I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
JRachid Djaïdani discusses his new film Rengaine (Hold Back), and the advantages and hazards of guerrilla filmmaking.
Rachid Djaïdani’s unusual career spans from mason, boxer, actor, writer, to filmmaker. Although he made two short films before his first feature-length film, Rengaine (2011), these films garnered little critical attention, despite having been shown in a number of festivals—Sur ma ligne (2006) and La ligne brune (2010).
In the first, Djaïdani filmed himself in the process of writing his second novel Mon Nerf (2004). The film aimed to prove that he was indeed a writer, after his authenticity was questioned by his editor at the publishing house Seuil. In the second, he filmed the pregnancy of his wife over its nine months. It was shown in the Festival Pickpocket in Paris. In both, Djaïdani isn’t in a hurry. He seems interested in taking his time. He filmed both in an improvisatory, spontaneous manner, composing sequences of images that often aren’t well explained that but revolve around a single face or a single object.
We can certainly say the same about Rengaine, which won the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI) for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, 2012. Djaïdani worked alone and without studio support during the nine years it took to complete this film. In the following interview, he describes the difficulties and the joys of the filmmaking process, as well as the choices he made along the way.
Translated from French by Matt Reeck
Laura Reeck What led you to make Rengaine? What idea did you want to explore?
Rachid Djaïdani As far as I can remember, the idea came about when I was working on Peter Brook’s Tierno Bokar. Little by little I began to invent the story of a black man who falls in love with a rebeu [person of North African descent], and how that was complicated by the fact that she had brothers. Then, by the end of the play’s tour, I had the idea of giving her 40 brothers.
LR Did your parents’ relationship influence the story?
RD I think so, in the sense that you are necessarily influenced by everything that surrounds you, by your family, by your daily life, by your personal history. I’m biracial—my mother is black (Sudanese), and my father is Arab (North African)—and so I always heard my mother complain about being called black by certain members of the family in Algeria, and, at the same time, I’ve heard her say that sometimes, on her side of the family, people have told her, “Well, what do you expect? You wanted to be with a white man, that’s what you get …” But, fundamentally, the groundwork for everything to go well had been laid because they are both Muslim. In Rengaine, he’s Christian, and she’s Muslim. That’s where it’s suddenly also about religious conflict. And that makes it more interesting. It makes it deeper.
LR In terms of the creative process, what does it mean to work for nine years on a film and to do so without a script? Did you always have access to the same actors? Did you feel that there were critical crossroads at which the film changed? How did you keep up the momentum to continue shooting for nine years?
RD I think that, above all else, it’s a testament to faith. Faith in yourself, faith in your inner rhythm, and, at the same time, in your vision, in your ability to complete something that no one else thought possible. Then, for me, nine years—it wasn’t actually that much. You have to think about how things work: it’s not like I went to film school, that I grew up in the film world, that I knew everything from the start, and that finally after nine years I managed to make a feature-length film. Think about it like this: I’m a painter (if I may say so) who had to prepare his canvas by himself, find his artistic references, and find a way—both financially and in terms of a process—to create a portrait, which is what this film is. Let me explain in another way: it was the time needed for an apprenticeship.
LR Did you shoot continuously over the nine years?
RD No, because what happens during the creative process is that at times you enrich yourself with other things. You turn to film, literature, meeting people, life itself, and so that’s the reason why it took 400 hours of shooting. At the beginning, when you shoot the first several hours, you look at the images, and you think you’re a virtuoso. Then, after nine years, you look back at the first images and you say to yourself, “Thankfully I was entirely clueless. Thankfully, because of my naïvety, I thought I was a master.”
LR Did you mostly shoot over the weekend?
RD No, no, I shot whenever I could …
LR Whenever you could get back together with actors, find a location …
RD But, actually, what was great was that—since there are 40 brothers in the film—sometimes actors had brothers. So even if two had never ever worked together, and if they aren’t even in the final version, well, I would go out with my camera, with a friend, and I would say to them, “OK, alright, we’re going to shoot an outside scene.” At the end of the day, I was in a sort of apprenticeship of the everyday, and in a laboratory. Paris was my laboratory. There was no other prerogative than when I went out, in the normal process of meeting people, I would ask whoever was around to be in my film. But, at the same time, everything was also done in relation to a timeline. That’s to say with an editing program—not according to the one over there.
He points to his wall where there are scraps of paper hung with clothespins on a string with each piece of paper corresponding to a particular scene.
It’s done on the computer in Final Cut, that’s where you see things and gradually see gaps in the story. Then, afterwards, it’s at night, sleeping, when you dream of your film and you see ways of fillings these gaps. When I started, I was 30. When we finished, I was 39. And in the case of Stéphane [Stéphane Soo Mongo, who played Dorcy], he was much younger when we started. He’s 32 or 33 now, so he was really very young. When we started shooting, he was still very inexperienced, not really confident yet in his acting, a little bit of a lightweight. But after nine years, suddenly, like in the blink of an eye, he became a man.
LR And Slimane Dazi had meanwhile been cast by Jacques Audiard in A Prophet.
RD He had been cast by Audiard, but, at the same time, I want to point out that Stéphane had been cast by Peter Brook. Peter had seen a workshop where I’d presented some scenes and that’s where he saw him. From there, Peter asked me to arrange another workshop, and that’s where he saw Stéphane in action. So, in the end, that’s how Stéphane got to work with Peter Brook. It’s different than Slimane Dazi. Slimane wasn’t originally an actor. He had a film truck business. But no one ever thought to cast him. One day, I asked him, “Come on, if you want to, why don’t you join in on this adventure? You’ll be the big brother.” He said, “I’ve never acted.” I said, “So what? I’ll teach you.” He too had a right to an apprenticeship.
LR So it was really a period of apprenticeship for everyone.
RD Everyone. Me, as a director. Them, as actors. And today it’s proven worth it, in the sense that for them, as actors, Slimane was cast by Audiard and Stéphane was cast by Peter Brook, and I found myself at Cannes, while, all along, I was making a film out of passion and not following any rules. Because in making this film, we didn’t ask for anyone’s permission.
LR You talk about this film as illegal, unconventional, or clandestine.
RD It was illegal in the way I made it. I mean no one was paid, and for the most part, it was my friends. From the outset, it was an amateur film. You get together some friends on the weekend and say, “Let’s go make a film.” And after nine years, the nugget grows into something very beautiful. So you can’t pay people. OK. Then the sets where we shot, well, we stole those. We didn’t ask for permission to film—we shot commando-style. Then from the moment I was done shooting, the technicians and everyone involved in post-production, I couldn’t pay them either. The studios and film labs could have helped me out, but I didn’t have any money. Then, what happened was everyone was caught up in a feeling of graciousness, wanting to support it out of love for the film, love for cinema, and also out of respect for the energy that I was able to inject into the film. Then, what happened is that once shooting was over, that’s when the real problems began because the words “illegal” and “unconventional” took on their full meaning. The system, the CNC Centre national du cinémaconsidered the film illegal because none of the actors had been paid for their work. That meant that they didn’t give me authorization. It’s like the Holy Grail, because once you have this piece of paper that says that all the actors were paid, then they tell the authorities, and you have every service they have to offer at your disposal. That means help to edit it, distribute it, to get state grants, money that comes through ticket sales, etc. That means even for URSSAF [French social security], for paid leave, or for ASSEDIC payments [unemployment benefits].
What you have to realize is that this authorization is governed by a department that I discovered was created during the Vichy era in order to expel the Jews working in film and to remove things that were censured. It was a centralizing institution created by Vichy. So it’s beyond serious. I never said, “I don’t want to pay people.” I was making a film. So from the very beginning I wasn’t part of the system, and if the film makes money, then everyone gets paid. But from the very beginning they close the doors, and they say, “It’s illegal.” Then there’s Hakim Zouhani and Carine May who made Rue des cités, and they are still fighting the system, they still don’t have authorization, or Djinn Carrénard who made Donoma, a film that got marketed as having been shot on 150 euros. So, that’s to say that there’s a new sort of filmmaking today.
LR What you might call “guerrilla” films.
RD Exactly. There’s a new cinema that’s emerging with new faces and, at the same time, today, it just so happens that the three films that have gotten attention are by two Arabs, a French woman, and a black, who are still outside the schools, who are outside the system. I didn’t exploit anyone. I shot it by myself. It was me, my camera, the actress was my wife, some guys I know, my friends. The kids are my nephews and the mother is my friend’s mother. Now, it’s true that we find ourselves at a moment where the film, because it has been liked by professionals for what it is, well, it’s still hard, very difficult, for it to reenter the system. Too bad there’s not a special commission that could say, “OK, so this film wasn’t made in the usual way,” but to get it recognized by the system—because I am a director, but also because the actors and the technical crew should earn their money—I mean, to have the system take up the film, and in relation to the ticket sales, be able to pay everyone. Actually, I’m lucky because Arte [Franco-German TV network] has co-produced the film. But even with the money they gave, I couldn’t pay everyone. I can “legalize” some of them but not everyone. But even if you pay some people after the fact it’s still not right because you have to pay them as they work. It’s hard for everyone. But better that than the opposite! It’s better to make an illegal film that people want to see than a legal one that no one cares about.
LR What kind of camera did you use?
RD I used two: the first was a Sony PD170, one of the first 3 CCD cameras that let you get a semi-professional quality; that’s what we shot with. Then, I was able to invest (because I had worked with Peter Brook) in a Panasonic DVX100BE, which is the camera that the guys like Lars von Trier and plenty of others use. So a camera that’s very sturdy, that has a manual function, and that puts you firmly in the world of the semi-professional, and also it’s a camera that lasts, and it’s reliable. And what you should know—it’s super-important today—everyone says you have to film in HD, but I did it in DV [digital video].
LR In the film, Paris serves both as foreground and background. Did you want to show a particular face of, or perspective on, Paris?
RD I wanted to show faces of Paris—people’s faces. For me, from the very moment that I pick up a pen or camera, it’s already a political act. It gives me the power to show all the people I know, the ordinariness of life, and to show the world what never appears in films that are exported—Amélie Poulain, for example, there are so many, from Chanel to Catherine Deneuve. Because for me, my film is a New York film. You know how much I love that city, and from the beginning, my film, it was geared for the international audience. So when Cannes recognizes you, it’s a real gift, and then, when you get the International Critics Prize, it means something. From the beginning, I always dreamed that this film would have more life abroad than in France.
LR But that’s very likely. It’s true that this type of film often has a bigger audience abroad than in France. There’s a better reception for films like this abroad.
RD And thanks to Cannes, it will be seen in France too. For me, it’s already a political act to not film in the banlieue [the suburban housing projects] because I don’t want to be classified in the way that they call me a “banlieue writer” or a “banlieue actor.” I really wanted this film to take place in Paris. And what’s great is that the film, it’s about Paris, and there are plenty of people who, when they see the film, they say, “Oh, that’s my neighborhood, I recognize my neighborhood, I recognize Paris.” We shot in a lot of different places. But at the same time, we didn’t go everywhere. You’ll see, in the film, there isn’t at all the feeling of a postcard. I don’t take long shots so you can see the Eiffel Tower. But we do go over the Bir-Hakeim Bridge. It’s a symbol, and the film is full of symbols. But that symbol is about the Algerian War and about Algerians, when they were on the Bir-Hakeim Bridge and thrown into the Seine by the cops. That’s the reason why I couldn’t have used any bridge for the scene with Slimane and Nina. That bridge had a real symbolic value for the Algerian War and France. But, anyway, when they’re there, we could have slowed down, and done a “Oh, look, they’re next to the Eiffel Tower.” But, no, because I don’t give a damn about the Eiffel Tower. But the symbol of the bridge, it’s super important. So, Paris, of course, Paris is a major character in the film.
LR And, also, it must also be due to the fact that you didn’t have permission to shoot inside.
RD You know, I’m at ease only when in motion. Confined spaces, interiors of apartments … That’s tricky for me. It’s a choice, because the film’s always moving. I find that noises, sounds … you have to stay in touch with reality. And, at the same time, there are consequences: if an actor is talking when a motorcycle passes, then it warps the sound, but, at the same time, that’s what makes it beautiful to be alive.
LR There are a lot of night scenes, and you don’t light them. It’s really dark, and you can see only the profiles of the actors.
RD I find that DV at night works really well with streetlamps. So at night, after my friends got off work—for those that work—then we could shoot. When you ask me how I adapt, that’s how I do it. Often I walk alone at night. I see places where there isn’t much traffic, and I think of it as a shooting location, and I say to myself, “OK, here it’s lit at night alright, so we can shoot here.” I adapt to the city.
LR There’s a night scene on a bridge with Dorcy and Sabrina that echoes that of Slimane and Nina on the Bir-Hakeim Bridge. You can hardly see them.
RD It’s both intentional and due to the conditions. For me, the scene on the bridge with Sabrina and Dorcy is one of my favorites: she’s completely dream-like, enigmatic. At the same time, she’s fully realized and she brings you into the film’s spirit: a little of Cassavetes, or film from the 70s.
LR And there’s also the suggestion that the couple has to stay hidden.
RD And, at the same time, for us French, we’re not far from the bridge of Arletty,“Atmosphère? … Qu’est-ce qu’elle a ma gueule?” [L’Hotel du nord (1938)]. It’s a mythic bridge for French cinema. The bridge for the scene with Gabin and Arletty. And so, these are the symbols that we integrated into the film. We appropriated the history of French cinema,“Atmosphère, atmosphère … Qu’est-ce qu’elle a ma gueule? Est-ce que j’ai une gueule d’atmosphère?” We take it up from there. I appropriate classical cinema through several references to say, “Atmosphere? That’s us.” To say that we too, we can make allusions. We are the new France.
LR So Sabrina and Dorcy’s love story is featured on the film poster. But their story overlays another, that of Slimane and Nina. And that is a story that breaks all taboos.
RD That love story’s very, very complicated.
LR Isn’t it ultimately the real love story in the film, and the one that causes all the surprises at the end? That’s to say, why make Sabrina and Dorcy’s love story more important than this one?
RD The two [stories] speak to each other. The story of Dorcy and Sabrina, of a black and arebeu, even if he’s Catholic and she’s Muslim, that’s the one that you see more often, that’s the normal one. Now, that’s where I wanted to take it one step further to something even more transgressive and violent. But at the same time that’s just how I do things: inBoumkoeur, in my novels, I bring up something easy or a cliché in order to make people think about something even more brutal, because “everyone”—at least those who are rebeu andrenoi [blacks]—when the see the film, at first they say, “No way, my sister’s never dating arebeu.” And the renoi says, “Hey, how they’re talking about blacks, that’s not cool.” But that’s all pretty much good-natured. These are our automatic reactions. But when, suddenly, you have a brother who’s really losing it, who’s becoming obsessed, “I don’t want my sister to go out with a renoi, I don’t want it, I don’t, I don’t …” So Slimane’s was a worse transgression because he was with a Jew. And, suddenly, in the theater, everyone shuts up. Because there, the brother, in some way, even if he’s quote unquote a prisoner of tradition, of his culture, of his education, etc. at the same time, subconsciously, he wants to change. He can’t go so far as being the quote unquote big brother.
LR The big brother. The real one.
RD —who turns everything upside down suddenly, and who delivers the final blow. Really, the true love story, how should I say it—I can’t say the true, but—the love story that is more explosive and that produces more tension, that’s the love story of Slimane and Nina. It’s about hypocrisy. Because Slimane, he only knows hypocrisy and he’s living a lie. You see, you said, “stay hidden,” but he isn’t just hiding—he’s buried underground. Nina, she knows this. At the beginning of a relationship, we don’t think about these things. We don’t think about them. But love isn’t an illness. When she says this in the truck, it’s great. The film’s about love.
LR I noticed that you focus a lot on eyes. You film them repeatedly and much of the dialogue is about eyes. “You’re not looking me in the eyes,” “Look at my eyes,” “He didn’t want to look in my eyes.”
RD Yes, that’s great that you noticed, it’s true. There’s the famous sequence with the drug dealer. But that’s thanks to a man named Hervé Schneid because Hervé Schneid is a huge, huge editor who did Delicatessen, Alien, Mesrine. He did La fanfare, I think, and The Nose, as well. He’s an excellent editor and a friend. The first time I showed him the film three years ago, he said to me, “It’s nice, but it’s missing the cinematic.” So for two or three months, I didn’t shoot anything, and I tried to answer this question, “What is cinematic?” I talked this over with my friends who are directors, and I talked to everyone in my life. I said, “But what is the cinematic? What is the cinematic?” And finally I understood that the cinematic is the gaze, it’s the eyes. And from there I went back and reshot a lot.
LR What you did with the eyes is wonderful.
RD Because the gaze contains everything.
LR Rengaine is presented as a parable of Rachid Djaïdani. Generally, a parable has a lesson. But I didn’t think that this film was didactic, or pedagogic. It’s much more based upon emotion—it’s a psychological film, I would say. Does this film have a moral? Does it have a moral point?
RD What I can tell you is that it wasn’t me who said it was a parable. When we were at Cannes, Mr. Waintrop saw the film as being an urban parable.
LR There are parts of the film that are parable-like: the 40 brothers; the child, Marouane, who knows everything. And other fantastical things as well.
RD But I have to admit that there are many, many things that I’m learning about the film today, really important things. I’m learning things listening to you. For me, I don’t know if there’s a moral at the end of the film, and in any case what I would like—my point of view—is that from the beginning Sabrina is the film’s Jasmine Revolution. And if there is a moral at the end, it’s live your life. But don’t stop others from living theirs. If you live in a prison and you like it, stay in your prison. But if the jasmine wants to get out and be smelled in the open air, then don’t keep the fragrance bottled up.
LR In the film, there’s also a critique of the French film production system, and also a form of encouragement to do things creatively, to be creative, to lead, and not to follow.
RD The scene with Brendan?
LR Yes. What will have to happen to breathe life back into French cinema in order to push things forward?
RD I think that already, more than getting caught up in a CV—Did you do FEMIS Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l’image et du Son? Did you go to one of the big film schools? Do you have your BAC plus six? Did you study psychology or architecture in college?—what would be better, and what I’ve always thought, would be to form in the CNC a sort of commission that would be able to—through several experts or several experienced people—you see, people like Costa-Gavras who wrote to us, or Waintrop, people who know what they’re talking about when it comes to film—who can intervene to stand up for your film, not just on the basis of a scenario, because for me, even when I write novels, I don’t necessarily have the ability to write a scenario, but on the basis of a pitch, a few words and a basic framing, who can help a new generation of filmmakers to emerge. Filmmakers who come from the countryside, and those who come from the banlieue, and those from Paris who didn’t necessarily have the chance to be born with all the advantages.
LR And who don’t work in the usual way.
RD Yes, exactly. To not be held prisoner to the canon that dominates film today. And look, in my film, there’s no “bankable” stars, no famous actor, and yet there’s truth in it, there’s a truth in it.
Rachid Djaïdani is a French novelist, filmmaker, actor, and boxing champion.
Laura Reeck is an Associate Professor of Classical and Modern Languages at Allegheny College.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee