Martine Tartour, the founder of the French Cinema Club.

When you move somewhere new, it’s inevitable that culture shock will set in at some point. Martine Tartour needed a way to keep her French roots alive. 

Tartour met her husband, the Israeli conductor Yoel Levi, twelve years ago in Paris. Levi, who served as the conductor for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 2000, was working in France at the time. Tartour eventually moved to Atlanta, but at perhaps the worst possible time. 

“I decided to come to Atlanta on exactly March 11, 2020,” Tartour said to me over coffee at a cafe in Buckhead. “I don’t have to tell you what’s up on March 11, 2020.”

Martine Tartour addresses the French Cine Club at a screening.

With the world closed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tartour, like all of us, didn’t have too much to do when she initially arrived in this new city. But as things started to open back up, she began searching for those little things that might give her some connection back to France. 

“When you arrive somewhere, what are you doing? You’re going to see people that talk the same language as you,” Tartour said. “I knocked on different doors, and I found that there are many different French organizations [in Atlanta].”

She found some connections through organizations like the Atlanta Toulouse Sister Cities Committee (if you didn’t know, Atlanta began an official sister city relationship with Toulouse, France, in 1974). She also met some Americans who spoke French well enough that the group started a book club together. But the more she considered it, cinema seemed to be a natural point of connection for her. She had worked previously in Paris with the Festival du Cinéma Israélien de Paris (The Israeli Film Festival of Paris, in English). 

La Vie En Rose (2017) was the first film screened for the French Cinema Club.

So, she and a friend – Bob Bahr, whom she met through the Atlanta Jewish Times – decided to start a French Cinema Club. Roughly two years ago, they brought together a group of eight in the pool clubhouse in Tartrour’s building. Bahr brought the necessary equipment, and the two screened “La Vie en rose,” the 2007 Édith Piaf biopic, for their small audience. After that night, the audience slowly, but steadily, grew larger. 

“Now I have to stop at 40 people,” Tartour said. “Maybe two speak French. The others, they like to discover a new historical point of view of France.” 

After the success of the first screening ,Tartour thought that perhaps she could be the one to provide that – French culture, adapted to Atlanta. So, the cinema club continued. At every screening, the club watches a French film with English subtitles. After the movie, a specialist, who Tartour invites based on the film in question, talks with the group about what they watched. For example, for a 2017 film called “Back to Burgundy,” Tartour invited a local Atlanta wine lover who, according to her, owned more than 1,000 bottles of French wine at the time. For the 2009 film “The Concert,” her conductor husband took the stage. 

“Back to Burgundy,” directed by Cédric Klapisch (Courtesy of Music Box Films).

“The great thing is that everyone gets to speak,” Tartour said in an email.  “It’s not about listening to an expert, but about feeling free to participate” 

That’s not to say there haven’t been hiccups along the way. Tartour said it’s been an interesting experience getting American audiences accustomed to French films. 

“The problem with American cinema, they are formative, you know? There is a format,” Tartour said. “You have a beginning, you have an end, and in the middle you have a story. And if you don’t have that, they are lost.” 

That’s not to say Tartour doesn’t like American cinema or television shows – she specifically called out “The White Lotus” as a favorite during our conversation – but getting American audiences out of their comfort zone can be difficult, she said. 

“It’s different. They come from a different world,” Tartour said of French filmmakers. “It’s not mainstream. Here the movies are mainstream, whether you have ‘Avatar,’ or the movies of [Steven] Spielberg. Most American movies, you know exactly what they are.”

But still, the cinema nights always generate interesting conversation, whether the group liked the film or not. However, Tartour said there’s still a tiny, inch-tall hurdle some viewers have trouble getting through; subtitles. 

“To read is complicated for them, so I had to fight against this,” she said with a chuckle. “No, it’s not complicated to read! You can read and you can watch a movie! It’s not a problem. I mean, all over the world it’s working, so it must work in America!”

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.