France produces 200-plus films a year, more than any other country in Europe. Its output has long been dominated by light-hearted fare, targeted at the local market.

However, with the local box office falling in 2007 and exports booming, this is gradually changing as a new breed of French film-makers and writers emerge, determined to revitalise the industry by making personal films about their own immigrant experience in France.

Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret Of The Grain (La Graine Et Le Mulet) is at the vanguard of this movement.

Released in December 2007, the quiet drama about a boat builder who involves his family in a scheme to launch a couscous restaurant, is a break-out hit that has won over French audiences (750,000 admissions, $7m and counting) and a national press which has hailed it as a cinematic triumph and a political masterstroke.

Financed, produced (with France 2 Cinema and Hirsch), sold and distributed by Pathe, The Secret Of The Grain debuted in competition at the Venice film festival last September.

It picked up awards including the Fipresci and the Special Jury Prizes, and went on to win France's prestigious Louis Delluc prize.

In February it scooped four Cesars including best film, director, original screenplay and most promising newcomer for actress Hafsia Herzi (Kechiche's previous film, Games Of Love And Chance, took identical Cesars in 2005).

The film has been adopted, some might say co-opted, as a vehicle to improve relations with France's often maligned North African community, more used to being blamed in the media for violence in the council estates - or HLM - than for injecting new life into French culture.

French weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur said it breathed a sense of freedom into French cinema and culture from a director who was denied access to cinema for years.

It is timely because new policies to bridge such social divides are reportedly high on the agenda of Nicolas Sarkozy's government. Kechiche himself has won comparisons to Francois Truffaut, Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol within the French auteur tradition.

Eric Lagesse, general manager of Pyramide, who handled rights to Kechiche's first feature Blame It On Voltaire, says that when he saw The Secret Of The Grain he found 'a twist that wasn't there before. I told Abdel that I thought it was possibly the first integrated French film. What you saw on the screen were people who were truly French.'

The film's success proves that an intimate story, well told, will always have a universal resonance. Pathe has sold The Secret Of The Grain to some 20 territories around the world, including the UK (Artificial Eye), Spain (Vertigo Films), Germany (Arsenal Filmverleih) and Australia/New Zealand (Palace Films).

Francois Yon of Films Distribution handled international rights to Kechiche's second film, L'Esquive, in 2003.

'When we brought it to Berlin, the first guy I saw after the screening was (Sony Pictures Classics' co-chief) Michael Barker and he said, 'I'm not gonna buy it, but it's damn good and you'll sell it everywhere.'' And, concludes Yon, 'We sold it even before it won the Cesars.'

Muriel Sauzay who heads international sales for Pathe in France says that with The Secret Of The Grain, it helped that the film was produced by one of the industry's most successful players, Claude Berri.

But she contends it was exportable because it presents a different view of French culture. Pathe positioned it as an art film with a view to quantity of sales over price.

Kechiche, who grew up in Nice with his Tunisian family, takes 'great pride' in the response to his film, but says he has never 'belonged to a strategic movement. I think there are a lot of film-makers doing personal films and it is being recognised.'

He adds: 'It's not the cinema that's changing, it's perhaps the way people are looking at cinema that's changing.'

Diversity of stories

That appears true. While mid-budget films are harder to make in France, thanks to an increased appetite from TV networks for prime-time fodder, the industry is seeing a rich diversity in the stories told. One need only look to the Oscar-nominated Persepolis (pictured)or sleeper hit Caramel - the former based on Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels and the latter about a group of Lebanese women in Beirut - to find non-traditional French voices being produced in France to great success.

But Lagesse for one does not believe The Secret Of The Grain is indicative of a revolutionary moment in French culture. He points to Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 hit La Haine and says: 'It was very impressive, but after that there were 50 copycat films that didn't work. I don't think it started a second wave, it started a guy who has a lot of talent.'

Wild Bunch chief Vincent Maraval is of a similar mind. 'We have a deficit of auteurs that can touch a wide audience, like (the late) Maurice Pialat. Kechiche did that and that's what makes him a major auteur.'

Screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri, whose credits include Jean-Francois Richet's forthcoming Public Enemy No1, covers similar themes to Kechiche. He believes the time has come for France to reference new intellectual icons and forge a different cultural identity.

'We have to stop talking about Proust or de Beauvoir. People still think in France when we are intelligent we must be white,' he says. 'I write like the Americans, universal stories for the whole world, and yet I want to write about French society.'

Dafri's next project, Le Prophete to be directed by Jacques Audiard, follows the rise to power of a boy from the disaffected French suburbs after being taken under the wing of a Corsican Mafioso. 'If France wants to export more films, it has to talk about its country,' says Dafri. 'We must speak more about what we are.'

Director Nabil Ayouch, who is of Moroccan descent, is gearing up to present his latest film, Whatever Lola Wants, at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. It premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival late last year.

'New artists are raising their voices to speak about their experiences for the first time,' he says. 'My stories are very personal, not political.'

The power of personal visions

Blame It On Voltaire

That is music to the ears of sales agents. 'Films like (Kechiche's debut) Blame It On Voltaire and (Karin Albou's) La Petite Jerusalem, were sold on their vision,' says Lagesse.

'They were first films with unknown actors and directors. The idea was to get them into the right festival and we succeeded with both. The most important thing is to get them the best exposure.'

Albou's latest film is the $3.8m The Wedding Song (Le Chant Des Mariees), a drama set against the Nazi occupation of Tunisia. Pyramide Distribution is releasing the film in France and has sold the title to Benelux (Imagine) and Canada (Seville Pictures).

'Even if a film is specific to the socio-cultural environment of the suburbs, if what we talk about is intimate and universal enough, we can cross cultural borders,' says Albou.

Indeed, The Secret Of The Grain has grossed $2.5m to date in Italy via Lucky Red, making it the most successful French film of the past 12 months in the territory.

'There's clearly a very different cultural aspect to this film but people also recognise themselves in (it),' says Benoit Sauvage, international marketing executive at Pathe. 'It's doing well in Italy partly because it's a country that has a large number of immigrants.

'There are a lot of people who see it by affiliation. It can't be qualified as an 'Arab film'. France is a cosmopolitan country which is now black, white and brown. People don't have to be Tunisian to appreciate it. When the issues are universal, it touches a lot of people.'