"Prison as a metaphor for society"
by Fabien Lemercier
- Extracts from the press conference at the Cannes Film Festival 2009 where A Prophet won the Grand Prize a week later
Flanked by his two lead actors, three co-screenwriters and two of his producers, French director Jacques Audiard shared with the international press a few of the production secrets for his film A Prophet [+see also:
interview: Jacques Audiard
interview: Jacques Audiard and Tahar R…
film profile], presented in competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival.
The prison film is almost a genre in itself. How did you manage to avoid the clichés and achieve this impressive realism?
In France today, when you want to make a film about prison, there are two obstacles. The documentary, which is more of a social study and didn’t interest me, and the influence of the prison image created by US television series with archetypes that don’t belong to our culture.
We visited lots of prisons to try to find a setting, but they were either too old, or it was impossible to film there. So we built the set. This was a very important stage as the film took shape with it. For it wasn’t a studio with detachable ceilings and walls, but a permanent set. And the realist element takes care of itself when you shoot every day in a prison.
What was the starting point for the story?
The original screenplay was handed to me by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit and Thomas Bidegain and I reworked it. I didn’t want to do a sociological study, but focus on mafioso groups in the prison environment, rather closed entities, which are difficult to penetrate. I also liked the idea of creating a story with different languages and idioms (Corsican and Arabic) which close groups off and give them a mysterious edge. There was the idea of a somewhat ageing criminal fraternity, alongside the new members from other cultures. The character of the Prophet heralds this new criminal prototype: he’s not a psychopath, he’s intelligent and almost angelic.
I was also interested in looking at prison as a metaphor for society. After a while, the worlds inside and outside prison blur into one and what we learn inside is relevant outside. I wanted to create a character whose only solution would be to learn in prison before using what he’d learned elsewhere. The character is also something of a blank canvas; he discovers an identity within his community, having never asked himself such questions before.
A Prophet is a genre film, but it also combines different genres, including dreamlike and fantasy elements.
I wanted to make a genre film, starring unknown actors, besides Niels Arestrup, a sort of western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance without John Wayne. The dreamlike scenes and fantasy elements with the ghost made it possible to give Malik’s character an inner life, to explore, beyond the situation scenes, what goes on in his head when the cell door closes behind him. I like the idea of making cross-genre films, of moving the boundaries. Cinema should no longer just content itself with tools inherited from the past. There is, for example, a hybridisation between traditional film and digital, which means that the perception and reconstruction of the world are necessarily different.