The breath of life
by Fabien Lemercier
- Taking advantage of a tour around France, Live and Become's director agreed to tell us the fascinating adventure of making a film born from an unexpected encounter
Taking advantage of a premiere tour around France, Radu Mihaileanu agreed to meet us and recount what a fascinating adventure making Live and Become has been. The director, usually known for his great sense of humour, explained very seriously his emotional commitment to a work which started with an unexpected encounter and ended in a film full of the raw energy of life which helps get over personal and historical tragedies.
Cineuropa: How did you start considering making a film about the Falashas ?
Radu Mihaileanu: It all started in Los Angeles when I met an Ethiopian Jew who told me his story, how he and his family left his small Ethiopian village in the mountains for Sudan, how they were all eventually slaughtered, and how he ended up alone in the refugee camps in Sudan and had to wait for months before the Israeli secret services and the Americans flew him to Israel. I spent the night crying my eyes out after I heard this. I vaguely knew of this story before, but I had not grasped all the dramatic consequences and the human issues at stake. Back in Paris, I read everything I could lay my hands on in France and on the internet which dealt with this subject —mostly English and American books. Then I went to Israel to meet some Ethiopians, and that’s when I knew I was going to make a film out of this. Things started to get clearer. I was almost furious the rest of the world knew hardly anything about this piece of history.
When did you choose to divide the film into three parts, using three different actors ?
Insofar as I wanted to film a saga following a child into adulhood, I knew I needed several actors. Then, I gradually figured out what stages of his life I would show : childhood was obvious, but I was really interested in filming his adolescence too, before showing the adult my character becomes.
Was it an intent of yours to emphasize the positive in a dramatic context ?
It was, from the very beginning. There are two things I will never be able to do in my films : depict mediocre characters —even if I like some films which do that— and convey the general idea that life is not worth living. Whatever happens —for life is never easy but full of tragedies and difficult moments—, I believe life is a gift. My own personal life has not always been simple : I was an immigrant, I had to leave my family and friends. But I never ceased to be hopeful and feel I had to take full advantage of the great gift I was made.
Several characters in your film, such as Yaël, the Qes Ahmra, and the doctor, seem to act as guardian angels.
Yes. This child has some luck in his life, despite the terrible things he goes through. He is lucky to have four mothers to save him and eventually make him happy. He is lucky to have Qes who is to him the father his foster father never really is ; and he has a grandpa. So he is very well surrounded although there are a few people who try to ruin his life, such as the fundamentalists...The Great Rabbis had an extremely humiliating attitude towards the Ethiopian community, Jews and non-Jews.
Your actors describe you as a thorough, demanding director. Did you have to compromise with the youngest actors ?
It is true that I am picky, but that is because I am responsible for holding together a series of matters everybody is not always aware of. However, it is also true that the actor playing Schlomo as an adolescent encouraged me to adapt the character to his way of being and of acting. On the paper, my adolescent was funny and lively, but I had forgotten that at that age, boys are sometimes clumsy, sometimes a bit sloppy. Yaël Abecassis and I changed many dialogues, and I did that a little bit for Roschdy Zem too, I am demanding in terms of where I want to whole project to go, but I am very open to suggestions about possible improvements on the detail.
Was is difficult to finance this film?
Not so much. We expected it to be harder, considering we only had Roschdy Zem for famous actor —and Roschdy is hardly Benoît Poelvoorde ! Yaël Abecassis is famous in Israël but much less in France. We feared financers would be very reluctant to support us. It is never easy to produce an independant film, but we were so lucky as to meet partners who really fell for the project, totally loved the script and followed us until the end, people who were completely solidary and committed, personally and intellectually.
Would you like to lessen the time span between your films (There were 5 years between Trahir and Train de vie, and 7 more years have passed before Live and Become) ?
Yes, I would. I realise life is short and time is not waiting for me. Maybe this is just my rhythm. At the same time I would not want to have to wait another six years before I make my next film. However, I am so uncompromising when it comes to cinema that I will never make a film if I am not totally moved by its subject. I receive scripts and wait for something I can relate to since I don’t like commands. But I do read other people’s scripts and sometimes I do feel like directing these projects.
You were born in Eastern Europe, you live in France, and your film is about Africa and the Middle-East : do you see yourself as a citizen of the world ?
I feel like a Frenchman with Jewish and Rumanian origins. France is my country now —I have been living here for 20 years. When I go to Rumania, I feel at home, even if I know I have a plane ticket back to France in my pocket. But my very very own country, it’s my children —who are French.