“History never takes sides”
by Fabien Lemercier
- Launched into competition in Berlin with his first feature film, this French-Algerian movie-maker working in London talks about the genesis of '71
Revealed with the TV series Dead Set and Top Boy, Yann Demange, a French-Algerian film-maker who grew up and works in London, talks to the international press about '71 [+see also:
Q&A: Yann Demange
film profile], his first fiction feature film for the cinema, which delves to the heart of the civil war in Belfast in 1971 and is unveiled in competition at the 64th Berlinale.
What made you decide to make a film on the conflict in Northern Ireland in the early 70's?
Yann Demange: I was born in Paris in 1977, of a French mother and an Algerian father. We moved to London when I was two years old. When I was a child, this conflict was a sort of background noise, it was always in the news. I have a few memories, though I didn't really understand what it was all about. In fact, I didn't especially want to tell a story about Northern Ireland, and if anyone had told me it would be my first film, I wouldn't have believed it. I'd been wanting to make a movie for quite a few years, but it was essential to find something with which I could connect, so as not to miss out on the chance. I had been sent this screenplay by Gregory Burke. I loved it. It was phenomenal, remarkable and totally to the point, as it transcended the specific aspects of the troubles in Northern Ireland, making them universal. What attracted me immediately was the character of Gary, the human story at the core of the tale. I didn't really need to find a way of entering into the context, as Gregory and the producer Angus Lamont, who had the original idea underlying the project, had already been working on it for two years when I joined them. We began to develop the screenplay together. I also liked the grey areas, as the story doesn't come down on one side or the other. Then, of course, I had to do a lot of research, especially photographic and in the archives. That was a shared task, though I had very clear ideas about how the film should look, what one should feel, the aspects I wanted to emphasize. I asked, for example, for a brother to be introduced into the script, and the theme of children growing up in the midst of a war. Gregory wrote at least five versions of the screenplay in just a few months.
How would you define the main character?
He's like a lot of young men, he's searching for his place, his home, to belong to a tribe and a family that he finds in the army which will, however, sacrifice him. One mustn't forget that at this time, no-one knew the extent of what was happening in Belfast. These soldiers were supposed to go to Germany, but they found themselves dispatched to Northern Ireland.
How did you shoot the extraordinary riot scene?
We had prepared a story-board and mock-ups of the streets, everything was prepared down to the very last detail. We had four days to shoot it, but we decided to devote all of the first day to choreographing the entire sequence in real time, and film it like a play. We also suddenly had lots of new actors on the set. So we took this day to perfect the rhythm of the narration and its escalation. Then we filmed, again and again, until everyone was exhausted. Each member of the cast knew what he was supposed to do and could get fully involved without bothering about the cameras. We also took a lot of care about everything that was going on in the background. Because everything is centered around the character of Gary, but there's great depth of field and lots of details.
What were your cinematographic influences for this film?
When I read the screenplay for the first time, many images crossed my mind, from The Warriors by Walter Hill to New York 1997 by John Carpenter. There was also that incredible scene in Army of Shadows when they were going to shoot a collaborator. I've stolen things from lots of films (laughter). There is obviously a traditional side to the movie, though we paid a lot of attention to shades of grey so that the main character would in no way be the typical hero of an action film, and to convey as clearly as possible the texture of reality.
(Translated from French)