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I Was a Wong Kar-wai Extra and Discovered the Future of the Movies

The Lumiere Festival in France provided a unique window into the evolution of cinema and the battle to maintain its relevance.

Wong Kar-wai and his wife Esther join the crowd at the Lumiere Festival in France

“So, what brings you to Lyon?” I asked the kindly older man sharing a car with me. “Oh,” he replied. “My great-grandfather was Louis Lumiere.” We were cruising through the city after hours at the Lumiere Festival, and Max Lumiere casually cited his relationship to the man who, with his brother Auguste, invented the movies. It was a humblebrag for the ages.

The Lyon-based festival serves a unique purpose: It drags the earliest stirrings of filmmaking into a present-day context. It also provides a unique way to explore the future of moviegoing through the lens of the past.

Founded in 2008, the festival extends the ethos of the Lyon-based Lumiere Institute by celebrating a range of classic cinema from multiple eras for an eager local audience. It’s the brainchild of Cannes director Thierry Fremaux, a Lyon native who also runs the Lumiere Institute with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier. The result is a remarkable template for celebrating film history with a contemporary twist.

Among the 400 screenings across 30 venues and various conversations with international talent, one ritual defines the festival’s essence: the annual recreation of a famous Lumiere brothers’ short film, on the very spot where it was filmed. The Institute is built on the Lumiere family grounds, where the brothers grew up and built their factory for the development of photographic plates.

It was here they made “Workers Leaving the Factory” in 1895, a 50-second shot of just that. The brothers weren’t exploring film language so much as the very nature of recording moving images from real life, and the impact it can have when projected on the big screen. “Workers Leaving the Factory” was an early indication of the Lumieres’ interest in recording everyday lives rather than famous faces.

For the Lumiere Institute, the site of “Workers Leaving the Factory” is sacred ground, and the backdrop for an annual tradition. The day after meeting Max Lumiere in the backseat of a festival car, I joined around two dozen extras for Wong Kar-wai’s latest masterpiece — or, rather, a gimmick to accompany his attendance of the festival to receive the Prix Lumiere.

Alongside that prize, Wong received a weekend of salutes, including a masterclass and a flashy ceremony attended by thousands of cinephiles where clips from his 10 films received thunderous applause. Then, the festival put him to work: Wong had to herd a group of people through the same spot where “Workers Leaving the Factory” took place, coming up with his own unique spin for a 21st-century remake. Hidden behind his trademark sunglasses and huddled around a camera with his perennial cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong muttered instructions to Fremaux, who gave orders to the crowd through a megaphone. After walking out of the factory several times, we entered the theater inside the Institute to watch the rehearsal. Wong grabbed a microphone.

Thierry Fremaux guides the crowd outside the Lumiere Institute

“You all did very well, except for a few things,” he said in English. “We need to maintain the sense that the workers want to leave this place.” He stated a desire to make the entire take last 50 seconds, the exact length of the original. “My first A.D. Thierry will remind everyone to come through so by the 50th second, we can shut the gate,” Wong said. “Please, don’t look at the camera!”

The crowd roared, while countless onlookers eagerly watched from outside. The scene, like many others throughout the festival, provided a striking contrast to international conversations about dwindling interest in the movies, or the notion that nobody wants to watch them in theaters. The Lumiere brothers first projected cinema on the big screen, and the festival presented a compelling argument that it still belonged there.

“To me, it’s my responsibility,” Fremaux told me later, noting that he’s working on restoring 10 local theaters where he grew up watching movies. “Here we are at the invention of the cinematograph. The idea is to send that notion to the future.”

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