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UMFK to host St. John Valley premiere of documentary on Franco-Americans

June 13, 2003


A documentary film on the repression and renaissance of Franco-Americans in New England, including the St. John Valley, will have its northern Maine debut at the University of Maine at Fort Kent Fox Auditorium on Friday, June 27, at 7:00 p.m.

"Réveil - Waking Up French", is a five-year project of filmmaker Ben Levine and described as a powerful documentary film that explores the struggle for cultural survival among the French-Canadian, Franco-American communities of New England.

The film traces the French heritage beginning with immigration from the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Acadia through persecution by Ku Klux Klan, language loss, to cultural renaissance and heritage preservation.

Starting with two French families, one in Lewiston, and the other in St. Georges, Quebec that Levine has been filming for 24 years, beginning in 1979, the film explores why the French were an anomaly to "melting pot" America. Specifically, Levine builds an argument that the French kept their language and culture long after most others had lost the heritage connection.

The film also looks at why a million New England French speakers living a short ride from seven million of their French Canadian brethren suddenly lost their language.

One of the most dramatic sequences traces the story of the Ku Klux Klan in New England. By 1924, the KKK had elected a governor in Maine and had more members than Mississippi or any southern state. That same year 20,000 Portlanders marched in a parade in support of the KKK. Levine has found actual footage of the KKK in Maine to explore who brought them here and their role in the suppression of the French culture.

"This is an analytical documentary. It tries to describe and account for the emotional history of a people, looking for examples of cultural and personal emergence that can lead the culture to a renaissance. It integrates all kinds of research," said Levine.

Among the studies Levine points to in his film are those conducted by neurolinguistic scientists who now see a first language as "hard wired" in the brain, and never completely lost.

Following this theme, "Réveil" explores a number of people in New England who have successfully "awakened" their "lost French".

Among the stories featured are a whole group of people in Waterville who have successfully reacquired their French in a pilot project for French reacquisition, French-Canadian and Senegalese families in Woonsocket, Rhode Island who are possibly defining the New England of the future, and young people in the St. John Valley who are bilingual and speak French in public as a natural part of their lives.

""Réveil - Waking Up French" is relevant to everyone. As the melting pot attitude and globalization threatens diversity and the heritage of so many cultures, Réveil explores the struggle for cultural survival in the very heart of American monoculture. It reveals the importance of history and heritage understanding and demonstrates how languages can be reacquired for personal and community renewal. Through language and heritage preservation, communities discover cultural resources for economic development that is truly inspiring," said Levine.

Ben Levine is a video artist and documentary filmmaker. Originally trained as a clinical psychologist, he had worked in civil rights, with the mentally ill, and with Vietnam Era heroin addicts where he developed active video feedback outreach techniques that make his documentary style intimate, engaged, and thoughtful.

As a founding director of Peoples Video Theater and Survival Arts Media in New York's Soho, he was active in the 1970's video art and community television movement. His work has been seen at the Museum of Modern Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Hayden Planetarium, and on U.S. and European Television. He has produced and performed in live multi-image media events at the Kitchen, the World Trade Center, Lincoln Center, and many universities.

Based in Maine for over 25 years, Levine has been an Independent Producer writing and directing documentary-style educational, public interest, and corporate video and television programs for clients ranging from National Semiconductor to Prudential, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Maine Office on AIDS, and the Baobab Institute in Dakar, Senegal. His productions have earned Gold and Silver Awards from ITVA, IFTVA, Broderson and others.

Levine has developed film and video community-based education programs in film festival formats including Accès Cinéma Africain in Montreal, and the Franco-American Film Festival in Maine. He has served on panels including Membre du Jury, Vues d'Afrique, and the Maine Commission on the Arts, Media Panel. He has taught documentary video at Maine Film and Television Workshops and at the University of Maine.

" Réveil - Waking Up French" is not Levine's first Franco-American film. His latest work revisits the themes of his first film on that subject made in 1980: "Si Je Comprends Bien" (If I Really Understand).

In addition to a film viewing at UMFK, filmmaker Levine will conduct a live presentation, which will include French-Canadian music, a personal introduction of the film, and a lively facilitated discussion after viewing.

Admission to the documentary showing is $5 for adults.