Haute culture

Romain Gary Jerusalem French Institute hopes to become local interest for French entertainment.

Cécile Caillou-Robert (photo credit: Courtesy Romain Gary Jerusalem French Institute)
Cécile Caillou-Robert
(photo credit: Courtesy Romain Gary Jerusalem French Institute)
Cécile Caillou-Robert is no stranger to the Middle East. The 40-something director of the Romain Gary Jerusalem French Institute is half a year into her three-year tenure and feels very much at home here.
“I can’t believe I’ve been here for six months already. It has gone past very fast,” she says in heavily accented but good English. Since taking over the reins of French cultural endeavor in Jerusalem from her predecessor, Olivier Debray, she has breathed new life into the institute and has set a number of new projects in motion.
For a start, there is an exhibition space at the center that opened a couple of weeks ago with a display of prints by French photographer Georges Rousse.
“It’s a small area, but now we can exhibit all kinds of things,” explains the director, adding that the new gallery space is based on a two-way-street ethos. “We want to show things by French artists, but we are also very interested to discover artists from Jerusalem.”
She stresses that the emphasis is on those who push the envelope.
“We are looking for contemporary artists, artists who propose a new vision.... A lot of people are painting – they do nice and interesting things, but we want to do something different.”
One of the local artists who fits that bill is French-born Jerusalemite artist Rachel Yedid, whose “Prelude Feminin” (Women’s Preludes) exhibition ran at the Jerusalem Cinematheque in October. The French institute helped Yedid organize the show and has been instrumental in facilitating two of her exhibitions in Paris – one that opened a couple of weeks ago, and another scheduled for the end of this month.
“We are very proud to have supported her. She is very talented – she has mastered the technique, and she has something very creative inside her,” says Caillou-Robert. “She also has a large range. When you see some exhibitions you think it is just the same thing, but Rachel paints new subjects. She goes very deeply into her subjects. In Jerusalem her exhibition was about women, and in Paris it is about children. Rachel has a sense of beauty.”
Caillou-Robert had a good idea of what she was in for before she slipped easily into the director’s seat in the institute’s premises near the municipality. When the center opened in February 2000, she spent several months here helping the first director get things in place before then-French prime minister Lionel Jospin came over to cut the ribbon.
She was also professionally primed for the job. She occupied a similar three-year post in Tunisia, followed by a stint of the same duration as manager of a public company in the Loire Valley in France that promotes cultural interests.
“We specialized in literature and new media, and I was responsible for promoting literature in the Région Centre of France,” she says, referring to a large area south of Paris that encompasses a number of major towns, such as Bourges, Orleans, Tours and Chartres.
“I am a nomad,” she adds. “I spent a lot of time traveling there.
We worked with libraries and bookshops, authors and other writers.”
Her enthusiasm notwithstanding, she says she has her work cut out for her if she and her colleagues in the other 145 French cultural centers across the globe are to maintain the momentum of disseminating French culture in places like Tunisia.
“We [France] were the first [cultural leaders], but I don’t know if it will continue for a long time,” she says. “Arab culture is taking over [in Tunisia] and the world is changing. The language is one thing, the culture is something else. That is why we want to promote our culture in a different language. It is easy to speak English, but it is difficult to speak French. It is not the same to speak French and to be interested in French culture. You can, for example, enjoy French cinema without speaking one word of French.”
That latter genre is highly relevant, as the ninth French Film Festival took place at cinematheques all over the country recently.
“I believe that maybe the number of French speakers will be lower, but French culture will not be less popular, even in places like Hollywood,” she says, proffering irrefutable evidence: “A French actor won the Oscar this year.”
She is referring to Jean Dujardin, who was awarded the famed golden statuette for his leading role in the silent movie The Artist.
Delightedly declaring Jerusalem “a very dynamic place,” she says she didn’t expect the cultural variety she discovered in the city.
“I was surprised when I arrived here to find so many cultural activities. There are many places for art and culture here. You know, [art space] Jaffa 23? It is wonderful. And there is the cinematheque, and you have a lot of festivals, like our film festival and the Musrara Mix Festival and, of course, the Israel Festival.
We try to get involved in all those things, like the [Confederation House] Oud Festival in November, too. There is a lot going on, on the cultural scene, in Jerusalem.”
Naturally the director also views these events as an opportunity to put French culture out there for local audiences, but again stresses the importance of channeling art in multiple directions. “All these festivals give us a chance to discover Israeli artists, and also artists from all around the world, in Jerusalem.”
In keeping with that philosophy, upcoming events on the institute’s agenda include a session next month with internationally acclaimed Jerusalemite author David Grossman, and French author and screenwriter David Foenkinos will be here at the end of this month to talk about his best-selling tome La Délicatesse. The cinematheque will be screening the film adaptation of Foenkinos’s book on March 29 as part of the film festival.
“You have the French-speaking public in Jerusalem and the non-French-speakers, and we want to make a bridge between them. We want to offer more activities to the non-French-speaking people,” continues Caillou-Robert. “That’s why we want to translate more of our activities into Hebrew. The Israeli culture and the French culture are so diverse. We have a lot to give to each other.”