Sunday, June 10, 2012

There and back again

There and back again within a week. Usually a trip to France involves years of idle dreaming, months of detailed planning and weeks of anxious anticipation. But this one was different. This time, it was the festival organisers to whom the planning and anticipation fell. For me, it was mostly a matter of turning up and keeping my eyes an ears open. I was invited to represent the Melbourne Writers Festival at meetings for the Word Alliance, a network of major writers festivals, of which Etonnants Voyageurs is a part.

The Word Alliance was embraced warmly by Etonnants Voyageurs, reflecting as it does, many of the values of the St Malo festival. The local media reported on the visit and canvassed that issues discussed at meetings.

Michel Le Bris, Etonnants Voyageurs director, centre left. (Pic

The annual St Malo literature and film festival, Etonnants Voyageurs, is unlike any other. It is certainly a major event, pulling around 60,000 people over the four days (including a schools program that I missed) to it's broad offering of panels, readings, exhibitions, screenings, book market and more besides. And given the absolutely perfect weather that arrived in time for the long weekend. The spring that stubbornly failed to appear for months unrolled itself in one glorious long weekend of blue, blue skies and gentle breezes.

At least, unlike any that you would find in Australia. I came away from the three days with the sense that this is very much an auteurs festival, auteur in the sense that the festival director firmly controls the direction of the event. As pointed to in the previous post, this festival takes as its purpose the task of widening the boundaries of 'French writing', which it redefines around the idea 'writing in French'. This immediately opens up the definition to include the many Francophone countries and cultures, and implicitly challenge the Paris as the bastion and tastemaker of literature. The 6th arrondissement is not the be all and end all of French writing.

The idea of 'la France pluriel', multicultural, multi-ethnic France, is central to the festival's agenda. I discovered that Rennes, the nearby city and capital of the Brittany region, recorded the highest socialist vote, and lowest vote for far right candidates, in the recent election. A politically progressive literature festival has found a good home in the region.

Like any good festival there was far more happening than one could hope to see. The main venue held a number of exhibitions, including a selection of grueling images under the banner Le bande dessinee speaks to the world. I could only describe the images as uncompromising, showing the violence and consequences of war and conflict in places like Chechnya, Rwanda and Cambodia. If you ever doubted that graphic novels could handle serious subjects here was a show to banish the doubt.

Poets in French, Arabic, Spanish and Flemish were heard; novelists in French and American, humorists, travelers, photographers, directors, essayists, memoirists and more were on stage. The variety of venues, both in the conference centre and the theatres, cinemas and schools of St Malo gives the program a nicely varied and authentic quality. It was also a good excuse to explore the narrow streets within the walls.

My trip was supported by the Institut Francais and the festival. Thanks to Emmanuel, Michel Le Bris, the logistics team and Word Alliance colleagues, from whom I learned a very great deal.

And that amazing beach, once more. 

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