Most of the film world knows Thierry Frémaux as the director of the world’s most glamorous cinematic gathering, the Cannes Film Festival. But even as he navigates the latest efforts by world-class auteurs, Frémaux maintains another job that finds him looking to the past. As the head of the Lumiere Institute in Lyon, France, Frémaux oversees a revered effort to study and preserve the history of French cinema. More specifically, the museum celebrates a pair of filmmakers responsible for film as we know it: Auguste and Louise Lumiére, whose pioneering moving image snapshots of life at the end of the 19th century paved the way for the popularization of the medium and its evolution into an art form.
Now, Frémaux is repaying the favor with same medium. At the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, he will present live commentary for a screening of “Lumiere!”, a collection of 98 short films produced by the Lumiére brothers over 120 years ago. Co-presented with Lumiére Institue president and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, the project — which does not yet have U.S. distribution — promises a broad survey of the siblings’ achievements. (Fremaux is the producer and editor of the film in addition to its narrator, while Tavernier is a production partner.)
While many cinephiles know about the Lumiéres’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” a pivotal demonstration of filmed movement saluted in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” Frémaux hopes the project will help to show why the Lumiéres deserve appreciation as genuine filmmakers, not just showmen.
“The inventors of cinema will have their work projected in a movie theater, as they always wanted,” he explained to IndieWire by email, noting that the brothers’ so-called “actualités” weren’t screened in theaters after 1905. “They were only shown in the framework of cultural events,” Frémaux explained. “When they made their first films, they were innocent [about filmmaking]. But it is this innocence that gives them the capacity for invention.” (Appropriately, the brothers’ last name translates as “light.”)
Frémaux bemoaned the amount of time it has taken for the legacy of the Lumiéres to receive the appreciation it deserves. “It is as if the history of painting had forgotten Leonardo da Vinci,” he said. “The main idea is to say that they were not only inventors, but also artists.”
He acknowledged Scorsese as well as Pedro Almodóvar and Jerry Schatzberg among those he has encountered who appreciated the Lumieres’ accomplishments. “They know that [the Lumieres] were real filmmakers,” Frémaux said. While all of those directors have screened work at Cannes, Frémaux found a more precise connection between his work for the festival and his involvement with the institute. “I believe that people often talk about contemporary literature without knowing its history,” he said. “We can witness the same when it comes to cinema, and I wouldn’t be able to do my job in Cannes if I wasn’t a cinephile and if I didn’t know the history of cinema. With the Lumière family, I go to the source, to the origins.”
But how does Frémaux find the time to juggle two vastly different jobs? “I’m not alone,” he said. “In Cannes as in Lyon, I’m surrounded by great people. The cinema is a team sport.”
“Lumiere!” will screen on September 11 at 2:00 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.