French Disconnection

When the Alliance Francaise substituted Fanny for The Battle of Algiers at the May 5 meeting of its Cine-Club, it was the last straw for the club’s volunteer programmers, Avisheh Mohsenin and Kai-Duc Luong. The Alliance wasn’t playing censor: the distributor of Gillo Pontecorvo’s increasingly relevant 1965 film had denied them permission to show it. But no one at the Alliance bothered to ask Mohsenin and Luong what would make a suitable substitute. “It’s insulting to program a controversial film about terrorism in Algeria and have it replaced by a movie about family life in the French provinces,” says Luong, who saw the incident as the latest in a series of increasingly unpleasant interactions with Alliance management. The day before the screening the pair informed their 400-strong Cine-Club e-mail list that, with “great sadness,” they’d resigned. “Since the change of executive direction at the Alliance Francaise over the past year or so,” they wrote, “we’ve felt terribly challenged.” In letters sent to the Alliance board of directors, they complained of new executive director Jack McCord’s “highly unprofessional attitude and unnecessary arrogance.”

Mohsenin, a French-born, Iranian-educated economist, and Luong, a French telecommunications engineer and filmmaker, took over the club three and half years ago at the request of a couple of graduate students who’d revived it after a period of dormancy but had to move on. Mohsenin says the previous organizers mostly had been showing classic French films, grouped by director, using what was available in the Alliance library. “We made it into something much more dynamic, updated, and knowledgeable,” she says. “We showed a lot of diverse aspects of the French cinema, spent a lot of time programming, didn’t rely on their collection.” Mohsenin and Luong also expanded beyond screenings: each film was followed by a discussion, often “heated and passionate,” they say, and the twice-a-month Wednesday-evening schedule was spiced up with special events–appearances by filmmakers, a film festival, a dance performance, and most recently an art show. They say audiences grew from a dozen or so to 100 or more for special events, with an average attendance of 40 to 60. Mohsenin and Luong felt they were performing a service for the Alliance, promoting its image as “one of the most vibrant places in Chicago” and bringing in new, young people. Until last year the movies were free, with audience members contributing a dollar toward refreshments, including a little French wine. Films, played on video or DVD, were often simply rented from Facets. But last spring–before McCord’s arrival–the Alliance got a warning. Film distributors had become aware of their showings, considered them public, and were demanding rights payments of $100 to $400 or more for each screening. At that point the Cine-Club began suggesting donations of $3 per person, which went to the Alliance to cover the fees.

McCord, who was previously director of the MBA program at UIC (and is a 20-year Alliance member), says there’s no way a $3 donation from audiences he pegs at 25 to 30 on average can cover the rights payments. But that’s not the main issue. What’s really happening seems to be a territorial battle dressed as a personality conflict. Luong says that from their first meeting McCord appeared disinterested in the program he and Mohsenin were running, was negative about a controversial film they’d selected (Catherine Breillat’s Romance), and made them feel like their efforts weren’t appreciated. McCord says it’s never been about the politics of the films: after identifying the club as an opportunity for building membership, Alliance staff “reassumed a portion of the programming” six months ago. “We didn’t see a conversion factor with [Mohsenin and Luong’s] audience,” he says. As for failing to consult them about Fanny, McCord says, “the Alliance does the programming, the Alliance finances it. It’s the Alliance film series, not the Avisheh and Kai film series. We’re the institution.” Resource center director Renee Saito is taking over the film club’s management, and McCord says he wants programming that’s thematically coordinated with Alliance events. He’s not sure about the frequency of screenings after this season, but says this Saturday’s showing of the 260-minute 1978 film Moliere is a taste of what can be expected–it’s offered in connection with a June run in Chicago by the Comedie Francaise.

Meanwhile, last Monday, a mere five days after the canceled Alliance showing, The Battle of Algiers had a screening at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove. Eric DiBernardo, New York-based sales director for the distributor, Rialto Pictures, explains that he “turned down Alliance Francaise because I knew Tivoli would be interested in showing it.” A reissue of the film with new subtitles is due out on DVD next fall, after which it will presumably be available for small public venues like the Alliance. Until then, DiBernardo says, you might be able to rent the old video for home viewing, but “as long as we can exploit it in the theatrical marketplace, we hold back the noncommercial showings. We don’t want them to compete with the theatrical run. We want people to go to the theater and pay an admission charge. That’s how we stay in business.”


This Sunday, a year and a half after Edward Lifson planned to launch a Sunday arts program on WBEZ hosted by himself, it’s finally happening. Lifson’s one-hour show, still unnamed at press time, will run at 10 AM, not 8 PM as he’d anticipated, and will consist of arts pieces produced for other ‘BEZ programs, usually in rerun. Lifson, now in charge of all arts programming for the station, says the delay was “gestation” time….If you have a yen for what you used to hear on ‘BEZ, the premiere broadcast of another new weekly program, Talking Books With Mara Tapp, is scheduled for 3 PM the same day, just up the dial at 98.7, on WFMT….In the face of shrinking benefits and jobs, a group calling itself United Staff of Columbia College is mounting a drive to bring in a union–the Illinois Education Association. USCC member Joan McGrath says they began collecting signatures in January for an election supervised by the National Labor Review Board and have 200 of the 400 they’re after. USCC will host a screening of A Simple Matter of Justice, a documentary about previous struggles to unionize part-time faculty, including Columbia’s. It’s scheduled for 5:30 today, May 14, at Grace Place, 637 S. Dearborn.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.