Are culture and democracy inseparable?


PARIS — French summer festivals can run the gamut from the quirky to the hokey to the plain bizarre. But more than just an excuse for making merry, the widely supported events can also be an exercise in cultural democracy.

In southwestern France, there’s the annual pig festival in Trie-sur-Baise in the Hautes-Pyrenees region whose motto, “we hear it, we see it, we eat it,” sums up the event, which includes both a pig squealing contest and feasting on intestine specialties like black pudding.

A six-day country-western hoedown that attracts more than 150,000 people annually to the town of Mirande features Harley Davidson enthusiasts, cowboy hat fashion and line dancing.

A liar’s festival in the Gascon region celebrates fanciful story telling and a contestant’s ability to pull one over on listeners. An 18th-century Liar’s Academy crowns and inducts the winner into its boasting ranks.

To the east, in the commune of Digoin, there’s the escargot fete, where more than 100,000 snails are cooked and served over the course of three days. In the north, the largest flea market in Europe, held in Lille, attracts about 2 million visitors and more than 100,000 vendors. A main attraction of this two-day street festival is a contest among restaurants to see which can collect the most empty mussel shells. Customers eat the fleshy insides and the black-shelled discards are hoisted onto piles at the entrances of the restaurants.

Even simpler, more subdued summer fare, like the nearly 20-year-old open-air cinema festival in Paris, has something in common with these and a host of other events around Paris and beyond: generous support, whether at the local, regional or national level.

An estimated 80 percent of the 300,000 euro budget required for putting on Cinema en Plein Air comes from the Ministry of Culture and Communication, said Bertrand Nogent, a spokesman for Parc de la Villette, the venue, which provides the remaining 20 percent. The ministry, whose mandate includes promoting French heritage through the country’s museums and monuments as well as the arts, whether visual, or theatrical, musical, or cinematic, has an annual budget of 2.8 billion euros. The cost to the public of attending the month-long festival: zero

“We very much want this to be free,” said Nogent, referring to the festival. “It’s a guarantee for cultural democracy.”

The formula seems straightfoward enough. Select a grassy, open space capable of holding about 12,000 people, pick a cinematic theme, obtain an inflatable screen — the largest in Europe, measuring 32 meters at the base by 18.5 meters high, according to Nogent — and the crowds will come.

Each night except Mondays, weather permitting, from mid-July to mid-August people of all ages, in groups or alone, gather to picnic and read, sunbathe and nap before the films begin. On a recent night, couples smooched and one group that forgot to bring plastic plates and forks borrowed from their neighbors. Vacations, those that have come and gone and those still yet to come, were a common topic of conversation.

There’s a certain ambiance and a relaxed atmosphere to the evenings, said Nogent, who has worked at the park in northeastern Paris for 17 of the last 19 years the festival has existed. This year’s theme was “crossings” and films ranging from Ang Lee’s "Brokeback Mountain," to Steven Spielberg’s "Amistad," to Sean Penn’s "Into the Wild" depicted both literal and figurative journeys. The selection of “auteur films” as well as blockbusters “guarantees a mixed audience,” Nogent said.

“Democratization of culture” is an oft-recurring theme in discussions about the arts in France, which supports the notion that culture should be celebrated and accessible to everyone. The country was cited for this approach when Americans began discussion the creation an “arts czar." Quincy Jones, the music producer and a long-time advocate for creating a U.S. cultural ministry at the policy level, said in a November 2008 interview that he would “beg” President Barack Obama to create a post similar to what exists already in several European countries. Jones' idea stuck and inspired an online petition that to date has collected more than 243,000 signatures. But the concept also has its detractors. The stumbling blocks include the existence of various national agencies that already promote the arts, albeit in a fragmented way, as well as the complexity and costs involved in creating an office not deemed a high priority.

Whatever the outcome of the U.S. debate, the cinema festival made an impression on the Kaplan family from Brooklyn, N.Y., visiting Paris as part of a two-week European tour. “Stuff like this is great for kids,” said Michael Kaplan, a magazine journalist who covers gambling and poker. He was with his wife, Melodie, daughters Chloe, 6, and Lola, 9, as well as a family friend living in Paris, Christopher Goebel.

While the children ran around barefoot, their mother marveled at being able to rent seats and blankets, which she said would never happen in New York. Her husband looked forward to tasting the foie gras he brought along, noting that in New York, “everyone looks askance at you” for eating the French delicacy. Goebel commented on the “civilized” nature of the audience.

The family spent their last night in Paris, under the stars, leisurely picnicking and watching Werner Herzog’s "Fitzcarraldo," the festival’s final film.

“Seeing the movie is nice but it’s more about being here,” Michael Kaplan said.