INTERVIEW: Director: Jacques Audiard
Director Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) brought us one of the most acclaimed releases of 2009. A Prophet won the 2009 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix, took home the Best Film Award at the London Film Festival, and was France’s official selection for the 2010 Academy Awards…
Condemned to six years in prison, Malik El Djebena cannot read nor write. Arriving at the jail entirely alone, he appears younger and more fragile than the other convicts. He is 19 years old. Cornered by the leader of the Corsican gang who rules the prison, he is given a number of “missions” to carry out, toughening him up and gaining the gang leader’s confidence in the process. But Malik is brave and a fast learner, daring to secretly develop his own plans…
At the Cannes press conference you spoke a little about the irony in the title of A Prophet…
Because this dimension is real but apparently it isn’t evident – the film could be called Little Big Man, for example. The title acts as a sort of injunction, obliging someone to understand something which isn’t necessarily developed in the film, namely that we’re dealing with a little prophet, a new prototype of guy.
Originally I wanted to find a French equivalent of ‘You Gotta Serve Somebody’ – a Bob Dylan song that says that we are always in the service of someone. I liked the fatalism and the moral dimension of this title but I simply never found a satisfying translation, so it stayed A Prophet.
How did you come to tell the story?
What interested both myself and my co-writer Thomas Bidegain was to ask how we could begin with the subject by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit and create a pertinent cinematic story. We had to find a manner to make A Prophet resonate in a contemporary way.
We wanted to create heroes from people that we didn’t know, that didn’t already have an iconic representation in cinema, like the Arabs, for example. In France, the tendency in cinema is to put them in representations that are naturalistic or sociological. So, we wanted to do a pure genre film, a little in the manner of a western that spotlights people we don’t know and transforms them into heroes.
What made you want to cast the angel-faced Tahar Rahim in the role of Malik El Djebena?
I was always attracted to certain masculine prototypes that weren’t necessarily characterised by their levels of testosterone. In more than one way, I could make the connection between Matthieu Kassovitz, with whom I worked with several times, and Tahar Rahim. Not necessarily in that one makes me think of the other, but both are male prototypes to which I am sensitive.
Was it also a way of allowing the spectator to identify with the character?
I have problems projecting identification beyond myself but, of course, there was that desire. I found it more pertinent than the usual prison film cliché of having the place full of super virile men. The convicts in my film aren’t muscle men, they’re not made for this environment, but, paradoxically, they go to develop the qualities that permit them to rise above and dominate.
Through the character of Malik, the film conveys the idea that the knowledge and ‘know how’ give access to power…
Yes, and it’s this that I find the most interesting. This type of person breaks the mould – he’s not your usual hooligan. Following Malik, we see his mind at work – a mind that shows phenomenal adaptability that this character will use for any opportunistic possibility, at first to save his skin, then to survive and improve his lot, and finally to reach another level of power.
This dimension of the film evokes another of your characters, Dehousse in Un Héros Très Discret…
Yes, you could say that these characters are models of a certain type of education. The initial principal is to introduce these people their greatest destitution then giving them an opportunity, a possibility to construct a heroic personality. The story of A Prophet, depicts someone who reaches a position that he could never have attained had he not gone to prison. Here lies the paradox.
How did you structure this desire to turn Malik into a ‘hero’?
In part, from following the image of Arabs in cinema, which is either stupid – and sees them represented as terrorists – or simply naturalistic, in a sort of social realist context. It was this that brought me very quickly to the question of the choice of actors.
For the role of Malik, we needed someone extremely polymorphic who would correspond perfectly to the theme of identity in the film. A young man, who has no history, yet will write one before our very eyes. From early on we knew this role couldn’t be filled by a known actor precisely because it’s a story of a rise to power – to visibility.
Was there also the desire to decompartmentalise French cinema?
It’s inherent in the project. I don’t have a long filmography, I’ve only directed five films. I’ve worked with Matthieu Kassovitz, Vincent Cassel, Romain Duris, and other actors of formidable talent, but after The Beat That My Heart Skipped, I wanted to work with unknowns. This idea went hand in hand with the feeling that cinema should have a strong social inscription that if it doesn’t recount the world as it is, as it plays out, then what use is it? When I say that, it’s not a polemic, it’s just my way of registering fiction into what would seem to be reality. I think that in France today, cinema is incredibly reductive on this point of view. I don’t know of which reality French cinema speaks of. Therefore the film was to break down this idea of casting as much as it was to take into account the fact that the world changes and that heroic figures must evolve. In my mind there are new mythologies to build on new faces and new routes to follow.
Malik seems to have a detached and opportunist rapport with his identity…
The Corsicans consider him an Arab, and the Arabs as a Corsican. He is permanently between the two camps. However, he will naturally lean towards his community. It’s here that he will discover something he has been ignoring. The same as he’s a particular kind of hooligan, he’s also a particular kind of believer.
Can you talk to us about the ghost that accompanies Malik and that inspires his mystical visions?
The film does have fantastical moments but it’s not because of an intention to be mystical. Reyeb’s ghost comes from the scriptwriters as a way of helping us into the possibilities – a way of to passing into a level of imagination that helps us free what has already been told. It’s also thanks to him that we also invoke the ideas of Sufism and the Dervishes, and allows the screenplay to take on another dimension.
There is a trend in current cinema for darker, more damaged heroes. In A Prophet you take someone who is damaged yet lead them toward a kind of redemption…
And with tools that wouldn’t be recommendable. There is always a default way of making anti-heroes. This doesn’t interest me so much. Me, I like my heroes to learn something – to put it to use. I find that cinema has that function: it looks at the real to teach us how to use it. Perhaps the lesson which strikes Malik is paradoxical, but it’s this which interests me.
In any case, it says that you have to learn…
To learn, to be attentive, to not open one’s mouth all the time, to be reserved, and most of all to not make the same mistake twice, because the third time you’ll be dead.
Is A Prophet, according to you, a moral film?
Yes, what would have been immoral would have been to create a character without conscience. However, he is conscious of both good and evil precisely because evil has been done to him.
How do you explain Malik?s mysterious smile at the moment of the shooting?
Malik suddenly has the feeling of being in a film, and has the feeling of invulnerability, like a fictional character, whereas the others are reaching a stalemate in the events which are unfolding. Malik is a person who, instead of getting heavier under the weight of things he lives through, he gets lighter, and will free himself, little by little.
Is the prison a metaphor?
Evidently, genre films always present themselves as metaphor. The character was incarcerated for a long sentence. The intention was that he would understand within himself that which would serve him later, on the outside, therefore arriving at a parallel between the two universes.
You define the character of Cesar, played by Niels Arestrup, like a king without entertainment…
Yes, in reference to the characters of Giono. A king, an ogre at the end of his road that will reign over a tribe of spiders.
It seems that the character of Cesar is based on an almost mythical archetype…
It’s true, but we didn’t want to be too literal. Niels Arestrup in the role of a Corsican Godfather is fairly improbable, and it’s because of this condition that the film reverberates in a more interesting way.
How would you characterise his particular relationship to Malik?
At the time of writing, we really wanted to maximise the idea of a father/son to underscore the master/slave relationship. Cesar is not the father of Malik, but he holds him under his power – he is hard with him and shows no paternal tenderness at all. There is no sentiment of friendship nor affection between them – it is uniquely a relationship of control.
Your other films show a tendency towards great love stories, and A Prophet seems rather abruptly stripped of this. Why?
I think it’s linked to Malik, at what we make him do. As Malik is really someone who comes from nowhere, there simply isn’t time to construct a love story. It’s for this reason, at the end of the film, that we suggest he could be with Djamila. Because his life was ‘amputated’ very early on by prison, he takes on the life of someone else, which, of course, suits him fine. With this conclusion, we wanted to suggest that taking his place beside Djamila was his intention all along. It’s both peaceful and calming, and he’ll probably make a great father.
The ending of the film suggests there could be a sequel…
Indeed. It does induce us to question Malik’s destiny with this woman, this child and his life stretched out before him. Especially since Malik is a hooligan that hates hooligans, finding them unreliable, stupid and dangerous. He is someone with a very critical viewpoint. He wouldn’t tolerate bling or outward signs of hooliganism.
If there was a sequel, what would it be about?
I would like to see Malik continue to develop his skills and watch him learn. A little like in The Beat That My Heart Skipped. That through trying to become a concert pianist the hero becomes really competent. He’s like Malik, we leave everything just formed and we sense that he has an interesting future…
We have the feeling that one of your talents as a director is to create the ideal conditions to make a film: you take your time to write, to cast and to shoot…
What you say pre-supposes that I’m conscious of myself in some way – which I’m not! Only production companies like Why Not can make the object coincide with the tool. Elsewhere it would be complicated for me. To direct a film is something difficult, very heavy. Anyway, it’s the only profession that I’m capable of.
I believe that people see qualities in me that I don’t necessarily feel I have. Those that surround me have more confidence in my abilities, and it’s these people who push me forward. The fact that I took a long time to write, that I fully metabolised my story, that I questioned it, that I fully questioned the pertinence of the subject, to have searched and immersed myself in a real cinema project, to have followed a long preparatory phase – gave me the feeling of knowing what the film should be like. After this, you have to make others understand the world in which the film is situated, and this phase is a passionate one. It’s a process that makes cinema unique, when we collectively make a creative project. The only thing that I know for certain is in which conditions and how the film needs to shine from the fundamentals. Sometimes the collective conscious doesn’t work at every level, and that can be accompanied by moments of loneliness or doubt. There are moments when I no longer know what makes sense. It’s for this reason that I’m both happy and grateful for the support and of the people with whom I work.
On this film, did you feel any constraints by the budget?
I felt the pressure on many levels on this film! It’s a dense screenplay which we already estimated would be 2 hours 30 running time before shooting, so we knew it would be a long and difficult shoot. As well as this, it was impossible to film in natural surroundings, so we had to construct a prison – an essential step, but one that removed us a little from naturalism but imposing nonetheless. Next we had to populate the prison, to give it life, and that constitutes a considerable amount of people to organise each day on set. So, at that point, the prison itself was a character with its significant part to play. In directing the mise en scène, you had to work in reverse and put the background in place before the actors. It’s this aspect which most signified the constraints and upheaval to shoot in such an environment.
Were you conscious while making A Prophet that you were making a film that was anchored in popular culture?
This is what I wanted to do. For as much, we wanted to make an anti Scarface. For me, neurotics are pure cretins and simply can’t be objects for identification. The rise to power of an absolute crazy person doest interest me at all. On the other hand, a film like La Haine by Matthieu Kassovitz touches on something that I’m sensitive to. It’s no co-incidence that A Prophet occasionally inhabits the same terrain. These two films a looking to denounce that there is something missing in cinema.
You are recognised as being a great director of actors. How do you approach this side of your work?
With the actors, we go deep into stripping down the character, but it’s only possible to go so far if you accompany them in their states. If you remain clothed, if you express your fear, your concern, you won’t have the engagement of the actors. You have to be with them, to go through the same surprises, to doubt together and to be scared all the time together…otherwise, as soon as these things become ‘accepted’, it’s like sleeping.
What do you expect from an actor?
What I’m looking for in an actor is precisely what I’m not expecting. That they are capable of producing something that I didn’t prepare. And I think it’s also what they wish, that the devices I set up for them will take them to a new place.
Since your first films, your cinema seems to be released from the constraints of the traditional framework…
Indeed, beforehand I was in a more geometric or mechanical way of working. I thought of the technical aspect before thinking of the acting. But since Read My Lips, the reverse became apparent. Even if technical aspect was important, it’s the actor that counts first.
In all of your films, there is a point where the image is totally obscured leaving only one detail…
Yes, it’s a little effect I call ‘La Mano Negra’, which I did for my super 8 films, and now I do it on a larger scale – it’s an expensive special effect. In fact, it’s just because I find sometimes that there is too much image, too much light, too much ‘field’ – that it’s too open and it needs to be reduced. These are completely fetishist relationships I have to the image. I am always amazed by the image of silent films which come to us after generations of inter-positives and inter-negatives. They seem to emerge from such a faraway world.
Is it a form of signature?
No, and I would have to stop if it seemed that way. I do feel that I have to stop with the film and chemical tools. It’s a relationship that’s too fetishist, which can be imprisoning. I no longer know if it’s a good tool for looking at the world.
It’s something we can only imagine in cinemascope…
I tried lots of different material for this film: HD, 16mm, ultra-light cameras, and a whole lot of things which failed to impress me. Of course, I thought of scope, but I didn’t retain the idea because scope means I was obliged to define too much. I thought I’d be really unhappy after two weeks, because the story and the set design was creating real antibodies in me… I tested a few stylistic things on the side, which would never have really worked. But finally it was the film which dictated its own aesthetic, an aesthetic that was set in stone.
Would you like to shoot more often?
Yes. When everything goes well, I make a film every three to four years. I would like to shoot more because it solves a number of problems – most notably the fear. I think that I’m too apprehensive, that I write for too long. We took three years to write this script – that’s too long.
You don?t want to write any longer?
No, it’s really clear for me. I can’t do it anymore. All these themes that begin to interest me but hang on me like an old pair of trousers. On set, the script ends up being boring for me – I have the impression that I know it by heart and I doubt myself. I want it to happen a different way. One evening during the shoot, the script assistant came to see me and said, “You have to stop doubting the script,” implying that I was hitting a brick wall. I think that if I wasn’t so implicated in every stage of the script, and if I shot more often, I would feel much freer.
Interview courtesy Optimum Releasing.
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