I felt I couldn't express in French. But that's why such immersion trips are good motivators, Schulz said. "Trying to bring together your language and your emotions is the essence of it - it's why we do it."

On Sunday our attention turned back to musical comedy when Ms. N'Diaye visited our class. I couldn't help but see parallels between the theme of her film - the courage to find one's voice - and our experience that weekend. At the end, she turns the superstition about dying on its head by staging a fake wake, complete with a pink-butterfly coffin. (In parts of Africa, such creative coffins are common.) Once villagers have gathered to pay their respects, her band members carry her through the streets - sitting up and singing in the winged coffin.

After just four days in the cocoon of immersion, I can't say I felt ready to fly. But at the least, my long-dormant French had been resurrected in Montreal.

The Penobscot School in Rockland, Maine, offers immersion programs in eight languages. This year, the French course held in Montreal cost $425 (including hotel). See www.language or call (207) 594-1084.

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