A Ukrainian soldier in France speaks about writing and recovery

Ahead of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Ukrainian soldier and author Oleksandr “Teren” Budko spoke to FRANCE 24 about his path to recovery after losing both legs, his approach to writing and his patriotism.

On a recent evening at the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in France, Oleksandr “Teren” Budko stood with his interpreter before a large audience of Ukrainians and other nationalities. Blond and with a boyish face, the 27-year-old Ukrainian soldier was on the French leg of his European book tour for “Story of a Stubborn Man”. The autobiography interspersed with memories from the front lines recounts his road from civilian to soldier and then to battle-scarred veteran.

Budko began writing the book in October 2022, just two months after losing both legs after a shell landed near him in a trench during the counteroffensive for the city of Kharkiv. “I found inspiration for my writing on the front lines,” he said. Even before the injury, he had been publishing short texts accompanied by pictures of him and his buddies in combat gear as they worked to repel the Russian enemy.

Athletically built and wearing a quilted blue shirt and shorts that showed his prosthetics, Budko was as comfortable as a stand-up comedian in front of a crowd. “There is no truth in the leg,” he said, repeating a Ukrainian proverb that suggests a person who has walked a lot cannot tell the truth because they are tired.

Appreciation for a war hero

Yet he wanted to get as close to the truth as possible while writing his book. He wanted to capture the voices of his comrades and the sights and the sounds of what he experienced in eastern Ukraine. He would try to write, but then get stuck with month-long bouts of writer’s block. A trip to Florida, where he went to get fitted with sports prosthetics so he could participate in the Invictus Games, finally changed something in him. “I was there under the sun, I swam in the sea in Miami, I ate at McDonald’s – and this gave me the perfect circumstances to write this book,” he said.

Thousands of miles away from Ukraine, he revisited his prior experience as a Ukrainian soldier. His days were filled with rehabilitation but, at night, he would write. Like plunging into the nearly clear waters off the Atlantic coast, he immersed himself in his memories of fighting the war and typed them up on a computer.

“Some of the people I wrote about in the book are dead, and that’s why it was so hard to write the text,” said Budko. Luckily, many people in the book did survive, “including my comrade Artem”, he said, nodding toward a young man in a wheelchair sitting in the front row. The audience responded with lengthy applause in appreciation of the two young men for their sacrifice – and for coming home alive.

Memories from the war

Budko agreed to an interview the next day to talk about what led him to fight in the war and his memories from that time. After a visit to Paris‘s Carnavalet Museum, with its elaborate displays dedicated to the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the young man in a black hoodie settled at a kebab restaurant on the Rue des Rosiers, an eclectic street in the Marais neighbourhood of central Paris. He was accompanied by his editor and a lively group of young Ukrainians who, judging by their level of excitement, appeared to be visiting the French capital for the first time.

Sitting with his back against the wall, a bit apart from the group, Budko suddenly seemed less like a comedian and more like a wise old man. “I wrote this book for civilians and for people who had never seen war, so they could understand what happens on the front lines,” he said. 

Through his interpreter, Budko said he was in Kyiv when the war began on February 24, 2022. “I signed up as a volunteer because I wanted to defend my country from the enemy and help it gain independence,” he said.

Although he had never held a weapon before in his life, he joined the Carpathian Sich 49th Infantry Battalion, a battalion of the Ukrainian Ground Forces established in May 2022. After some training and taking part in the defence of the capital Kyiv, Budko was deployed to northeastern Ukraine near Izium.

Most people in the battalion were volunteers who accepted the consequences of their choice, remembered Budko. “Of course Bakhmut and Avdiivka exist (two besieged cities known for scenes of the most ferocious violence of the war), but the life of a soldier is not only about fighting,” he added.

Budko recalled one moment when he ate a slice of foie gras for breakfast: “For me, it was a sign I was still alive,” he said. Despite being trained as killing machines, Budko said he and his fellow volunteers continued civilian life to the best of their ability, preparing traditional meals like borscht, a red beetroot soup, and taking the time to enjoy them with each other. This also meant saving abandoned cats and dogs and evacuating elderly people from zones that had become too perilous for them to stay.

An invincible optimism

From the trenches, the soldiers watched Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches and followed news reports on military support from abroad. “We were interested in how the war was going to end, but of course the weapons situation was important too, because without weapons it was going to be impossible to end the war,” said Budko. “Despite the many weapons given, it was never enough.”

Writing the book also allowed Budko to relive some of the moments from “one of the best times of my life”, he said. The adventure, the camaraderie and the moments of peace, such as when he would lie down on the ground with a book, seem to have left Budko with a sense of nostalgia devoid of any bitterness. But today he preferred not to talk about the day he suffered the injury that caused him to lose both legs: “There is no trauma, but I’ve told the story too many times.”

Budko said he has always been endowed with an invincible optimism. He said what changed after the injury is that he “became braver and more open to people”.

Thinking back to his time in the service, the young man recalled the discovery of a small kobzar (a Ukrainian bard) figurine he made one day while digging trenches in the Kharkiv region. The statue was more confirmation that the lands were Ukrainian, he said, because kobzars never existed in Russia. It further convinced him of his role in preserving Ukrainian territorial integrity.

Ahead of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Budko likened the war to a “David against Goliath” struggle and voiced a warning about the existential nature of the threat: “The less support Ukraine gets, the closer the enemy gets to other European countries.”

With this in mind, his goal today is to “contribute to the Western population’s understanding of the war, and encourage them to support us so that they can help obtain a Ukrainian victory as soon as possible”.

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‘Oppenheimer’ sweeps BAFTAs, winning best film, director, actor awards

Atom bomb epic “Oppenheimer” won seven prizes, including best picture, director and actor, at the 77th British Academy Film Awards on Sunday, cementing its front-runner status for the Oscars next month.

 

Gothic fantasia “Poor Things” took five prizes and Holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest” won three.

Christopher Nolan won his first best director BAFTA for “Oppenheimer,” and Cillian Murphy won the best actor prize for playing physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.

Murphy said he was grateful to play such a “colossally knotty, complex character.”

Emma Stone was named best actress for playing the wild and spirited Bella Baxter in “Poor Things,” a steampunk-style visual extravaganza that won prizes for visual effects, production design, costume design, and makeup and hair.

“Oppenheimer” had a field-leading 13 nominations, but missed out on the record of nine trophies, set in 1971 by “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

It won the best film race against “Poor Things,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Holdovers.” “Oppenheimer” also won trophies for editing, cinematography and musical score, as well as the best supporting actor prize for Robert Downey Jr.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph was named best supporting actress for playing a boarding school cook in “The Holdovers” and said she felt a “responsibility I don’t take lightly” to tell the stories of underrepresented people like her character Mary.

“Oppenheimer” faced stiff competition in what was widely considered a vintage year for cinema and an awards season energized by the end of actors’ and writers’ strikes that shut down Hollywood for months. 

“The Zone of Interest” — a British-produced film shot in Poland with a largely German cast — was named both best British film and best film not in English — a first — and also took the prize for its sound, which has been described as the real star of the film.

Jonathan Glazer’s unsettling drama takes place in a family home just outside the walls of the Auschwitz death camp, whose horrors are heard and hinted at, rather than seen.

“Walls aren’t new from before or since the Holocaust, and it seems stark right now that we should care about innocent people being killed in Gaza or Yemen or Mariupol or Israel,” producer James Wilson said. “Thank you for recognizing a film that asks us to think in those spaces.”

Ukraine war documentary “20 Days in Mariupol,” produced by The Associated Press and PBS “Frontline,” won the prize for best documentary.

“This is not about us,” said filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov, who captured the harrowing reality of life in the besieged city with an AP team. “This is about Ukraine, about the people of Mariupol.”

Chernov said the story of the city and its fall into Russian occupation “is a symbol of struggle and a symbol of faith. Thank you for empowering our voice and let’s just keep fighting.”

The awards ceremony, hosted by “Doctor Who” star David Tennant — who entered wearing a kilt and sequined top while carrying a dog named Bark Ruffalo — was a glitzy, British-accented appetizer for Hollywood’s Academy Awards, closely watched for hints about who might win at the Oscars on March 10.

The prize for original screenplay, went to French courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall.” The film about a woman on trial over the death of her husband was written by director Justine Triet and her partner, Arthur Harari.

“It’s a fiction, and we are reasonably fine,” Triet joked.

Cord Jefferson won the adapted screenplay prize for the satirical “American Fiction,” about the struggles of an African-American novelist

Jefferson said he hoped the success of the movie “maybe changes the minds of the people who are in charge of greenlighting films and TV shows, allows them to be less risk-averse.”

Historical epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” had nine nominations for the awards, officially called the EE BAFTA Film Awards, but went home empty-handed.

There also was disappointment for Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro,” which had seven nominations but won no awards. Neither did grief-flecked love story “All of Us Strangers” with six nominations, and barbed class-war dramedy “Saltburn,” with five. 

“Barbie,” one half of 2023’s “Barbenheimer” box office juggernaut and the year’s top-grossing film, also went home empty-handed from five nominations. “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig failed to get a directing nomination for either the BAFTAs or the Oscars, in what was seen by many as a major snub.

Britain’s film academy introduced changes to increase the awards’ diversity in 2020, when no women were nominated as best director for the seventh year running and all 20 nominees in the lead and supporting performer categories were white. However, Triet was the only woman among this year’s six best-director nominees. 

The Rising Star award, the only category decided by public vote, went to Mia McKenna-Bruce, star of “How to Have Sex.”

Before the ceremony, nominees, including Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Emily Blunt, Rosamund Pike, Ryan Gosling and Ayo Edebiri all walked the red carpet at London’s Royal Festival Hall, along with presenters Andrew Scott, Cate Blanchett, Idirs Elba and David Beckham.

Guest of honor was Prince William, in his role as president of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He arrived without his wife, Kate, who is recovering from abdominal surgery last month.

The ceremony included musical performances by “Ted Lasso” star Hannah Waddingham, singing “Time After Time,” and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, singing her 2001 hit “Murder on the Dancefloor,” which shot back up the charts after featuring in “Saltburn.”

Film curator June Givanni, founder of the June Givanni PanAfrican Cinema Archive, was honored for outstanding British contribution to cinema, while actress Samantha Morton received the academy’s highest honor, the BAFTA Fellowship.

Morton, who grew up in foster care and children’s homes, said that “representation matters.”

“The stories we tell, they have the power to change people’s lives,” she said. “Film changed my life, it transformed me, and it led me here today.

“I dedicate this award to every child in care, or who has been in care and who didn’t survive.”

(AP)

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‘Wind of revolt’ sweeps French cinema in belated #MeToo reckoning

French cinema has been rocked by a new wave of allegations of child rape and sexual assault targeting household names in the industry, bolstering talk of a long-awaited breakthrough for the #MeToo movement in France following a nationwide controversy over Gérard Depardieu. The latest accusations shine a stark light on the culture of impunity that prevailed in a country where auteur worship has long served as a cover for abuse.

French cinema’s #MeToo breakthrough has been heralded, and pushed back, often enough to warrant caution – but there are signs the ground is finally shifting, more than six years after cinema’s feminist revolution kicked off across the Atlantic. 

In 2017, at the dawn of the #MeToo era, French actor Judith Godrèche was among the first to speak out against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, telling the New York Times that the film producer assaulted her in a hotel at the Cannes Film Festival two decades earlier, when she was 24. 

Years later, the actor-turned-filmmaker is at the heart of bombshell allegations that are writing a new chapter in France’s troubled reckoning with sex abuse in the film industry. 

French prosecutors opened an investigation last week after Godrèche, now 51, said she was groomed and raped by filmmaker Benoît Jacquot during a “predatory” relationship that started when she was 14 and he was 39.  

Godrèche, who recently delivered the semi-autobiographical series “Icon of French cinema”, was a child actor when she met Jacquot at a casting call for his movie “Les Mendiants” (The Beggars). She told French daily Le Monde she remained “in his grip” for the following six years, in full sight of the film industry and the media. 

“It’s a story similar to those of children who are kidnapped and grow up without seeing the world, and who cannot think ill of their captor,” Godrèche wrote in a statement for the police juvenile protection unit, quoted by the newspaper.  


Judith Godrèche pictured in 1992, the year she broke off her six-year relationship with Benoît Jacquot. © Bertrand Guay, AFP

Paris prosecutors said they were investigating several potential offences including rape of a minor committed by a person in authority, domestic violence and sexual assault. They said they would also investigate a complaint she filed against another prominent filmmaker, Jacques Doillon, whom she accused of sexually abusing her when she was 15. 

Jacquot, one of France’s best known independent directors, told Le Monde he denied all allegations. The 77-year-old said: “It was me, without irony, who was under her spell for six years.” 

Doillon, whose partner at the time of the alleged abuse was the late Jane Birkin, also denied the accusations against him – including claims of sexual assault voiced in the media by actors Isild Le Besco and Anna Mouglalis in the wake of Godrèche’s allegations. “That Judith Godrèche and other women through her have wish to denounce a system, an era, a society, is courageous, commendable and necessary,” Doillon, 79, wrote in a statement to AFP. He added: “But the justness of the cause does not authorise arbitrary denunciations, false accusations and lies.” 


The allegations levelled at two household names in French film have further rattled an industry already under fire for having shrugged off sexism and sexual abuse for decades. Godrèche’s accusations relate to the period 1986-1992, meaning they are unlikely to lead to prosecution because the statute of limitations has expired. The authorities’ decision to investigate them nonetheless suggests a new willingness to shed light on sexual abuse in the arts. 

Two days after Godrèche filed her complaints, prosecutors said they had requested a trial for 59-year-old film director Christophe Ruggia, who has been charged with sexually assaulting actor Adèle Haenel when she was a minor. It will be up to magistrates to decide whether to press ahead with a trial. 

Haenel, now 34, lodged a complaint against Ruggia in 2020, accusing him of subjecting her to “constant sexual harassment” from the age of 12 to 15. Later that year, she stormed out of the César Awards ceremony, the French equivalent of the Oscars, when the Best Director award was handed to veteran filmmaker Roman Polanski, the target of multiple allegations of sexual abuse of minors. 

The walkout made her an early champion of the #MeToo movement in France. But her decision three years later, at the height of her fame, to quit the industry over its enduring “complacency” towards sex abuse was seen by many feminist campaigners as evidence of French resistance to change. 

A ‘cover’ for abuse 

French cinema’s troubled relationship with the #MeToo movement stems from traits specific to the film industry and to France itself, said Bérénice Hamidi, a sociologist of gender and the arts at the Université Lumière in Lyon. 

“The arts, and film in particular, are overexposed to sexist and sexual violence, because they are professions that feel apart from society and its rules, in which selection and seduction are very closely intertwined, and in which job insecurity puts many young women in a position of vulnerability,” she said. 

“But there is also a culture that is very French in its veneration of artists and the creative process, which excuses all behaviour,” Hamidi added. “There’s this idea that in order to create you have to be in a transgressive relationship with social norms. In this scale of values, women’s lives count for nothing compared to genius and talent. Excusing the behaviour of aggressive artists is specific to France.” 

French critics of the #MeToo movement have often come from cinema itself, inspired by an entrenched suspicion of American puritanical campaigns and witch-hunts. Some have accused the movement of being fuelled by a contempt for men and the art of seduction. 

In 2018, film icon Catherine Deneuve was among 100 French women who signed a newspaper column accusing the #MeToo campaign of going too far. “We defend a right to pester, which is vital to sexual freedom,” they said. 

It’s a theme Jacquot picked up in his defence last week, lamenting the importation from the US of a “frightening neo-Puritanism”. He suggested his relationship with Godrèche carried an interest for both parties, telling Le Monde: “She wanted to be an actress, she had a filmmaker on hand.” 

The newspaper has exhumed a host of past quotes by Jacquot that, in hindsight, appear to capture much of what the #MeToo movement has denounced. 

In a 2006 interview with arts weekly Les Inrockuptibles, he spoke of a tacit “pact” underpinning his collaboration with Godrèche in his 1990 movie “La Désenchantée” (The Disenchanted), saying: “If I give her the film, she gives herself completely in return. Which can be understood in any sense you like.” 

Nine years later, he told the left-leaning newspaper Libération: “My work as a filmmaker consists of pushing an actress to cross a threshold. Meeting her, talking to her, directing her, separating from her and then finding her again: the best way to do all that is to be in the same bed.” 

In an Instagram post in early January, Godrèche said she decided to name Jacquot after coming across a 2011 documentary in which he described cinema as a “sort of cover” for illicit behaviour. He spoke of his relationship with the then child actress as a form of “transgression” that brought him “a degree of admiration” in the “small world of cinema”. 

Jacquot told Le Monde last week he regretted those words, describing them as arrogant banter. 

French actor Judith Godrèche has accused director Benoit Jacquot of raping her when she was 14 years old.
French actor Judith Godrèche has accused director Benoît Jacquot of raping her when she was 14. He says theirs was a “loving relationship”. © FRANCE 24 screengrab

Godrèche recently moved back to France after a 10-year stint in New York, motivated in part by her desire to get away from the “small world” of French film. Her hit series “Icon of French cinema” tells the story of a French film star’s return to Paris after a decade in Hollywood. Through flashbacks, it revisits the abuse she endured as a 14-year-old child actress groomed by a leading French director. 

Its streaming release in late December came on the heels of the hugely successful theatrical launch of Vanessa Filho’s “Le Consentement”, based on the eponymous 2019 book by Vanessa Springora, a memoir of having been sexually abused from the age of 14 by a celebrated writer who was more than three times her age. Gabriel Matzneff, the accused writer who made no secret of his preference for minors, including preteens, is being investigated for rape, now aged 87. 

In an interview with the Guardian last month, Godrèche stressed the importance of speaking out about the grooming of teenagers by older men in positions of authority. 

“These people usually come to you as protectors. They become a parental figure,” she said, noting that the French film industry was still protecting powerful men and that a form of omerta remained prevalent. She added: “I’m not here to carry out a witch-hunt, but you might expect a little compassion.” 

Fall of the Ogre 

Talk of powerful men turning a blind eye to allegations of abuse, or even siding with purported aggressors, became the subject of a nationwide controversy in late December when French President Emmanuel Macron condemned a “manhunt” targeting French film icon Gérard Depardieu

The world-famous actor has been under formal investigation for rape since 2020 and has been accused of rape or sexual assault by a dozen other women – allegations he denies. His reputation took a further hit in December when public broadcaster France Télévision ran a documentary detailing his history of sexual abuse allegations and featuring interviews with several of his accusers. Entitled “Fall of the Ogre”, the documentary featured a segment filmed in North Korea in which the 75-year-old actor is seen making crude, sexual and misogynistic jokes, including one referring to a child riding a pony. 

In the weeks that followed, Depardieu’s wax statue was removed from the Musée Grevin in Paris, Canada’s Quebec region stripped him of its top honour, and Swiss public broadcaster RTS said it was halting the broadcast of films in which he plays a leading role.  The backlash sparked concern in France that the star of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and some 200 other titles was being cancelled outright. 

Appearing on a television talk show on December 20, Macron rebuked his then Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak – who has since been fired – for suggesting Depardieu might be stripped of his Légion d’honneur, France’s highest decoration. 

“He’s an immense actor, a genius of his art,” Macron said in defence of Depardieu, stressing that the Légion d’honneur was not a “moral” order. He added: “I say it as president and as a citizen, he makes France proud.” 

In his remarks, Macron also suggested the documentary’s North Korea segment might have been edited in a misleading way, though France Télévisions later said it was authenticated by a bailiff who viewed the raw footage.  

The president’s words drew outrage from film workers, rights groups and opposition politicians. Generation.s Feministe, a feminist collective, said they were “an insult” to all women who had suffered sexual violence. Macron’s remarks were “not just scandalous but also dangerous”, added the #NousToutes feminist group.  

Stepping into the fray, his predecessor François Hollande said he was “not proud of Gérard Depardieu”. He also berated the president over his failure to spare a word for the film star’s alleged victims. 

Cult of the auteur 

According to Geneviève Sellier, a professor of film studies at the Université Montaigne in Bordeaux, Macron’s words were indicative of a French “cult of the auteur” that has long been used to excuse or cover up reprehensible behaviour. 

“The cult of the auteur places artistic genius – regarded as necessarily male – above the law,” she explains. “This French tradition explains in part why the country remains largely blind to the realities of male domination and abuse.”

Sellier said auteur veneration underpinned a controversial petition that was published on Christmas Day in the right-wing daily Le Figaro, denouncing a “lynching of Depardieu”, signed by dozens of friends and colleagues of the actor. They included former French first lady and singer Carla Bruni, British actor Charlotte Rampling and Depardieu’s former partner, actor Carole Bouquet.  

“When Gérard Depardieu is targeted this way, it is the art (of cinema) that is being attacked,” read the text, warning against a campaign to “erase” Depardieu. “Depriving ourselves of this immense actor would be a tragedy, a defeat. The death of the art. Our art.” 

Hamidi said the petition reflected a “form of blurring between reality and fiction” that is used to shield artists from scrutiny of their behaviour. “There’s a form of transfiguration at play,” she said. “It’s as if punishing Depardieu meant depriving us of the Cyrano he played.” She added: “You often hear people say of Depardieu that he is larger than life, in the sense that he is also too big for the rules that apply to common mortals, and that those rules therefore should not apply to him.” 

French actor Gérard Depardieu, pictured at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, has faced a string of allegations of rape and sexual assault in recent years.
French actor Gérard Depardieu, pictured at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, has faced a string of allegations of rape and sexual assault in recent years. © Axel Schmidt, AP

The text in support of Depardieu swiftly triggered a flurry of counter-petitions, whose signatories were markedly younger of age.  

The Figaro petition “is a sinister and perfect illustration of an old world that refuses to let things change”, read an open letter signed by more than 600 artists, arguing that the text in support of Depardieu “spat in the face” of his accusers. 

“Art is not a totem of impunity,” read another letter published by Libération. “We are not attacking the art we hold dear: on the contrary, we want to protect it, firmly refusing to use it as a pretext for abuse of power, harassment or sexual violence.” 

As the backlash intensified, several signatories of the original petition scrambled to distance themselves from the text, particularly once it emerged it had been written by a little-known actor and writer for the ultra-conservative magazine Causeur, described as close to far-right pundit and former presidential candidate Éric Zemmour.  

Patrice Leconte, who directed Depardieu in the recent “Maigret” (2022), said he had been a “fool” to sign the petition without checking who wrote it, while reiterating his dismay at the “media lynching” the film star was being subjected to. Roberto Alagna, the operatic tenor, suggested in an Instagram post that he had been “tricked” into signing a petition he “hadn’t even read”.  

Others, like actor and stage director Jacques Weber, expressed greater contrition.  

“Yes, I did sign, forgetting the victims and the fate of thousands of women around the world who are suffering from a state of affairs that has been accepted for too long,” Weber wrote in an article published by Mediapart, under the headline, “Guilty”. He added: “My signature was another rape.” 

France’s rayonnement 

The age gap exposed by the competing petitions has revived talk of a generational divide in attitudes towards sexual misconduct in the arts – a divide previously highlighted by the controversial open letter published in 2018 by Deneuve and her peers.  

“There’s a generation that still doesn’t understand this societal evolution,” Muriel Reus, vice president of #MeTooMedia, which campaigns against sexism and sexual misconduct in the media, told France Info radio at the height of the Depardieu controversy.  

This generational divide conceals mechanisms of social domination that are particularly pervasive in the arts, argued Sellier. 

“In film, powerful men tend to be older, while female victims are younger, poorer and in more vulnerable jobs,” she said. Those women who did speak out, including among older generations, were simply ignored in the past, she added. 

Sophie Marceau, one of France’s best-known actors, told Paris Match weekly magazine in December that Depardieu was “rude and inappropriate” when they worked together on the set of “Police” in 1985. Marceau, 57, said she publicly denounced his behaviour at the time, which she described as “unbearable”, adding: “many people turned on me, trying to make it look like I was being a nuisance”.   

Marceau said part of the reason he got away with it was that he targeted women with low-level jobs on set, not the stars.  

Days later, fellow actress Isabelle Carré denounced a culture of impunity in French cinema and of sexualising young girls in an op-ed piece in women’s magazine Elle. A prominent actress with dozens of films to her name, Carré, 52, said she had been the object of unwanted sexual attention since she was 11. Regarding Depardieu, she wrote: “Isn’t it astounding that it took 50 years to point out to an actor that his behaviour towards female assistants, dressers and co-actors is not acceptable?”  

Protesters hold a placard reading
Protesters hold a placard reading “No producers for rapists” during a demonstration outside a theatre in Bordeaux where Gérard Depardieu is due to perform on May 24, 2023. © Romain Perrocheau, AFP

On Monday, members of the Société des réalisatrices et réalisateurs de films (SRF), an organisation representing French filmmakers, issued a statement in support of Godrèche and others who have spoken out in recent days – and expressing dismay at the industry’s habit of turning a blind eye to abuse.  

“We firmly denounce the confusion between creative desire and sexual enslavement, which has been ideologically encouraged by a large part of our professional environment for decades,” they wrote. “We are also struck by the silence of those who witnessed it then and now.”   

The next day, the writer and film critic Hélène Frappat hailed a “wind of revolt blowing across France”, praising Godrèche for having “broken the spell” that holds young girls in silence. In an op-ed in Le Monde, Frappat wrote: “The girls are rising up! It seems our culturally reactionary country, this time, will not be able to muzzle them.”  

Welcoming the onset of a “French #MeToo” in an interview with France Inter radio last month, actor Laure Calamy praised her colleagues who dared to take on powerful men. She said their courage contrasted with Macron’s support for Depardieu, which she likened to a “slap in their face”.   

At stake in this tussle is the very credibility of France and its film industry, Hamidi argued, highlighting a French “backwardness” on the issue. She said: “Statements such as Macron’s project a catastrophic image abroad, giving the impression that we are still in Ancien Régime France, in which the powerful can take advantage of women.”  

Far from preserving France’s cherished cultural rayonnement (influence), the president’s words achieved the very opposite, Sellier added: “It is precisely this blindness to sexist violence that is undermining France’s cultural influence.” 

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From sledgehammers to milking robots: French film charts half a century on a dairy farm

Gilles Perret’s “La Ferme des Bertrand” is something of a rarity in French film: a tale of rural success for three generations of a family of dairy farmers. Its release next week has acquired added resonance as farmers across France rise up in protest at taxes, costs and regulations they say are killing their livelihoods.

The plight of France’s farmers is a well-trodden path in French cinema, typically focusing on the stricken family businesses that modern life has left by the wayside.

In his seminal trilogy “Profils paysans”, Raymond Depardon followed octogenarian farmers and herdsmen scraping a living in remote areas blighted by the rural exodus. Others have investigated the damage wrought by intensive farming and the agrochemical industry, with their trail of livelihoods wrecked and family farms pushed into bankruptcy.

French farmers now number fewer than half a million, a fraction of their postwar total. But their fading world still occupies an outsized place in the national psyche, infused with nostalgia for France’s rural past and tinged with guilt at the hardship experienced by so many. 

Read moreFewer, older, poorer: France’s farming crisis in numbers

La Ferme des Bertrand”, which opens in French cinemas next week, tells a different story: that of a dairy farm’s successful transition to modernity under three generations of the same family.

Its aim is not to belittle or ignore the struggle of others, says Perret, who wrote the film with his partner Marion Richoux, but to showcase an agriculture that is both viable and appealing, and deeply respectful of the environment.

Economic success, human failure

Early on in the film, we meet a trio of shirtless brothers smashing stones with sledgehammers to build the foundation of their future milking parlour. Their lean, muscular bodies hint at an austere life of back-breaking toil and frugality.

The black-and-white footage is taken from a 1972 documentary shot by France’s national broadcaster in the Alpine hamlet where Perret grew up, a few steps away from the dairy farm run by the Bertrand brothers. 

Twenty-five years later, Perret borrowed a camera to film the same trio as they prepared to pass the farm on to their nephew and his wife. He resumed filming another quarter of a century later, with a third generation of Bertrands now at the helm, before merging the three epochs into a fascinating chronicle of half a century of rural resilience and adaptation.

The Bertrand brothers in a 1972 documentary by Marcel Trillat. © ORTF

When they pass the baton in 1997, the three brothers leave behind a healthy business but at a steep cost: all three have remained bachelors, casting aside their personal aspirations to stay tied to their land and cattle throughout a lifetime of personal sacrifice.

As the mustachioed André, the film’s standout character, says in a sobering reflection, their story is one of “economic success and human failure”.

It takes a third generation of the Bertrand family to finally strike a healthier balance between work and family life, aided by an impressive array of machines that has changed the nature of their work beyond recognition.

“The youngsters barely do any manual work nowadays,” mutters André, hunched over his stick, still soldiering on in the film’s most recent footage. “But they sure know a thing or two about machines.”

A protected bubble

André and his brothers provide many of the film’s most endearing scenes, whether expertly wielding a sickle, massaging a chicken, or calling each of their one hundred cows by name.

But Perret’s film does not indulge in nostalgia for a bygone era. It opens with a shot of a brand-new milking machine, which the retiring Hélène, from the second generation of the Bertrand family, jokingly introduces as her “replacement” – one that will make her son’s work less tiring and repetitive.

Hélène (left), her son Marc (right) and her son-in-law Alex: generations two and three of the Bertrand family.
Hélène (left), her son Marc (right) and her son-in-law Alex: generations two and three of the Bertrand family. © Laurent Cousin

The intent is to provoke viewers, says Perret, introducing a form of farming that is in step with society and with the technological evolutions that are shaping our world.

“In many other sectors, mechanisation has led to job losses and a deterioration in working conditions,” he says. “In this case, it appears robots can be of great help to humans, taking over some of the most exhausting tasks in a profession that requires around-the-clock presence, 365 days a year.”

For all the talk of success, the film makes no secret of the physical toll on the Bertrands. André’s two brothers died just weeks into retirement. Their nephew only made it to 50, leaving Hélène with three children and a farm to run.

The fact that the farm powered on owes much to its privileged location in the protected cheesemaking region of Haute-Savoie, home to Reblochon cheese. 

The designation means their milk is sold at twice the price of milk from the plains or industrial farms. They effectively operate in a bubble, protected from the market forces that leave countless other farmers at the mercy of volatile prices they have no control over. 

Toiling with a purpose

In the 25 years since he first filmed the farm, Perret has built up a large body of socially-minded work, sometimes teaming up with the muckraking journalist-turned-politician François Ruffin to denounce the worst effects of unbridled capitalism. His films focus on the human impact of economic and societal transformations, shining a light on spaces of resistance to the coercive forces of globalised economies.

He says growing up alongside the Bertrand family has helped shape his outlook and his interests.

“In all my films I’ve tried to question our relationship to work, the meaning of what we do, how we can improve conditions, and what can be done to preserve our environment,” he says. “These are all things that are at the heart of their lives.”

André's brother Patrick wields his scythe in footage from 1997.
André’s brother Patrick wields his scythe in footage from 1997. © Gilles Perret

In order to qualify for the Reblochon label, the farm is bound to strict guidelines which rule out non-natural foods for the cattle and require the animals to be out grazing in the mountain pastures for a minimum of 150 days a year. 

“It doesn’t quite qualify as organic farming, but it comes very close,” says Perret, stressing the Bertrands’ role in shaping and preserving the pristine environment around the hamlet he still lives in – both a gift of nature and a legacy of their painstaking labour.

“The money we make is for living,” says one of the brothers midway through the film as he soaks in the view, resting on his scythe after a day of toil. “The real satisfaction comes from keeping our nature clean and healthy.”

“La Ferme des Bertrand” (89min) opens in French cinemas on Wednesday, January 31.

France’s farming protests

French farmers have blocked roads, junctions and motorways in protest at pay, low food prices and environmental rules they say are ruining their livelihoods, in an echo of protests taking place in other EU countries.

With convoys of tractors advancing on Paris and threatening to blockade the capital, France’s new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced key concessions on Friday including an end to rising fuel costs and the simplification of regulations.

But the main farming union, the FNSEA, described the measures as insufficient, vowing to maintain its mobilisation until the government meets all of its demands.

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From Musk and Tusk to Swift: Figures who defined 2023

From Iran to Hollywood, in the domains of space travel, football and tech, 2023 was a year shaped by strong personalities. Some inspired us, most made us reflect, and others occasionally annoyed us. As the year comes to an end, FRANCE 24 has selected some of the personalities leaving a mark on 2023.

  • Narges Mohammadi, fighting for human rights in Iran

Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all”. 

The journalist plays a key role in Iran’s “Women, Life, Freedom” movement garnering global attention since the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of Iran’s police in September 2022. The movement advocates for the abolition of mandatory hijab laws and the elimination of various forms of discrimination against women in Iran.

Arrested for the first time 22 years ago, Mohammadi has been held in Evin Prison, known for its mistreatment of detainees, since 2021.

From behind bars, where she has spent much of the last two decades on charges like “propaganda”, “rebellion”, and “endangering national security”, she continues her fight against what she terms a “tyrannical and misogynistic religious regime”.

At the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, her 17-year-old twins living in exile in France since 2015 delivered her speech.

Read moreNarges Mohammadi: Iran’s defiant voice, even behind bars

  • Donald Tusk, bringing Poland back into the fold

After eight years of nationalist rule by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), Poland’s Donald Tusk is back in his country’s top job.

Already having served as prime minister from 2007 to 2014, the committed europhile and former president of the European Council (2014 – 2019) promises to put his country solidly back on democratic rails.

His priorities are clear: to restore the rule of law and rebuild Poland’s credibility within the EU. His coalition also advocates abortion in a country where the practice is only permitted in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life or health of the mother.

However, Tusk will have to contend with Poland’s far right, which still retains meaningful political power despite losing the premiership. 

  • Taylor Swift, shining so brightly

In a world where celebrity can be fleeting, Taylor Swift has never been far from the limelight. From Nashville to New York, the 34-year-old American singer has built a romantic-pop musical empire that has captivated millions of fans, known as “Swifties”, worldwide.

Named the Person of the Year 2023 by Time magazine on December 6, Swift, who started her career more than 15 years ago, boasts a long list of world records. Her albums frequently top the charts in the United States – since she debuted in 2006, 13 of her 14 albums have reached number one in US sales.

In October, Swift released concert film, “The Eras Tour”, which went on to become the highest-grossing concert film of all time, earning $249.9 million worldwide. 

In September, the singer demonstrated her cultural force. After a short message on Instagram encouraging her 272 million followers to register to vote, the website she directed them to – the nonprofit Vote.org – recorded more than 35,000 registrations in just one day.

Committed to maintaining musical independence, the feminist icon re-recorded the tracks from her first six albums in 2019 to regain control of the rights after her former record label was acquired by music industry magnate Scooter Braun. 

  • Hollywood’s striking writers and actors, fighting and winning

In May 2023, Hollywood ignited. The industry’s writers, followed by actors in July, went on strike. The stakes in the negotiations included both base and residual pay – which actors say has been undercut by inflation and the business model of streaming – and the threat of unregulated use of artificial intelligence (AI) by studios.

The strike – the most significant since 1960 – paralysed film and series production for several months, costing the US economy at least $6 billion.

At the heart of the protest were fears that studios would use AI to generate scripts or clone the voices and images of actors without compensation. The strikers, supported by the public, refused to back down.

They chanted “When we fight, we win”, a slogan that has become the rallying cry for workers across the United States, from the automotive industry to hospitality. Prominent names in cinema join the picket lines, including actress and producer Jessica Chastain and “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston.

In September, the writers reached a salary agreement with the studios which included protections relating to the use of AI. Actors finally returned to sets in November after 118 days off the job.

  • Elon Musk, genius or man-child?

Elon Musk will leave 2023 an even more divisive figure than when he entered it. With a fortune of $250 billion, Musk has grand ambitions to conquer space, roads, and social networks.

Twitter, renamed X in late July after Musk bought the company in October 2022, has had a chaotic year: mass layoffs, a showdown with the EU over misinformation, controversy over certified accounts, and plummeting advertising revenues. Its survival is now an open question after Musk told advertisers who suspended their advertising over his repost of a tweet widely deemed anti-Semitic to “Go f—k yourself”.

Beyond X, Musk’s company SpaceX has been instrumental in the war in Ukraine with its satellite internet product Starlink. It has also made progress on the Starship Rocket, which could revolutionise space transportation. However, the two launches this year didn’t go as planned, raising concerns about the project’s feasibility.

In the workshops of Tesla, his electric car company, an international strike movement that is still gaining momentum has already tarnished his image. 

Finally, his Neuralink project, which aims to develop brain implants to assist paralysed individuals or those with neurological diseases, has also faced criticism. Some experts believe the risks this project poses to are too high.

Whether you love him or hate him, it seems Musk can’t stay out of the headlines. 

  • Jennifer Hermoso, the face of change for Spanish football

Until this summer, Jennifer Hermoso was only known by football enthusiasts. But the wave of support she received after the Women’s World Cup has made her a symbol.

As the Spanish player was being crowned world champion in Sydney, she was unexpectedly kissed on the mouth by Luis Rubiales, then president of the Spanish Football Federation. The image, broadcast live on television, circled the globe and sparked outrage.

A few days later, Hermoso broke her silence and denounced an “impulse-driven, sexist, out of place act”. She filed a complaint against Rubiales, who claimed it was just a consensual “little kiss”.


<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Official Announcement. August 25th,2023. <a href=”https://t.co/lQb18IGsk2″>pic.twitter.com/lQb18IGsk2</a></p>&mdash; Jenn1 Hermos0 (@Jennihermoso) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Jennihermoso/status/1695155154067087413?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>August 25, 2023</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Ultimately forced to resign, Rubiales was charged with sexual assault by the courts and suspended for three years from any football-related activity by FIFA. The scandal led to a boycott by Spanish players of the national team for several days until the federation promised “immediate and profound changes”.

  • Mortaza Behboudi, Afghan journalist fighting for press freedom

Most of 2023 unfolded behind bars for Franco-Afghan journalist Mortaza Behboudi. His crime? Simply doing his job. 

It all started on January 7 when he was arrested on charges of espionage in Kabul by the Taliban. During his 9 months in prison, he was regularly tortured and threatened with death.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its support committee, created by his wife Aleksandra Mostovaja, moved heaven and earth to secure his release. Their determination eventually paid off, and he was released on October 18.

Working for French news outlets including France Télévisions, TV5Monde, Libération, and Mediapart, he already wants to return to Afghanistan. “My fight is to give a voice to those who don’t have it,” he told FRANCE 24.

According to the annual round-up compiled by RSF, 45 journalists were killed worldwide in connection with their work (as of 1 December 2023). 

  • Rayyanah Barnawi, first Saudi woman in space

On May 21, Rayyanah Barnawi became the first Saudi woman to travel to the International Space Station. A biomedical science graduate, she dedicated her ten-day mission to the field of cancer stem cell research.

Her journey is an important symbol for Saudi Arabia, where women face restrictions. Barnawi is emblematic of a new generation of highly educated and ambitious Saudi women ready to take on important roles in the historically conservative society.

The journey is also part of the Saudi monarchy’s strategy to renew its international image.

  • Sam Altman, the father of ChatGPT

At 38, Sam Altman is one of the most prominent names in the tech world. He is the CEO of OpenAI, the San Francisco-based AI lab that created ChatGPT – a chatbot with 100 million weekly users now disrupting the technology ecosystem.

On top of being a prolific entrepreneur, Altman officially launched Worldcoin, a new cryptocurrency with an identity verification system using the human iris. Like Elon Musk, with whom he co-founded OpenAI in 2015, his grand ambition and sometimes controversial methods have earned him criticism. Some accuse him of prioritising security over innovation.

In November 2023, he was dismissed by the board of directors of OpenAI, only to be reinstated in his position after most of the company’s employees threatened to leave the group.

Watch moreSam Altman to return as OpenAI CEO after his tumultuous ouster

His activity is not restricted to entrepreneurship. In May, Altman invested $375 million in Helion, a nuclear fusion startup.

  • Barbie, a triumphant return

For better or worse, Barbie has been a icon since she first hit store shelves in 1959. The 29-centimetre doll has had an impact on generations of girls and women: long reviled by feminists, she had an image makeover in 2023.

This summer, Barbie experienced a triumphant return thanks to a film directed by Greta Gerwig starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Released in July, the film is a critical and commercial success praised for its intelligent script, impeccable performances, and feminist message.

Gerwig created a world where Barbie is a rebellious icon fighting against gender stereotypes, surrounded by strong and independent female characters.

In the process, Gerwig became the first woman to direct a film grossing more than a billion dollars at the box office. The 40-year-old capped off her stellar year by being named jury president at Cannes 2024. 

This article is translated from the original in French. 

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How heritage conservationists are preserving culturally and historically significant artefacts and monuments

A leopard skin lies on a table at Namita Jaspal’s lab, set on the second floor of her three-storeyed house in New Chandigarh, a township just outside the eponymous state capital of Punjab and Haryana. “It has come for restoration from a private collection,” says Namita, the chief conservator of Heritage Preservation Atelier, a company she started in 2011. .

There are old paintings in the lab too, but Namita’s work takes shape outside — in the wall paintings of the 16th Century Golden Temple in Amritsar, 18th and 19th Century temples built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and a nine-foot flag gifted by the Chinese to the British Indian Army in the 1800s. “In 2013, I conserved the wall paintings at one of the holiest, most-revered sites in Sikhism — Golden Temple. It took three-four years to complete the project as there was a lot of footfall and we could only work at night. We have also done frescos and wall paintings in temples from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time. In all of them, there was an amalgamation of faith. In a Krishna temple, there were paintings of all 10 Sikh gurus,” she says.

Hoshiarpur Temple_Before
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Hoshiarpur Temple_After

Hoshiarpur Temple_After
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Namita is among the people bridging the gap between art and history in India, work which includes wall paintings and murals spanning several centuries. Nilabh Sinha, principal director of Delhi-headquartered INTACH Conservation Institutes, has dabbled in much older wall paintings. He restored those on Ladakh’s 12th Century Mangyu temple complex. Nilabh, who also conserved nine oil paintings of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2008 and 2009, says it took three-four years to finish work on the paintings and the structure of the complex. “The original paintings at Ladakh had gold and natural pigments, but they had been overpainted garishly over the years by locals. The structure is made of mud, so the paintings and the structures had been damaged because of the roof leaking during heavy rain,” he says.

Ladakh’s 12th Century Mangyu temple complex

Ladakh’s 12th Century Mangyu temple complex
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Special Arrangement

Detail of a painting before conservation of Mangyu temple

Detail of a painting before conservation of Mangyu temple
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Detail of a painting after conservation of Mangyu temple

Detail of a painting after conservation of Mangyu temple
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Nilabh’s team also repaired, conserved and restored the complex’s structure. He says they employed locals and trained them to continue preserving the monastery. “Local monks too were involved in our project,” says Nilabh, who has also restored the 19th Century, limestone Flora Fountain in Mumbai. He outlines the difference between material conservation and monument conservation stating that the former involes any material that constitutes an art form, ranging from textiles to paintings, while the latter is a more elaborate process requiring architects and engineers. “In both cases scientific investigations go into the restoration of heritage,” he says.

19th Century, limestone Flora Fountain in Mumbai before and after restoration

19th Century, limestone Flora Fountain in Mumbai before and after restoration
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Special Arrangement

Sreekumar Menon, a freelance painting conservator, was involved in the conservation project of Sumda Chun in Ladakh, which was awarded for excellence by UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2011. “We started in 2006 and continued up to 2010,” he says.

Sreekumar working at the monastry

Sreekumar working at the monastry
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Special Arrangement

In places like Ladakh, where temperature drops to -20°C, work is not possible in winter. “There is more rain in Ladakh now, so it gets tougher. In all, we could work for 10 months in a year,” adds Nilabh.

In both the projects in Ladakh, the biggest challenge was removing soot which had discoloured the paintings. For Sreekumar, work in Sumda Chun was the most enriching. “During the initial two-three months, there was no electricity. It was interesting to work without a mobile connection,” he says.

Sreekumar says the guiding principle for an art conservator is staying true to the art. “The main thing is how much can one preserve a work of art. For the project in Ladakh, we work with local agencies and the local community. We don’t know the artist, we only know the art school and dynasty that the art belongs to. The significance of the painting or the project is the main guiding factor; I pick up the ones that are at least 200-300 years old,” he adds.

Sumda Chun in Ladakh

Sumda Chun in Ladakh
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Special Arrangement

Sreekumar has also worked on private collections. When asked about the price it could take to restore a painting or structure, he says it depends on the project. “You could need team members for some projects too. But, by an estimate, the price could go up to between ₹20 lakh and ₹1 crore for a month,” he says. “There are many variables — logistics, lodging for team, materials and many more. It is highly demanding to work on a site. Sumda Chun is among them: difficult, but rewarding.”

The temple was listed as one of the 100 most endangered sites in World Monument Funds 2006 Watch List, along with three other Indian sites — the 17th Century Dalhousie Square in Calcutta, the 15th Century Dhangkar Gompa in Himachal Pradesh, and the 19th Century Watson’s Hotel in Mumbai.

Drawing of Purasaiwalkam house in Madras Inked

Drawing of Purasaiwalkam house in Madras Inked
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Sujatha Shankar, who specialises in architecture, planning, and restoration and conservation, is the convener of INTACH’s Chennai chapter. She is also on the governing council and executive committee of INTACH. She has restored a bungalow which was over 100 years old and had colonial vernacular architecture. “The structure had been leased out to Sri Krishna Sweets. We put back light fixtures and preserved the flooring,” she says.

The house, based in Purasaiwalkam, dates back to the early 1900s and is a vernacular idiom that evolves from Indo-Saracenic styles, says Sujatha. “The tenant, who occupied it, asked us to restore it. With regard to matching of materials, and skills employed, all of it is as close to the original as possible. The walls were in lime; the flooring, in some places, was replaced with handmade tiles compatible to the period. The only intervention was to install an elevator, which too was done without compromising on the architectural features. Other than working with lime and brick, much of the work had to be done in wood. We were able to replicate missing pieces. These were for the eaves of the monkey top,” she adds.

Purasaiwalkam house

Purasaiwalkam house
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Sujatha has been practising for 39 years. She has mostly worked in Chennai, restoring and conserving structures dating to the British era. Challenges have also involved bringing modern utility to structures built over a century ago. “INTACH has been holding workshops on working with lime, timber and other materials to train labourers and masons to work in this area. As for research, it runs parallelly to the brief, condition assessment and photo documentation,” she shares.

Training the staff is one of the most challenging tasks when it comes to conservation, echoes Sreekumar. “We hire conservators who have, at least ideologically, an idea of conservation. But that is not always a possibility, so sometimes we train people on site under the supervision of two or three senior conservators,” he says.

Namita Jaspal at the Golden Temple in Amritsar

Namita Jaspal at the Golden Temple in Amritsar
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Special Arrangement

Recently, Namita restored 17th Century Sikh warrior Banda Singh Bahadur’s angrakha, a piece of clothing. “We used needle and a transparent thread for it, and a weaker adhesive, so that it is removable. When it comes to materials, we’re meticulous in our selection. We source specialised materials that match the object’s composition and characteristics, often going beyond what’s readily available in stores. This allows us to ensure an accurate and authentic conservation process that effectively addresses ageing effects and maintains the object’s integrity,” she adds. 

A wall painting at the Golden Temple before conservation

A wall painting at the Golden Temple before conservation
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Special Arrangement

A wall painting at the Golden Temple after conservation

A wall painting at the Golden Temple after conservation
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

For Namita, the commitment to upholding the originality of each object is paramount. “We understand the importance of striking a balance between conservation efforts and preserving the object’s inherent value. Through our diligent adherence to ethical guidelines and thorough research, we’re able to achieve conservation results that honor the object’s history without drawing any unwarranted criticism,” she shares.

Golden Temple, she says, was a huge learning experience. “I needed artists, but had to make it clear that they did not have to show their artistic skills, but just fill the gaps from where the paintings were chipped off. They could not use any material; we had to tell them what pigments they needed to work with,” she says. “You cannot make new art on something that has already been made; that’s one of the key points of restoration.”

In concurrence with Namita’s views, Sreekumar highlights the most significant responsibility of a conservator: “Respect the art of the creator.”

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Paris exhibits to see this autumn, from Bollywood to Chagall and Picasso

As Parisians return from their summer holidays and get back to work or school (a period known in France as “la rentrée”), the City of Lights is set for a rich cultural season. From Russian-French artist Marc Chagall to a retrospective on Indian cinema, FRANCE 24 has selected 10 of the top upcoming exhibits in Paris. 

The new cultural season in Paris is shaping up to be an extremely varied one, with exhibits dedicated to Vincent van Gogh at the Musée d’Orsay, Marc Chagall at the Centre Pompidou and Berthe Morisot – one of the leading female figures of French impressionism – at the Musée Marmottan Monet. Looking for immersive experiences and something off the beaten track? Check out the Aura Invalides, a multimedia light show under the dome at the monument where Napoleon is buried; the street art exhibit at the Grand Palais Immersif; and an exhibit on the Paris metro at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. 

 

Gertrude Stein et Pablo Picasso – L’invention du langage (The invention of language)

To mark 50 years since Pablo Picasso’s death, the Luxembourg museum is putting on an exhibition centred around the extraordinary friendship between Cubist pioneers Pablo Picasso and American writer Gertrude Stein, two 20th-century icons of the Bohemian art scene in Paris. 

The aim of the exhibition is not only to shed light on Stein’s little-known poetic work in relation to Picasso’s paintings and sculptures, but also to highlight their influence on artists across Europe and the United States such as Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. 

Gertrude Stein et Pablo Picasso – L’invention du langage at the Musée du Luxembourg runs from September 13 – January 28, 2024. 

 

Mode et sport, d’un podium à l’autre (Fashion and sports: From one podium to another)

The poster for “Fashion and sport: From one podium to another”, an exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, features the Lacoste couture polo dress by designer Freaky Debbie. © David Hugonot Petit, Conception graphique: Coline Aguettaz & Brice Tourneux

Ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) explores the evolution of sportswear and its influence on fashion, from ancient times to the present day. From the outfits worn by French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen to the jerseys worn by Les Bleus, the French national football team, the exhibit presents a wide selection of emblematic pieces. It also provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on the social and cultural crossover between these two seemingly distant worlds. 

Mode et sport, d’un podium à l’autre at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs runs from September 20 – April 7, 2024.

 

Aura Invalides  


 

A brand-new immersive experience is coming to Paris. From September 22, a light show will be projected onto the interior walls of the Invalides dome at dusk. Guided by music, visitors will explore the six chapels surrounding the crypt of Napoleon’s tomb and learn about the history of the 17th-century dome. This experience is an invitation to travel back in time and discover a whole new side of the Hôtel National des Invalides. 

Aura Invalides at the Hôtel National des Invalides runs from September 22. 

 

Bollywood Superstars – Histoire d’un cinéma indien (History of Indian cinema) 

The poster for the upcoming
The poster for the upcoming “Bollywood Superstars” exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. © Gitanjali Rao

Previously shown at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Musée du Quai Branly is now putting India – the world’s largest film producer with over 1,500 films a year exported throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa – front and centre in this exhibit. More than 200 works – including paintings, costumes and photographs – will be on display, allowing visitors a rare opportunity to discover the rich history of Indian cinema from the end of the 19th century to the present day.  

Bollywood Superstars – Histoire d’un cinéma indien at the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac runs from September 26 – January 14, 2024. 

 

Van Gogh à Auvers-sur-Oise – Les derniers mois (Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise: The final months) 

“The church at Auvers” by Vincent Van Gogh was purchased with the help of Paul Gachet, son of Dr Paul Gachet, and an anonymous Canadian donation in 1952. © Hervé Lewandowski, RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)

The Musée d’Orsay will be putting on the first exhibition devoted solely to the works produced by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh during the last two months of his life at Auvers-sur-Oise on the northwestern outskirts of Paris. Although he only spent a short period of time there, it marked a crucial final phase in his artistic development during which he produced some of his most notable works, including “The Church at Auvers”.

Known as “the city of Impressionists”, other artists such as Cezanne and Pissaro either lived or spent time in Auvers. After visiting the exhibit, consider making a trip to Auvers-sur-Oise itself, which offers a chance to visit the graves of Van Gogh and his brother Theodore; the Auberge Ravoux, where Van Gogh lived during his stay; and the Painters’ Pathway, a self-guided walk marked by panels exhibiting the Impressionist masterpieces that were painted in and around the town. 

Auvers-sur-Oise is very easy to reach by train. Take the Transilien H train from Paris Gare du Nord to the Pontoise train station and then take another Transilien H from Pontoise to Auvers-sur-Oise. The journey will take about one hour.  

Van Gogh à Auvers-sur-Oise – Les derniers mois at the Musée d’Orsay runs from October 3 – February 4, 2024.

 

Chagall à l’œuvre – Dessins, céramiques et sculptures 1945-1970 (Chagall at work: Drawings, ceramics and sculptures, 1945-1970)

Russian-born French painter Marc Chagall works in the Madoura studio in Vallauris, France on June 11, 1952.
Russian-born French painter Marc Chagall works in the Madoura studio in Vallauris, France on June 11, 1952. © Meunier, AFP

A major 20th-century artist who was nearly as famous as his friend Picasso, French-Russian artist Marc Chagall is now honoured at the Pompidou Centre. The exhibition brings together a selection of the artist’s greatest works, including the preparatory drawings for the costumes and stage curtains in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird”, sketches of the ceiling of Paris’s Opéra Garnier and a collection of ceramics, collages and sculptures. This exhibit is the perfect opportunity to (re)discover his work, which is rich in colour and symbolism and influenced by his Jewish heritage, his life in Russia and his career in France

Chagall à l’œuvre – Dessins, céramiques et sculptures 1945-1970 at the Centre Pompidou runs from October 4 – February 26, 2024. 

 

Dana Schutz – Le monde visible (Dana Schutz: The visible world)

The City of Paris Museum of Modern Art is hosting the first major French exhibition of works by US artist Dana Schutz. Born in Michigan in 1976, Schutz has had a major influence on contemporary art. A storyteller skilled with colour, she has explored contemporary themes over the years through complex, large-scale fictional settings. The exhibit explores themes such as the artist at work, the construction of self and society, and the tension that can be felt in large crowds.   

Dana Schutz – Le monde visible at the Musée d’Art Moderne runs from October 6 – February 11, 2024.

 

Berthe Morisot et l’art du XVIIIe siècle (Berthe Morisot and the art of the 18th century) 

“Apollo revealing his divinity to the shepherdess” by Berthe Morisot, based on a work by François Boucher, 1892. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The Musée Marmottan Monet has brought together 65 works from French and foreign museums as well as private collections for the first time to highlight the similarities between the work of Berthe Morisot and the lesser-known 18th-century French painters from whom she drew inspiration: Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Jean-Baptiste Perronneau. 

Morisot established herself as the first female Impressionist and, alongside Monet, Renoir and Degas, was one of the leading members of the group. Due to social restrictions imposed on her class and gender, the most common subject for her paintings were domestic scenes. Many of these depict members of her own family, including her husband Eugène Manet, Édouard Manet’s brother, and their daughter Julie.  

Berthe Morisot et l’art du XVIIIe siècle at the Musée Marmottan Monet runs from October 18 – March 3, 2024. 

 

Métro ! Le Grand Paris en mouvement (Metro! Greater Paris on the move)

A commuter sits in a carriage at the Gare de l'Est metro station in Paris on March 7, 2023.
A commuter sits in a carriage at the Gare de l’Est metro station in Paris on March 7, 2023. © Christophe Archambault, AFP

As part of efforts to reduce traffic congestion and national emissions, the French government launched construction in 2016 on the Grand Paris Express, a group of new transit lines that will connect many areas of the suburbs without having to pass through Paris. As this project’s first stations near completion, the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine is presenting a new exhibit about the history of the Paris metro and the urban transformations associated with it. 

Métro ! Le Grand Paris en mouvement at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine runs from November 8 – June 2, 2024.

 

L’art urbain à l’ère numérique (Street art in the digital age)

“L’homme oiseau” (Bird-man), a work by French artists Ella & Pitr in Cerrillos, Chile, in 2013. © Ella&Pitr

Street art takes centre stage at the Grand Palais Immersif, a new exhibition space set up within the walls of Paris’s Opéra Bastille in autumn 2022. The exhibit traces the history of this artistic movement, which appeared on city walls in the 20th century, and the impact of technology on the work of street artists. From New York subway stations to large-scale murals of the 2000s and paintings created using drones, visitors can witness the evolution of street art.   

L’art urbain à l’ère numérique at the Grand Palais Immersif runs from December 6 – July 21, 2024.

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‘Bengaluru is a fast-growing city, very diverse and has a big commitment to culture’

World Cities Culture Forum was founded in 2012 by Justine Simons OBE, London’s Deputy Mayor for Culture & the Creative Industries. Unboxing Bangalore, a participative project to create a new narrative around Bengaluru through multimedia properties, has been representing the city and leading the discussions. The Hindu spoke to Ms. Simons and Prashanth Prakash, chairman of UnboxingBLR Foundation and founding partner at Accel India.

Bengaluru has become the first Indian city to be part of the World Cities Culture Forum (WCCF). What is the Indian perspective it can offer to the network and what does it stand to achieve

Prashanth Prakash: Bengaluru is a dynamic city representing an aspirational India in many ways. It has also been a melting pot of different cultures within the country and is one of the oldest cities, which very few people know about. There is a lot of culture in the city that is not being talked about. Having a global forum like WCCF and not being part of it was a huge waste of opportunity for a city like Bengaluru that has the aspiration to take the city’s culture globally.

But more than that, we wanted to learn from a forum and platform like WCCF as to what it takes to build cultural vibrancy within the city. We are very young or amateur in that aspect because our priorities, as a city, have been different. But when other things keep taking precedence, you lose the identity of the city and what is unique to that city.

A lot has been happening in the cultural space in the city. Those inspired us to think that we need something like Unboxing to bring together all such well-meaning unique initiatives under one platform. Once we had that participation of people under Unboxing Bangalore, it became a no-brainer that Bengaluru needs to be a part of something like WCCF which helps create collaboration and exchange between multiple cities across the world. Those were some of the initial catalysts that made this happen.

Justine Simons: We, as well as a lot of cities that are part of the network, have been keen to have an Indian city as part of the Forum. Bengaluru is a fast-growing city, very diverse and has a big commitment to culture.

It feels like there is real ambition and drive in Bengaluru around the culture story. It is known as a tech city in the rest of the world. This is a fantastic opportunity for Bengaluru to bring the cultural story alongside the tech story.

What helped Bengaluru become a member of WCCF?

Prakash: It started in a serendipitous manner with Justine and her team meeting Abhishek Poddar, who started the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), in London. He suggested that if we were to become a part of WCCF there was a lot to exchange and co-benefit.

Once we started talking to Justine, we saw there were a lot of shared ideas. We wanted to learn from the 40 other cities that were part of the forum. For us, it was a moment of pride that we could be part of this forum and learn and accelerate our journey of being that city that can engage its citizens with culture. Bengaluru has attracted citizens from across the world. I don’t think there’s any other city that has cultural pockets. Multiple microcosms of India are culturally represented in this city.

Culture is also a big unifier. Today there are apprehensions about different groups within the city. This happens because we don’t understand what they can offer to the city culturally.  

Simons: It was just about a year ago when I went to lunch with Abhishek. He was talking to me about the vision for culture in Bengaluru and I was talking about WCCF. And it seemed to be an obvious connection to bring Bengaluru into this global leadership network.

We’re looking for global cities that champion and advocate for culture to become our members. And it is really clear in Bengaluru that there is real commitment and vision around culture.

What kind of collaborative activities can we expect to see in Bengaluru in collaboration with WCCF?

Prakash: We are planning a Bangalore festival in the first 10 days of December where we are thinking of showcasing multiple aspects of our culture – a very vibrant design community, theatre community, food, the Bangalore beer culture, and much more. We want to learn from this forum how such festivals are run globally. For example, in terms of ticketing the Edinburgh Festival is only next to the Olympics and the World Cup. We certainly have a long way to go from piloting this festival to becoming as huge as the Edinburgh Festival. But we want to put that to the test at this festival.

Simons: Bengaluru, as a member, has been invited to join the next WCCF global summit in October in Sao Polo. Bengaluru will also be a part of our future World City Culture Reports. That means there will be a city profile of Bengaluru and all of Bengaluru’s data around culture will then be part of this global landmark report.  Bengaluru will be featured as the first Indian city in this global data set. As a member, Bengaluru can also apply for our Leadership Exchange.

A bit about WCCF

Simons: The motivation to form WCCF was really simple – that we’re better together. Cities can achieve so much more by working together, being generous with our ideas, and learning from each other to tackle common challenges and realise the potential of culture in our cities. What really struck me was that even though all of our world cities are different in their culture, character, population, and communities, there are always common challenges that big cities face.

We are deliberately focused on big cities because there is something really particular about the scale of a world city in terms of the challenges and opportunities.

Today, we’ve grown exponentially. We have 40 cities spanning six continents. We believe in culture as a transformative force in cities.

We talk about culture as a golden thread, something that threads through all aspects of city life like health and wellbeing, jobs, economy, and so on. In London, one in every seven jobs is a creative one and is worth about 60 billion pounds a year to the London economy. Tourists are another aspect. Culture brings communities together and builds bridges when there are none.

The challenge we face as cities is that culture often is not on the top priority list. Our job as a global leadership network is to advocate for the fundamental transformative power and value of culture in cities. And to really amplify and unlock this idea of culture as a golden thread.

In practice, we do three things.

Every year we hold a global summit where we all come together. This year it is in October in Sao Polo and that is when in real life we roll up our sleeves and get into the skin of common challenges. It is a global platform for sharing our policy ideas, challenges, and opportunities.

The second is data. We produce a landmark report on culture in world cities. It’s called the World Cities Culture Report. It is the go-to source for data on culture.

The third is the Leadership Exchange which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. That is about going deeper. Often, we find there is a cluster of cities fighting common problems. Exchange is about going a lot deeper into those problems and trying to find solutions through exchanges between the cities involved.

Post-pandemic the world has been going through turmoil. What is the relevance of culture and WCCF in this context?

Simons: The world has been facing lots of challenges and changes like climate crisis, political instability, mass migration, and more. I believe that means culture is more important than ever. Culture is a growing area of the economy itself.  Culture is something that supports individual human beings in crisis. People return to music and dance and other forms of culture and creative expression in difficult times, for inspiration, and energy. 

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Paris joins celebration of Irish language’s renaissance as it marks 50 years in EU

The Irish Cultural Centre in Paris held a ‘Festival of Ideas’ event from June 15 to June 17 to join in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining the European Union on January 1, 1973. The final day’s activities consisted of panel discussions and concerts celebrating all things Irish, from the Irish language to traditional music and cuisine.

Located in Paris’s 5th arrondissement (district), the Irish Cultural Centre (ICC) was inaugurated in 2002 on the site of a former Roman Catholic educational establishment for Irish students, with even a small chapel on the site. The names of the different dioceses throughout the island of Ireland can also still be seen when wandering through the open courtyard, which had rows of chairs set up in front of a stage for Sunday’s big events.

The courtyard of the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

From June 15 to June 17, the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris held its “inaugural” Festival of Ideas to celebrate Ireland’s relationship with the European Union (EU), “enable our public to engage with contemporary Ireland and to discover current preoccupations such as the renaissance of the Irish language” said Nora Hickey M’Sichili, the centre’s director.

Celebration of the Irish language

The Irish language featured heavily in many of the panel discussions.

The official language of Ireland along with English, the Irish language has undergone a long journey within the EU. When Ireland first joined the EU on January 1, 1973, Irish was listed as a treaty language. However, it eventually gained full official and working status on January 1, 2022, putting it on par with the EU’s 23 other official languages.

“Language is political and to be an Irish speaker is political,” said Irish language activist Aodán Mac Séafraidh, encapsulating the sentiment of many of the panellists discussing the politicisation of the Irish language on Sunday. Each speaker clearly had their own relationship with the Irish language and it “was interesting to hear all these varied ideas about the Irish language outside of an academic setting”, said Sean Ryan, a communications professor at ISCOM. This festival also “reflects this wider need of people to exchange ideas and be open to ones that differ from their own”, said Ryan.

Speaking at the Festival of Ideas event, (from left to right) Professor of Social and Political Philosophy Helder de Schutter, Irish language activist Aodán Mac Séafraidh and mediator William Howard at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023.
Speaking at the Festival of Ideas event, (from left to right) Professor of Social and Political Philosophy Helder de Schutter, Irish language activist Aodán Mac Séafraidh and mediator William Howard at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

Mac Séafraidh is a member of the language and culture project Turas at the charity East Belfast Mission, located in a traditionally Protestant area of Belfast. Turas (which means journey or pilgrimage in both Irish and Scots Gaelic) is “an Irish language project which aims to connect people from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language”.

Increase in Irish spoken

For years, said Mac Séafraidh, the Irish language was associated with Irish republicanism, but it can now be used as “a vehicle for reconciliation” between the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland. Banned several times throughout the island of Ireland’s history, the UK introduced the Identity and Language Act on May 31, 2022, officially recognising the status of the Irish language for the first time in Northern Ireland.

In recent years, the Irish language has become more widely spoken across the island of Ireland. According to the latest census data from the Irish Central Statistics Office, the number of people who said that they could speak Irish increased by 6% between 2016 and 2022 to 1,873,997 (out of a population nearing 6 million). The latest census data from Northern Ireland shows that the number of people who said they could speak Irish rose from 10.65% in 2011 to 12.45% in 2021 (out of a population nearing 2 million), while the number of people who said they spoke it as their main language rose from 4,164 in 2011 to 6,000 in 2021.

The Irish language is not only experiencing “a renaissance” in Ireland, but also in France. In addition to holding events and concerts, the ICC offers Irish language courses from levels A1 to B2. During a concert by Irish singer Jack L on Sunday, William Howard, one of the event’s organisers, said that when he “started teaching Irish at the ICC in September 2021, it was quite easy for people to sign up to take classes. However, there are now waiting lists for all four classes. The students are mostly Irish and French, but we also get a small number from other nationalities”.

Members of An Gaeltacht-sur-Seine enjoy a picnic at lunchtime during the Festival of Ideas event at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023.
Members of An Gaeltacht-sur-Seine enjoy a picnic at lunchtime during the Festival of Ideas event at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

At lunchtime, in between bites of sausage and colcannon (mashed potatoes mixed with cabbage), Irish and French visitors alike had the opportunity to chat with members of An Gaeltacht-Sur-Seine, a group that meets once a month to speak Irish. The Festival of Ideas is “a nice occasion to meet new people and Irish people. It makes me proud to see French people wanting to learn about Irish culture”, said member Linda Moloney in French, respecting the group’s rule to only speak in Irish (and in French only when necessary) on Sunday.

Ireland and the EU

“I think it is a great idea to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining the European Union. Some people at the time were against joining the EU, they were even scared that Irish people would leave Ireland. But we’ve only had benefits from EU membership, from cultural to economic and being less dependent on the UK,” said An Gaeltacht-Sur-Seine member Philomena Begley. This sentiment was echoed in a panel discussion after lunch by Irish journalist and broadcaster Dearbhail McDonald, who said that “joining the EU lessened our dependence on the UK and also had economic and social benefits, especially for women and girls”. For instance, EU legislation led to the abolition of the Marriage Bar act, which had mandated that women resign from their jobs once they had gotten married, in 1973.

McDonald continues: “When we joined the European Union, we were a poor country that received over €40 billion in EU funds between 1973 and 2018.” Times have changed since then. Between 2018 and 2020, Ireland contributed €377 million in average net contributions. Despite being more prosperous now thanks to high-tech industry and global exports, the EU continues to greatly support Ireland. As recently as December 12, 2022, the European Commission approved a €1.2 billion scheme to support Irish companies affected by the war in Ukraine.

Priest Aidan Troy poses with attendees of the Festival of Ideas event at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023.
Priest Aidan Troy poses with attendees of the Festival of Ideas event at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

The repercussions from Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in particular have seen Ireland grapple with its historic policy of neutrality now that it plays a bigger role in the EU, said McDonald. Soon after establishing itself as an independent republic in 1937, Ireland adopted a policy of neutrality when World War II began as a means of both countering the potential threat from Germany and resisting the historical imperial power of the UK. An Irish Times poll published on Saturday revealed that 61% of voters favoured the state’s current model of military neutrality, while only 26% said they would like to see it change. On the other hand, 55% of voters supported “significantly increasing Ireland’s military capacity” to defend airspace and territorial waters, while a majority of other voters said they were in favour of seeking help from other countries for the country’s defence needs. This poll came as the Irish government prepares to hold a series of public discussions about the future of Ireland’s neutrality and defence policy next week. McDonald finished the panel discussion by pondering Ireland’s future within the EU: “What does Ireland’s future in the EU look like, given that it values its neutrality but also wants to increase defence spending and show support for Ukraine [in its war against Russia]?”

Ireland also celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement this year on April 10. This political deal was signed by the British and Irish governments, and Northern Ireland’s major political parties on April 10, 1998. It is credited with bringing an end to most of the violence associated with The Troubles, a sectarian conflict that began in the late 1960s between the overwhelmingly Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who wanted the region to remain part of the UK, and the overwhelmingly Catholic nationalists, or republicans, who wished to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland. The final panel on Sunday was a discussion between McDonald and Aidan Troy, a priest who received death threats in June 2001 while he was stationed in Ardoyne, Belfast for accompanying Catholic parents and children along loyalist parts of Belfast every day for three months. He said that he had accompanied these parents and children on their way to school in the hopes of protecting them, as they were being harassed by some loyalists living in the area. This incident clearly demonstrated that “The Troubles didn’t end with a stroke of a pen”, said McDonald. Troy said that the biggest lesson he learnt from his time in Belfast was that “there’s only two things you can do when you’re confronted with violence, you can either demonise your enemy or you can talk to them”.

A celebration of Irish culture

The final events of the day featured musical performances by indie-folk singer and songwriter Inni-K as well as Séamus and Caoimhe Uí Fhlatharta, a duo from Connemara (a region of Co. Galway, in western Ireland). Both acts performed traditional Irish music using traditional Irish instruments, including the bodhrán (a frame drum), blended with Sean-nós singing, which is generally unaccompanied traditional Irish singing performed in the Irish language. In between songs, Seamus Uí Fhlatharta told the crowd that he loved “having the opportunity to play around with a genre [Sean-nós singing] that is generally quite rigid. This is what this festival is all about”!

Connemara duo Séamus and Caoimhe Uí Fhlatharta peform traditional music and song in their mother tongue of Irish at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023.
Connemara duo Séamus and Caoimhe Uí Fhlatharta peform traditional music and song in their mother tongue of Irish at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

Even at the end of a day where events had been interrupted by heavy rain more than once, which necessitated a quick change of venue, the festival’s attendees seemed happy overall and overjoyed at having spent the day listening to different panels and musicians, immersing themselves in Irish culture and meeting members of the Irish community. “In my opinion, there hasn’t been so much excitement, creativity and joy in being Irish since the 1996 ‘L’imaginaire Irlandais’ [Irish Imagination] festival in France! The unbridled joy we’ve felt over the past 3 days has brought me back to my youth in Ireland,” said Patricia Killeen, one of the leaders of Le Cercle Littéraire Irlandais (The Irish Literary Circle) and a freelance writer. “I hope that the ICC will be there, with its rich cultural agenda, and lovely ambiance of welcome and inclusion, for our children, and their children’s children, for the French to explore” and remain “a cultural and community haven for Irish people living in Paris,” concluded Killeen.

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Evacuation of Kyiv icons takes fight for Ukraine’s heritage to Louvre in Paris

The Louvre in Paris is hosting some of Ukraine’s most treasured works of art that were secretly evacuated from Kyiv to shield them from the war. Their exhibition at the world’s best-known museum highlights the role played by culture and heritage as Ukraine resists Russian attempts to deny both its past and present.

In mid-May, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin mulled the transfer of the country’s holiest icon from a Moscow museum to a cathedral church, a secret convoy slipped out of Kyiv, under military escort, carrying artefacts equally precious and more than twice as old.

Bound for Poland, Germany and then France, the cargo featured 16 extremely fragile works from Kyiv’s most prestigious art gallery, the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum, including 1,400-year-old Byzantine icons that rank among Ukraine’s most emblematic treasures.

After months hiding in undisclosed storage facilities in Ukraine, the precious icons found a new and temporary showcase on Wednesday, June 14, at the Louvre in Paris, the world’s most visited museum, far from the war raging in eastern Europe and out of reach of Russian bombs.

Hailing from an ancient monastery located at the foot of Mount Sinai, in Egypt’s eponymous desert, the icons have a track record of escaping cataclysm, said Olha Apenko-Kurovets, a curator from the Khanenko Museum currently working at the Louvre.

“There’s barely a dozen left in the world today, including the four that are now here at the Louvre,” she said, noting that the Khanenko artefacts survived the iconoclastic “war on icons” that swept the Byzantine empire in the 7th and 8th centuries.

“They’re not just Ukrainian treasures or Byzantine heritage,” she added. “They are hugely important to world heritage, too.”

A visitor looks at an icon depicting Saints Plato and Glyceria, from the Khanenko Museum’s collections, at the Louvre in Paris. © Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP

Icons are stylised painted portraits, usually of saints, that are considered sacred in Eastern Orthodox churches. The four Khanenko pieces are encaustic paintings on wood – a pioneering technique that gave birth to the oldest painted icons in the Orthodox world.

The Louvre exhibition includes a fifth work: an exquisitely crafted micro-mosaic representing Saint Nicholas, with a gold frame, believed to hail from late 13th or early 14th century Constantinople. It is one of about 50 such works in the world, noted Apenko-Kurovets, stressing that “all five exhibits at the Louvre are extremely rare – and extremely fragile”.

The Khanenko Museum's micro-mosaic depicting Saint Nicholas, attributed to late 13th- and early 14th-century 
Constantinople workshops.
The Khanenko Museum’s micro-mosaic depicting Saint Nicholas, attributed to late 13th- and early 14th-century
Constantinople workshops.
© Khanenko Museum

Unlike Putin’s decision to transfer Andrei Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” to the Cathedral Church of Christ the Saviour, which was motivated by propaganda purposes, disregarding the fragile work’s safety, the decision to evacuate the Khanenko icons was dictated by necessity, coming months after the iconic Kyiv museum was damaged in an air strike.

Transporting such works is a delicate operation at the best of times, let alone in wartime. It required absolute secrecy from all parties involved, until the works were safely in Paris.

The artefacts travelled in air-conditioned boxes that were purpose-built in France and transported to Ukraine. The operation was financed in part by the Action Plan for the Protection of Heritage in Ukraine (ALIPH), a Swiss-based foundation that has spent millions of dollars helping to salvage Ukraine’s artistic heritage.

“We did everything we could to ensure they travelled comfortably,” said Apenko-Kurovets, who spoke of her conflicting emotions at seeing the icons in their new temporary home in the heart of Paris.

“It’s a huge relief to have them here, in a safe environment, but very sad that they had to leave in the first place,” she explained. “It is also a major opportunity: to spread knowledge about Ukraine’s art collections and cultural wealth, and raise awareness of the threat weighing on this heritage.”

Scramble to save Ukraine’s artistic treasures

Ukraine was home to seven UNESCO world heritage sites at the start of the war, including Kyiv’s St Sophia Cathedral, whose stunning Byzantine frescoes and mosaics survived multiple invasions, from the onslaught of Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Nazi occupation.

In January, the UN culture agency rushed to add an eighth site – the historic centre of Odesa, the “Pearl of the Black Sea” – to shield it from the bombardment that has ravaged Ukrainian cultural landmarks across the country.

The monument of the Duke of Richelieu in Odesa, covered with sandbags in preparation for a possible Russian offensive, in March 2022.
The monument of the Duke of Richelieu in Odesa, covered with sandbags in preparation for a possible Russian offensive, in March 2022. © Petros Giannakouris, AP

Since February 2022, UNESCO has verified damage to 259 cultural landmarks, including religious sites, museums, monuments and libraries. Ukrainian officials have put the number at twice as many, warning that the catastrophic flooding caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River has put many more at risk.

In the early days of the war, as residents of Kyiv and other cities went underground for cover, so did the art collections from the Khanenko Museum and other venues. Responding to Ukrainian pleas for help, museums across Europe raced to donate emergency supplies to help with the evacuations.

Between March and December 2022, French galleries provided 75 tonnes of packing and preservation materials, from bubble wrap to fire extinguishers, in a collective effort coordinated by the French branch of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). The material was delivered by Chenue, an art transportation company, which volunteered its services for free.

“The priority was to protect museum staff and the collections,” said Emilie Girard, head of ICOM France, noting that several museums also offered to hire colleagues from Ukraine for the duration of the war.

“At first, museum workers were keen to stay nearby, in western Ukraine or in Poland, hoping that the war would end quickly and they could return to their jobs,” Girard explained. However, those hopes rapidly faded as the fighting dragged on, turning Putin’s so-called “special military operation” into a deadly war of attrition.

Despite the relentless bombing, and their emptied galleries, Ukraine’s cultural institutes refused to be silenced. 

At the Khanenko Museum, director Yuliya Vaganova said staff continued to work night and day, “through blackouts and missile raids, running contemporary art projects, lectures, master-classes for children and concerts”. 

The Khanenko Museum in Kyiv after it was damaged by a Russian missile strike in October 2022.
The Khanenko Museum in Kyiv after it was damaged by a Russian missile strike in October 2022. © Yurii Stefanyak

The continuing danger became all too apparent in October when a missile landed a few steps away from the gallery’s elegant 19th century mansion, shattering its windows and damaging the interiors. While the collections had already been moved to a secret location, Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian infrastructure meant they were exposed to repeated power cuts, hampering their safekeeping.

Days later, while on a trip to Paris, Vaganova approached her counterpart from the Louvre, Laurence des Cars, taking up her offer to shelter the Khanenko’s most precious items for the duration of the war. The Kyiv institute pointed to its Byzantine icons, touting the potential for scientific collaboration with the Louvre. Their transfer was formally agreed in February during a visit to Kyiv by France’s culture minister, Rima Abdul Malak. 

At the show’s opening in Paris, Abdul Malak’s Ukrainian counterpart Oleksandr Tkachenko spoke of a “symbolic and effective gesture of support for Ukrainian culture”, thanking French authorities and the Louvre for their support.

The minister added: “[The Russians] are stealing our artefacts, they ruined our cultural heritage sites and this shows how big and huge Ukrainian culture is, which is part of world heritage.”

‘We have to protect Ukrainian people – and their culture too’

The Khanenko icons come at an opportune time for the Louvre, which is poised to launch its new Department of Byzantine and Eastern Christian Art, with dedicated rooms scheduled to open in 2027.

“We’re talking about some of the very first icons in the Orthodox world, which made them an obvious draw for the Louvre,” said Apenko-Kurovets. She stressed that the works’ transfer to France is part of a scientific project – involving “close collaboration between French and Ukrainian experts” – as much as it is a rescue operation.

Once the exhibition wraps up on November 6, the precious artefacts will be analysed at the Louvre’s laboratories to determine, among other things, their exact origin and age. The new department’s director, Maximilien Durand, plans to launch an international research programme centred on the icons.

“This is not about questions of identity or nationalism, but about cultural cooperation that will open up new networks for the Khanenko Museum,” Durand told French daily Le Monde, when news of the icons’ evacuation first broke.

Ukraine's Culture Minister Oleksander Tkachenko (centre), pictured with his French counterpart Rima Abdul Malak, at the opening of the Louvre exhibition.
Ukraine’s Culture Minister Oleksander Tkachenko (centre), pictured with his French counterpart Rima Abdul Malak, at the opening of the Louvre exhibition. © Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP

According to Olha Sahaidak of the Ukrainian Institute, a government agency tasked with promoting Ukrainian culture abroad, such scientific endeavours are of vital importance for a nation fighting for its survival.

“When a country and its people are destroyed, only culture can tell their story,” she said. “Of course we have to protect the Ukrainian people, but also their culture, and do everything we can to learn it, research it and spread it.”

Sahaidak hailed the Louvre exhibition as a case of “successful collaboration between two culture ministries and two national museums”. She highlighted the speed at which Ukrainian and French teams had collaborated on the project, noting that the Louvre is “not the type of place that normally works in a hurry”.

“We’re talking about a huge institution that plans exhibitions years in advance,” she said. “It was a big challenge to urgently include Ukraine in its plans – and an important gesture of solidarity.”

The Paris show, Sahaidak added, is an opportunity to advance what she described as three “equally important” objectives: to showcase Ukrainian collections, foster international co-operation and research, and relocate Ukraine’s tangible and intangible cultural landmarks within the wider European framework.

“Unfortunately, Ukrainian heritage has long been terra incognita for the rest of Europe,” she said. “It is very important that we raise awareness of this heritage in order to realise what we are losing in this war.”

Decolonising Ukrainian art

Since the start of the war, museums and art institutes across France have rushed to adapt their programmes and sift through their collections to showcase Ukrainian artists and raise awareness of the plight of the country’s cultural landmarks.

“While the first reaction was to offer material help to Ukrainian galleries, the focus now is on giving maximum visibility to Ukraine,” said ICOM’s Girard. “It’s a form of resistance, with the tools at our disposal: proving that Ukrainian culture, art and heritage exist – and that this rich and vibrant culture deserves to be seen far and wide, including at a formidable venue such as the Louvre.”

In some cases, this has sparked a reflection on the way museums qualify works by artists hailing from Ukraine – though critics say France has lagged behind others.

In an op-ed published by Le Monde in March, Olena Havrylchyk, a professor of economics at the Université Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne, noted that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had recently recognised the 19th century painters Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ilya Repin as Ukrainian, after previously presenting them as Russian painters. She drew a contrast with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which chose to ignore the painters’ Ukrainian identity, ties and subject matter during a roundtable on Russian art held just days later.


“Instead of perpetuating the Russian narrative, the Musée d’Orsay could have questioned the ways in which painters born in Ukraine became ‘Russian’ in the context of Russia’s colonisation of Ukraine,” Havrylchyk wrote, noting that the painters lived at a time when Russian imperial power was “systematically destroying Ukrainian identity” – much as Putin is now dismissing Ukraine as a post-Soviet fantasy or a Western plot.

French reluctance to question Moscow’s narrative reflects a lingering Russophile sentiment and the legacy of a long-established dialogue with Russian art historians, argued Sahaidak of the Ukrainian Institute.

“In the past it was always Russia that provided names, facts and context, so now we are seen through the eyes of Russian researchers and art historians,” she said. “We need our colleagues around the world to requalify their collections, in dialogue with Ukrainian experts, identifying the works of art that are connected with Ukraine and its history.”

ENCORE!
ENCORE! © FRANCE 24

 

The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has presented an opportunity to foster such a dialogue, while also encouraging the circulation of Ukrainian art and artists in spite of the war – and sometimes because of it.

“Now is the time to access and discover some of the finest works from our national collections, which would otherwise not move,” said Apenko-Kurovets, pointing to the icons from the Khanenko Museum.

With its unprecedented Ukrainian-language captions, and a leaflet referencing Ukraine’s “millennia-old history”, the Louvre exhibition suggests the dialogue between experts is beginning to bear fruit in the world’s best-known museum.

“It’s the first time an exhibition at the Louvre ‘speaks’ Ukrainian,” added the Ukrainian curator in exile. “It might sound like a detail, but it makes all the difference to us.”



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