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FNC poster boy Claude Chamberlan looks back on 40 years of festival politics, partying, and great movies

As far as milestones go, this one’s pretty big. The Festival du nouveau cinéma – the longest-running film festival in the country – kicks off its 40th edition tonight, with the North American premiere of Valérie Donzelli’s La guerre est déclarée, France’s official entry to the Oscars. 

So NIGHTLIFE.CA thought it would be fitting to speak to the man who was around pre-video revolution, pre-government film fest funds, pre-TIFF, but most definitely not pre-fun.  Thank God I wasn’t interviewing FNC co-founder and director of programming Claude Chamberlan for a formal, family outlet like the Associated Press, as I wouldn’t have been able to print most of what the endearing, occasionally biting and often libidinous film buff had to say. Chamberlan is a tried-and-true iconoclast, wearing that countercultural badge on his sleeve.

Claude Chamberlan and Dimitri Eipides with John and Yoko, at their Montreal bed-in (1969)

But Chamberlan tells me he and co-founder Dimitri Eipides had always wanted their fest to appeal to more than just a few unkempt film geeks. “Of course, we wanted the festival to be accessible, but when you’re working with $5000, there are limitations. Public and critical interest in the fest came 10 or 15 years after we started it.”

In 1971, the fest’s inaugural year, Chamberlan and Eipides managed to secure one international guest, and it’s safe to say it’s one that struck a chord. “Werner Shroeter is a major filmmaker: he staged operas, made kitsch baroque films; I fell in love with his cinema. He profoundly affected me. And now Elfie Mikesch, one of the biggest cinematographers in Germany, has made a film about him, Mondo Lux, which is playing at this year’s festival. It’s just hard for me to watch, because he had cancer then.” After Shroeter's passing in April of 2010, the FNC presented an homage to the filmmaker last year.

Werner Schroeter with Rosa von Praunheim, 1969 (Credit: Barnabas Bosshart) 

Among those guests who’ve left a lasting impression of Chamberlan, no matter how much he argues his memory is failing him, he rattles off the names of Raoul Ruiz, Wim Wenders (who’s back at the fest this year to present Pina, his 3D feature about dance legend Pina Bausch), Werner Herzog, amd Henri Alekan, a master DOP who shot films such as Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Wenders’ Wings of Desire. “Alekan made one of the most beautiful books on light: Des lumières et des ombres," says Chamberlan. "At FNC, he did a masterclass with all of Quebec’s cameramen and even many from Ontario, and those three hours were equivalent to about 5 years’ worth of classes.”


Chamberlan has always been an advocate for a number of issues, and he remembers how documentary filmmaking broke into the mainstream at his festival. “For films tackling socio-political issues, it’s really Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the media in 1992 that gave a big push to that type of filmmaking. That film got people interested in other types of movies and problematics."

Scene from Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the media (1992)

"At this year’s fest, one of the overriding themes is the planet," continues Chamberlan. "The state of it, with all the Monsantos of the world. Air quality, access to water, the food we eat… You should see Quebec filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks’ Surviving Progress. It’s kind of a continuation of Inside Job, except that it’s with thinkers and the scope is much larger.”


As for the festival’s singular name, which, if you’re old enough to remember, periodically kept changing in the early aughts (it was known as the 'Montreal Festival of New Cinema and New Media' until 2004), Chamberlan attributes the many title revisions to the changes in technology. “In 1979, when we noticed that many films in 35mm weren’t presented at festivals, we decided to include them, and we then changed our name to the festival of 'new cinema'. Then came video, and new technologies… In the end, we returned to a simpler title, Festival du Nouveau Cinema, because it’s kind of a guiding light. You know you’ll find all formats, and all perversions.”

Kudos to the censorless Chamberlan for launching an eenie, meenie, bohemian film affair on the once-upon edgy Main (think pre-suburban invasion) back in 1971, and shaping it into one of the most anticipated annual film events in Canada – one that manages to be cool, cutting-edge and unpretentious all at once. We all know that festivals aren’t just about the silver screen spectacle, but also the wild (hopefully) goings-on after dark. Artists have always lived up to their rep as a debaucherous bunch. The fest parties, according to Chamberlan, were just as great back in FNC’s early days, but the two eras shouldn't be compared. “The scale was smaller. We were throwing them in lofts, and we kept loft-hopping all night long, as there were no headquarters. You know, it was the seventies. It was a blast.”

Claude Chamberlan, taken in Cannes, on May 23rd, 1982

As for adapting its festival party formula for a larger crowd? Chamberlan thinks they’ve found the right space. “It’s always a problem. When you become more popular, and you have to cater to more people, it’s all about how you do it. I think the Agora [the FNC's current HQ] is the perfect mid-size venue. Another fest of similar scale and size to ours, Rotterdam, began throwing its parties in a huge forum, big like a gymnasium, and I find you lose intimacy there.”


Co-founder Eipides, whom Chamberlan speaks very highly of, will be back in town for the festival. Eipides has been concurrently running the well-respected Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Greece. “He’s less around now, but so am I,” confides Chamberlan. “For the past three years, I’ve been retreating to Fisher’s Point. For my sanity, I need to be away from the city a little, especially when screening potential FNC titles. After 3 or 4 bad films, I can just jump in the lake and feel replenished,” jokes Chamberlan. “I need that!”

But it’s not because Chamberlan and Eipides are more removed from the day-to-day festival grind that they’re less involved in the labour of love they founded 40 years ago. “The idea is that Dimitri and I keep the spirit and soul of the fest alive. We don’t want it to become a by-product… Because the day that happens, I won’t be around.”

The 40th edition of the Festival du nouveau cinema kicks off tonight. Highlights include an Amos Gitaï retrospective; Lars von Trier’s Melancholia; Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In; Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar; Davis Guggenheim’s U2 documentary From the Sky Down; Alexandre Sokourov’s Faust; Takashi Miike's Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai; Romain GavrasNotre jour viendra; Justin Kurzel's Snowtown; Bruce McDonald’s Hard Core Logo II; Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty and Christopher Sun’s 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy.

Opening night party: Ruby Nite
Tonight, 10:30pm, with DJs Why Alex, Why?, Vincent Lemieux, and video artist Emmanuel Lagrange Paquet
Agora du Coeur des Sciences de l’UQÀM | 175 President-Kennedy | nouveaucinema.ca