October 30 marks the opening panel for this year’s Festival Albertine, organzied by the French Embassy in New York City. For five days, audiences will be privy to a series of inter-disciplinary panels on a specific topic related to this year’s chosen theme: "Reimagining Democracy."
From big shot filmmakers to economists, psychoanalysts to thespians, every panelist is a leader in their field and has been handpicked from across the United States and France. It is precisely this rare meeting of various cultural, disciplinary, and personal perspectives that makes Festival Albertine unique.
“Festival Albertine represents our commitment to diverse intellectual and cultural exchange between France and the United States,” says the French Embassy's Deputy Cultural Counselor Hervé Ferrage tells us. “We want to invite different kinds of people who are speaking from their own knowledge and experiences, and who are excited to enter into a lively discussion about a political issue that is important to them.“
Ferrage, who is no stranger to organizing events across the world on behalf of the Cultural Services, also has a more personal attachment to the event. “Sometimes, in light of what’s happening around the world, you start to question it all. Is this event truly meaningful to the countries involved or to the wider intellectual debate?" he asks. "After seeing the energy that the hundreds of audience members and passionate panelists provide year after year, there is no longer any doubt for me – yes, it is useful. What we are doing is important.”
While 2017 was dedicated to "Feminism Without Boundaries" and 2016 to "Race, Identity and the Arts," this year’s theme is "Reimagining Democracy," curated by renowned Russian-American journalist, author and professor Masha Gessen.
“I chose this topic because we tend to forget that reimagination is built into the very idea of a political system," explains Gessen. "Rather than staying rooted in the presumption that we know what democracy is—or that it even has an inherent definition—we must keep talking about who the people are and what governance is because, in the same way that communities are always changing, democracy is always aspirational—something to be striven for."
So, don't expect a run of the mill debate for or against democracy; don't even expect a brainstorming session focused on finding ways to fix the system. It’s about going back to the basics: Are elections a fundamental part of democracy? Is democracy even a fundamental part of contemporary society? Why are we assuming that a community has the right to draw borders around itself and create its own government? What does a government by the people, for the people really look like, right now?
In Gessen's words: "I think that this moment, in this country and in this world, is such that we haven’t had this conversation in a crucially long time.” Although Gessen and Ferrage emphasize that this is not a results-oriented event–because, well, no festival is really –they hope that this year's Festival Albertine will have people walking away every evening with a new perspective. After all, it is no coincidence that the event takes mere hours before the American mid-term elections.
Moreover, Festival Albertine is being held in the Central Park-facing, gilded age mansion that is the French Embassy’s Cultural HQ (they’re French–what did you expect?) Don’t take this opportunity lightly: the only other time that the Consulate opens its doors to the public is for New York’s OHNY architectural and design event. Plus, the mansion’s Albertine Bookstore (the festival’s namesake), with its dreamy astrological ceiling and plush red couches, is straight out of a Harry Potter book and is an absolute must-see.
Best of all, Festival Albertine is free! So, mark your calendars.