France Honors William Castro
On Monday, June 15, 2015, Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur honored Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner William Castro with the insignia of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The ceremony was held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
Tonight it is my pleasure tonight to honor a very special person, Manhattan Borough Commissioner William Castro.
As you may know, I am the new Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, and I just arrived in New York two months ago. This is one of the first decoration ceremonies that I have led, and I am confident that it will be one of the greatest.
I want to extend a special welcome to William Castro’s fiancé, Alla Tumarkina; to Mitchell Silver, who joined us three weeks ago for the opening of Films on the Green here at the Embassy; and to all of William's family and friends.
Over the past 30 years, William has brought unprecedented life to New York City Parks. Without his enthusiastic partnership, our Films on the Green festival—a project that we are very proud of—would not exist today.
Bill is not only a talented public servant. And we like public servants; I am a public servant; everyone in this building is a public servant. But this is not enough to be decorated. Bill is also a great Francophile. Bill knows his French history. As a French diplomat I couldn’t be prouder to tell you that Bill is a huge fan of our hero Lafayette. He was instrumental in setting up a film screening on July third to celebrate the arrival of a replica of Lafayette’s ship, the Hermione. It will arrive on the first of July, dock in New York, and stay until the Fourth of July. We will have several events around that time, including a screening of the movie Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, which comes from the region where the boat was built. We will also have an event at Summerstage. Bill was instrumental in organizing all of this.
Bill’s passions do not stop at history: he is a veritable Renaissance man. I have heard that he tango dances, so I hope we will see a little bit of that tonight. He plays guitar, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of film, too. Bill’s friend Adrian Benepe, a fellow park veteran, tells us that he and Bill constantly quote classics to each other at work.
Bill, according to your cousin Mark, you are a natural romantic. Mark remembers summers of movie-going in Cape May—perhaps the start of your fondness for cinema. And he spotted your true colors when you made him dance down long flights of stairs as in French classics. That sounds quite nice. We have some stairs here, and some French classics, so maybe we can all do a choreographed number—whatever you want, it’s your night.
It was Truffaut’s 400 Blows that sealed the deal. After viewing the classic while a student at the University of Virginia, you spent days at the library poring over film books and dreaming of being a director. French movies held a special appeal—you loved their subtlety, mystique, and music. And to this day, images of France hold a certain allure for you.
Your determined passion for film enabled Films on the Green to fly through all the administrative checkpoints. You convinced everyone. Powered by your keen political savvy, you accomplished a month-long process in 3 business days.
And you’ve brought that same attitude to your accomplished career at the Parks Department. Years of dedicated service have led you to your well-deserved current position.
In your early career, you oversaw Enforcement Patrol and Recreation. Then, to better serve the city, you earned a Masters from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. You went on to become Commissioner for the Bronx, where you had gone to high school. There, you oversaw thousands of employees and hundreds of properties including pools, recreation centers and a beach. An enviable position! And now, as the Manhattan Parks Commissioner, you continue to prove your dedication to this city.
Throughout your career, your passion has drawn everyone from seniors to preschoolers to New York’s green spaces. And Films on the Green is only the latest addition to your long record of bringing people together in public spaces.
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Ingmar Bergman once said, “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”
Bill, thanks to you, we have cemented that poignant experience for New Yorkers.
In an era of solitary cinema, Films on the Green brings people together blissfully. It recreates the drive-in theater experience that you so loved when you were younger. It recalls old art-house theaters like the Thalia, where New Yorkers could watch foreign movies together. Those theaters have since disappeared, but with your help we’ve rekindled a community around French and Francophone film.
Your vast contributions to the great New York tradition of open-air public events helps bind this city together. Over the past eight years, you have brought this tradition back. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers from all over have enjoyed a night of French cinema. And I am delighted to say that it continues to grow from one year to the next. This year, at the first three screenings, between 700 and 800 people attended each night. Films are screened at Central Park Cedar Hill, in Washington Square, in Brooklyn, at Columbia University, and all over the city, thanks to Bill’s leadership.
In 2014 alone, 5,500 viewers gathered around our screens, a number that has increased over the years, and this year's opening night was our biggest on record. In fact, Films on the Green has been so successful that we are even spreading to other cities. Now we have Films on the Beach in Miami, Films on the Green in Boston, and I hope that we'll also soon have Films on the Lake in Chicago during the summer.
Bill, you channel that bursting energy to a new, excited audience of French film lovers. Some viewers might be seeing a French film for the first time, while others are seasoned movie buffs. Importantly, you give the public access to new cinema in a democratic and exciting format. You expose French culture to a young audience—one that embassies and governments seldom capture on such a large scale. And this is great because one of the ideas behind Films on the Green is to get beyond the formality of our mansion headquarters, head to the park, and give new audiences fun, accessible setting in which to discover French cinema.
None of this would have been possible without your boundless enthusiasm and passion for French film. You entertain, lead, and inspire. While managing 300 parks, you drive forward our common mission to spread French culture throughout the United States. For these many reasons, you could not be more deserving of this distinction.
Cher William Castro, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des arts et des lettres.
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