Down and Out in Paris
By Ahmad Rafat
Franco-Tunisian director, Abdel Kechiche was pronounced the winner of the Venice Film Fesitval's Best First Film Award for his movie, Voltaire's Fault, which was presented during the Critics' Week, reported World News Link's Ahmad Sarah.
The prize-winning movie portrays the everyday life of a North African illegal immigrant named Jalleh, living in Paris. But it also lifts the lid on the whole world of the homeless, especially in the West.
Filmed entirely in Paris, Voltaire's Fault, makes uncomfortable viewing.
It depicts the life of people who have been forgotten by society: the jobless, the mentally ill; all those men and women who are in some way different from the norm.
For his careful and astute observations, Kechiche was also awarded other prizes, including the Cinematic Peace Award, made by a jury of students from Italy's ministry of education, and the Cinema Club Award.
Talking about his haunting movie, Kechiche explains that he deliberately placed his main character in the same setting as the unemployed and mentally ill, on the streets of Paris. "You see, I am convinced that in everyday life, these forgotten individuals eventually meet and gradually become united in their own way," he said, during an interview at Venice.
Kechiche has observed that even though society has already turned their backs on such people, they themselves do not feel excluded, because they form their own tight-knit circles.
"The truth is that whoever does not conform to today's set standards will be overlooked," he explained. "Sometimes, even a slight difference is enough to make a person feel out of place in what is known as a "civilized" setting."
Aure Atika, the movie's talented leading lady, firmly agrees with Kechiche.
"Being left out is so commonplace these days that even those on the margins of society have their prejudices and sub-categories," she said.
Like Kechiche, Atika is also Franco-Tunisian and she plays the role of an unmarried mother who is abandoned by her family. Although ostracized by her loved ones, she feels that she cannot start up a serious relationship with Jalleh the illegal immigrant.
"She is no fictitious character," she added. "The immigrant who has his or her papers in order deliberately avoids illegal aliens who might get him into trouble, and sometimes they end up becoming even more intolerant than the society in which they are living."
Said Kechiche: "I have not made any references to one specific characters, but I was inspired by what surrounded me every day. I personally know dozens of illegal aliens who have been living in Paris for years. Although they are regularly arrested and thrown out of the country, they somehow always manage to get back in.
"Initially, these people heard France described as the land of freedom, brotherhood and equality," he went on. "These people risked their lives to come here, firmly believing in this slogan. Unfortunately, once in France, they begin to realize that this utopia does not exist. This truth becomes painfully real to the film's main character, who risks his life traveling as a stowaway on a ship or in a makeshift boat.
"Each year, dozens of immigrants looking for a better way of life, die in shipwrecks," he added. "Little attention is given to these accidents. Only a few lines of newspaper print are dedicated to their sad stories. No one seems to care about them."
According to the young Franco-Tunisian director, there is no such thing as illegal aliens. People classed as such are simply adventurous men and women looking to improve their lives. They use the only means available, and that is their human right to freedom and liberty.
"My film is a tribute to these courageous individuals and their search for freedom," said Kechiche. "What is really at stake is not society, but Man's dignity and humanity."
Kechiche's own parents emigrated to France in the 1960s, so he is painfully familiar with the world he portrays on screen. He firmly believes that the third millennium immigrants are not very different from their predecessors.
"The only difference is that life nowadays is more difficult for immigrants.
Today's society has little need for manual workers and it is much less tolerant," he added.
The director is anxious that his movie should not be branded by a single ethnic label. "My film is French, yet at the same time it is full of Arabic cultural influences, and it is a combination of much more," he explained.
"It is a universal expression of a real situation. I consider myself a universal man.
"I refuse to be labeled as belonging to one national territory or another," he went on. "I see the whole world as my home; I could easily live anywhere.
In my film, I have tried to knock down those walls, such as linguistic and national barriers that have always kept men separated. I simply want to highlight the human aspect, which is common to all of us."
Following years of hard work as an actor in both plays and movies, Voltaire's Fault marks Kechiche's debut as a director. "This project sat on my shelf for years, due to a lack of funds," he said.
It was not easy for this young director to obtain financing for his first project, and he says he hopes funding will be easier next time around. But cautious about the unexpected success of this his first movie, Kechiche refuses to be drawn on just what he may have up his sleeve for the future - Ahmad Sarah (WNL-Venice)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)