"Cinema is a crazy business"
by Fabien Lemercier
- Meeting with a committed and humanist director, who has unveiled with much talent an ignored period of French history
Producer-director Rachid Bouchareb explains to Cineuropa the main hurdles in the making of Days of Glory [+see also:
interview: Jean Bréhat
interview: Rachid Bouchareb
film profile], which has also become a social film that raises questions concerning prejudices about immigration. Battle tales captured in their infancy at the Cannes awards recount the journey of a director in search of the truth.
Cineuropa: What was your starting point in the writing of the script of Days of Glory ?
Rachid Bouchareb: The idea of making the film goes back to over ten years ago. But I had already discovered all that vaguely during my childhood. For the script, I talked to people and I carried out research in order to master the subject. My scriptwriter Olivier Lorelle and I went to meet those who had fought in this war at Dakar, in North Africa and in France. Then we did historical research, although the subject had rarely been dealt with. At the army services, I read reports that said it was necessary to watch out for soldiers from colonies for whom it would be difficult to pick up from where they had left off when they returned home. I also discovered that some post had been censured. And I proceeded like that. At the end of my research, I knew the film could not be centred on one single character, as so many people told me of personal and unique destinies! Then history has its obligations: events begin in Algeria, Morocco and Senegal and end in Berlin, even if Days of Glory actually ends in Alsace. At the end of the film, we return to 2006 because these men are still alive, living in anticipation.
Were you attracted by the war film genre?
I watched many war films again several times: The Longest Day, The Big Red One, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Saving Private Ryan, All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as some Russian and German films. I had seen them a long time ago along with the westerns I grew up with. Seeing them again has confirmed to me that this army and these men had never been represented in cinema before in their real role during the Liberation of Europe and France. I then realised that even if I had made very different films up to then, that wasn’t a problem. From the time when we write a story, it guides us. The only problem is the technique, but you can master that. I spent a year preparing the film and I drew a storyboard with 900 shots, many of which were war scenes. These scenes were a success, not because of the gunfire and action, but because of what’s in the scenes themselves, the way in which the characters act them out.
Why did you start with archives in black and white and use a slightly discoloured hue throughout the film?
Opening with these archival black and white images of the French colonial empire puts the audience in conditions very similar to those of the events documented at the time. We used historical information as a foundation. I then used the dates and the places by using images in black and white from time to time to open different scenes, which serves as a reminder of the opening images. And that gives the film its veracity. As for the visual aspects, I wanted a khaki look, the colour of military uniforms, neither shiny nor aesthetic and it wasn’t always easy to get that shade right.
Have your actors been involved in the project from its beginnings?
When I went to find them, there was no script. I wanted to involve them in a project that propels an energy, both for me and for them. I said to them, “here you go, you’re up for it, guys, you want us to raise the history of France from the ashes and open a chapter that has never been opened, that of your grandparents, your ancestors, our history” and everyone said “yes”. I came back with the script two years later. I couldn’t keep this film to myself because it belongs to whoever wants it.
What difficulties did you encounter in financing the film?
There is no plot, in the sense that this film shouldn’t have existed because of its subject. But apart from Pierre Héros at France Télévisions and TF1 Vidéo who were taken by it after reading the script, many parties were hesitant. Some likened it to the Iraq war and in my film, the Muslim soldiers do liberate France and Italy with cries "Allah is great". I also heard that the film cost a fortune and that French audiences wouldn’t be interested in it. But even if it is difficult, French cinema does have a great system and you can always find people who want to help you. Cinema is still a crazy business. Even Sergio Leone waited years to make Once Upon a Time in America. So Days of Glory had at least 25 partners and a word of thanks must also go to Jamel that got Moroccan partners involved who gave us everything: the army, canons, blanks, boats, planes and freight.
What lesson did you learn from this cinematic and human adventure?
Days of Glory allows each of us to think beyond that starting point of the debate on immigration: what our parents did for France is always limited to economic things. But the story began with all these men who had been serving the French army since 1870. This is also the reason why the final scene closes with Muslim steles in military cemeteries of the two world wars, which had never before been shown in cinema. It is this battle that we see today and one in which I tried to participate calmly, that of history and which history should be the reference for the world. With Days of Glory, we tell how more than 300,000 soldiers from colonies committed themselves to liberate France: no-one had ever done that before.