Benjamin is barking commands fast and furious: “Throw the ball backhanded!” A chorus of heads swivel and look at him quizzically. “Backhanded!,” Benjamin shrills. Dan uses his body weight to thrust his messenger bag behind him, shrugs and steps up to the dirt line demarcated by the halfhearted softshoe of a sneaker.

Just as he crouches and cups his hand around the boule, narrowing his eyes to focus on the cochonnet, a low rumble of a stampede kicks up a swirling dust cloud as Celia leads a euphoric charge across the boulodrome, the floodlights catching the rapid flurry of body slams between David and Hugo and an endless succession of high-fives. Philippe and Gilles pop the corks on 2005 Châteauneuf-du-Pape chilling in the cooler of a propped up hatch of a 1997 Peugeot, toasting one another with a smile and definitive look in the eye before savoring the taste of the wine.

It’s 3:30 a.m. on a sweltering June night in Avignon, France and this motley crew is enjoying a robust game of petanque, with the seasoned French and their fellow European teammates getting a run for their euro from their virgin American rivals. For those of you still wondering what I’m talking about, a quick definition and visual on petanque in Wikipedia should do the trick.

Less than six hours later you’ll find this same group dining on warm and flaky croissants, sipping café au lait, swapping stories on how HD is changing the film industry, how too many editors in the room spoil the pot and then carrying this conversation into the 10:00 a.m. screening of a French short and an American feature, each followed by a lively Q&A. This format will continue until midnight, alternating between fine films and rich seminars, bookended by wine that goes down like water and tomatoes as red as the sun.

Might this sound like some sort of high school reunion gone wild? A weekend corporate retreat as part of the CEO’s initiative to encourage creativity in the work force? Or adult summer camp for the artistically inclined and cubicle-y challenged? No, it’s the 2008 Avignon Film Festival. It’s been around for 25 years. And there’s nothing like it.

There are no free gift bags with the latest camera and feather duster in one or eelskin boots with llama lining, no secretive press rooms to navigate, no outlandishly priced badge that buys you the exclusive once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wait in line for a film you still won’t get to see. Just plenty of excellent wine and stellar, stimulating company convening in the midst of a rare, challenging, risky and compelling program of American and European shorts, features and documentaries. Oh, and all in the beautiful south of France.

The man behind the operation is Jerome Henry Rudes, a Texas native who, after completing degrees at the University of Texas and Northwestern University and becoming disenchanted with the Nixon years, found himself in Europe in the early 1970s, teaching and running English schools, then diving for mussels and learning the craft of stone masonry. Following several teaching stints in Denmark and France (with a break to write novels and bake bread at a commune), a passion for film that he translated into writing reviews for an avant-garde magazine in London, a chance encounter brought him to the Cannes Film Festival in the 1980s, where he was befriended by renowned French moviemaker Agnès Varda.

“It’s not what I thought it would be,” Jerry said bluntly, a trace of disappointment in his voice.

Agnes fixed her steady gaze on him: “What did you think it would be?”

“Well, I guess I thought it would be more friendly and democratic.”

A chortle of laughter enveloped him from the small group within eavesdropping distance. “Yeah, right!” someone muttered under his breath.

“So, start your own film festival then!” Agnes shot back, a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

And that’s exactly what he did.

“Jerry has an incredible talent of bringing people together, a great talent in picking films, great generosity,” says Christine Lahti, Oscar-winning director and Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress, who first attended the festival 20 years ago and returned for the 25th this year. “He’s a sort of father figure, [he] connects people to each other, makes it his business to make sure the right people are meeting each other… because it is so small and intimate and because of Jerry’s energy, it feels like a big family. I think Jerry is the main reason it has endured.”

Just what is it that makes this festival experience so unique? “It’s the magic of the place and the magic of atmosphere Jerry creates,” says Seamus McNally, winner in Avignon/New York this past fall for his short To Paint the Portrait of a Bird, based on the Jacques Prévert poem. “Every film, whether it has stars, is a short, documentary or feature, is treated exactly the same,” chimes in Dayna Goldfine, co-director (with Dan Geller) of the award-winning documentary Ballet Russes. “There is a sense of camaraderie that starts developing at the very beginning. Jerry’s spirit and generosity infuse the experience. It’s about the true spirit of film, not that horrifying rollercoaster you have to ride at other festivals.”

The Sundances, Venices and Tellurides of the world certainly don’t have their moviemakers working and playing together in the context of the festival. Buoyed by the creative fuel of inspiring stories of the blood, sweat and tears poured into the films, filmmakers in Avignon are given a picturesque setting against the backdrop of the south of France to speak candidly about their work: “Making everyone have breakfast together—nobody does that. Having a picnic lunch where I encourage everyone to eat together. The dinner (for nearly 70 people) at my house—these things developed out of a need to create a place where people can relax and get together and talk about movies in a quiet and introspective way,” says Rudes.

“Everything feels like a dialogue between filmmakers that is an actual exchange of information which I hope to continue,” remarks Mary Stuart Masterson, director of The Cake Eaters and part of the official selection this year. Nina Paley, winner of Best American feature for the animated Sita Sings the Blues adds, “There is nothing mainstream about this. It’s clear Jerry likes films that take risks.”

In the media and celebrity age where the uninventive trend is to create a massive enterprise encumbered in a velvet-rope mystery, the down-to-earth and accessible style of Rudes and his festival (because they are inseparable in their identity) are what makes the experience so attractive and refreshing for the moviemakers and tourists who happen to be in town and purchase tickets to a screening only to find themselves being encouraged to ask questions (as was the experience this year of legendary composer Carl Davis, who attended the 25th to see the premiere of Hannah Davis and David Connolly’s The Understudy, for which he composed the music, and later to speak about his work with Charlie Chaplin’s films). That kind of experience could be found at the back of a crowd centered on a 13-inch television screen outside the press room on the balcony of a convention center in Cannes—if you paid $500+ for your market badge.

Of course, we would never embark upon most great endeavors if we knew upfront all that they would entail. Twenty-five Avignon and 13 Avignon/New York festivals later, “I don’t think I want to pick a high point,” muses Rudes. “Every year has wonderful memories… Louis Malle attended our third year and that really put us on the map… meeting Sam Fuller and the fact that he liked Avignon so much that he would come every year and that other filmmakers got to meet him (like Quentin Tarantino, when he was at Avignon with Reservoir Dogs)—that was very rewarding. And, of course, I went on to become the co-author of his memoirs which was important to me. Thirteen years ago the Avignon Festival made it clear that I should have an American version and it prompted me to do a New York event, which got me to move back here.” (Rudes now splits his time between New York and France and has dual citizenship.)

Buzz that this is Rudes’ last year with the festival percolates rather loudly, prompting attendees, volunteers (some of whom have been with him all 25 years) and Honorary President Maria de Medeiros to bemoan over dinner, “No, please, you must keep going!” To which Rudes ruminates, “I think 25 is a nice number. I want to do other things with my life. I want to leave room for other people to run the festival if they so desire and I want to let the festival disappear if that’s what has to happen in order to clear up a clogged festival calendar…Maybe I’m going to find another outlet to continue to support independent movies.”

So what are moviemakers to do in the absence of this intimate and special festival that has graced the summer calendar and enriched so many lives for the past 25 years? Aside from the wonderful and lasting friendships that have been established over early morning breakfasts, zealous conversation over roasted lamb, tabouli and French wine at a 2:00 a.m. dinners, heated debates over which boule belongs to whom, or the clown car atmosphere of 10 slightly intoxicated moviemakers crammed in the back of a beat up station wagon with two bum doors, Rudes hopes that the moviemakers will continue to do what he always encourages at the closing ceremony year after year: “Keep making movies.”

As for Rudes? He’ll pull his hat over his head to block the strong Provencal sun and plant an olive tree in his front yard until the spark of an idea for his next venture strikes. MM

Ashley Wren Collins is an accomplished actress living in New York City. She welcomes your comments and thoughts at [email protected].