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Speaking a Universal Language

September 22, 1993

An unprecedented French film festival, the first of its kind held in Baldwin Hills, brought Los Angeles' Crenshaw district a little closer to Paris last weekend.

The festival, sponsored by the Los Angeles Urban League and underwritten by the French government, presented universal stories of loves lost and won, stories that transcended language.

The opening film, "The Story of a Three-Day Pass," was directed by the veteran black American filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who said at the festival's opening gala that he had made this 1967 picture, his first, in France because prejudice blocked him from directing in the United States. The love story of a black American soldier and a young French woman reminded the well-integrated audience that for decades France nurtured black American artists, including such notables as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker, at a time when racism restricted their success at home.

The hauntingly beautiful "Indochine" chronicled the Vietnamese struggle for self-determination against French colonialists. Themes of liberation--for women and from poverty--were also featured in works directed by filmmakers from Senegal and Mali, former French colonies.

The most humorous offering among the eight films, "Mama, There's a Man in Your Bed," dealt with a black cleaning woman who ultimately helps a white businessman save his company from subterfuge; they also fall in love. Although this movie had a run in the United States, too few interracial romances, no matter how well made, show up on U.S. screens.

The festival was a treat to both movie lovers and Francophiles intent on practicing their French. Some came simply because at $2 a ticket the movies were a great bargain. The festival also prompted many French men and women, some with maps in hand, to make their first trip to southwest Los Angeles. That drive probably shattered some stereotypes.

After the 1992 riots, members of the region's French community wanted to help. Their gift of French films built bridges, and nourished souls. They have made an important, and we hope enduring, contribution to bringing this often-divided city a little closer together.

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