Casbah on campus: Bard SummerScape Film Festival

The Bard SummerScape Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, July 12 with Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco, starring Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper & Adolphe Menjou (Image courtesy of Photofest).

Bard SummerScape, the 800-pound gorilla of mid-Hudson high-culture extravaganzas, always sounds so amazing, with all its fancy classical music, opera, theatre, dance and cabaret offerings. But for many of us who are still hard beset by the Great Recession, the ticket prices for such events can seem a bit daunting.

Luckily, even if your entertainment budget won’t support more than an occasional jaunt to the cinema, you can still get your piece of SummerScape, via its wondrous Film Festival component. For a whole month, from July 12 to August 12, Bard will offer two opportunities each week (on Thursdays and Sundays) to catch a classic movie for only $8.

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Each year the SummerScape Film Festival folks select titles that fit in well with that season’s Bard Musical Festival focus. Since Saint-Saëns is this year’s spotlighted composer, the Film Festival has been organized around the theme of “France and the Colonial Imagination.” The ten films, ranging in era from 1930 to 2008, offer diverse perspectives on how French colonialism and its aftermath have been cinematically depicted by major artists. It’s a topic that enables Bard to pack the house with folks whose all-time favorite movie is and will forever be Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, to challenge serious cinephiles with more obscure and difficult works like Michael Haneke’s Caché and to lure in the curious whose only connection to Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko is a childhood Looney Toons memory of Pepe Le Pew parodying Jean Gabin saying “Come wiz me to ze Casbah.”

The three films from the classic sound era of the 1930s and ’40s – Morocco, Pépé le Moko and Casablanca – present unabashedly romantic visions of North Africa under the height of French domination, when Europeans (especially males) thought of the region as an exotic place to go into hiding. All three works have indelibly stamped themselves into the popular imagination, perhaps most memorably by way of their charismatic stars. In stark contrast, the works of Alain Resnais and Gillo Pontecorvo – Muriel and The Battle of Algiers, respectively – represent the politically charged and aesthetically innovative period of the 1960s that was much troubled by the violent means of holding onto empire. In the same decade, Senegalese novelist Ousmane Sembene returned to his native country and realized that his French-language stories could only be read by the elite. Turning to filmmaking to reach a wider audience, he became arguably the most important figure in the founding of an African cinema. His films Xala and Camp de Thiaroye portray both Colonial and post-Colonial West Africa from an indigenous point of view.

The series kicks off next Thursday, July 12 with Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930), starring Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou. Set in postwar Algeria and considered by some to be Resnais’ masterpiece, Muriel (1963) follows on Sunday, July 15. Thursday, July 19 brings in Pontecorvo’s epic pseudo-documentary The Battle of Algiers (1966), one of the most celebrated political films ever made. Xala, Sembene’s 1975 satire about the early days of Senegal’s independence, will be shown on Sunday, July 22. You can catch Duvivier’s original 1937 version of Pépé le Moko on Thursday, July 26. And Rithy Panh’s The Sea Wall (2008), set in French Indonesia and based on a novel by Marguerite Duras, screens on Sunday, July 29.

The Bard SummerScape Film Festival continues into August with Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye (1988) on Thursday, August 2; Beau Travail, Claire Denis’ 1999 reworking of Melville’s Billy Budd, on Sunday, August 5; the beloved Casablanca (1942) on Thursday, August 9; and wraps up with Haneke’s enigmatic Caché (2005) on Sunday, August 12.

Bard SummerScape’s Film Festival, “France and the Colonial Imagination,” takes place on Thursdays and Sundays, July 12 – August 12 at 7 p.m. at the Ottaway Film Center. Tickets are for unreserved seating and cost $8 general admission, with a 20 percent discount offered to students, children and seniors over age 62. For tickets and information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu.

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