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A discussion with the director of The Repentant, Europa Cinemas Label at the Directors’ Fortnight.
Cineuropa: With The Repentant [+see also:
interview: Merzak Allouache
film profile], was your intention to paint a portrait of individuals or tell the tale of Algeria as a country torn apart?
Merzak Allouache : It's a fictional movie. Through the story of three characters, and even four, as there's one we don't actually see, who has disappeared, through this drama which is also pretty much a family affair, I wanted to talk about the country: what we lived through, what happened afterwards and what's happening now. With no ambition to tell the story of Algeria, nor to make a film which is either a tract or a documentary, I have tried to tell a story and ask myself certain questions.
Your repentant is both innocent and guilty?
He's a victim, like everyone else. I have tried to show a terrorist, without him being a caricature. I reach out to him in close-ups, in his moments of silence, capturing his eyes shining with emotion. It's not an easy thing to do. But he remains something of a blur, a man who is playing a game, who isn't clear. We can't tell whether he has really repented or not.
What was behind your choice of a thriller for the screenplay, with suspense and unspoken words?
It was a choice of how to tell the story. The film is structured like a thriller, with lots of ellipses. You don't give clues right from the start, you don't immediately realise what it's all about. My last-but-one film, Normal was very chatty, with youngsters discussing the current situation freely and openly. Here, I concentrate more on looks, situations, attitudes. Though I also wanted the film to have a certain sense of propriety.
You already took on the thorny subjet of a "dirty war" in Bab-el-Oued City. What was your approach this time?
I have had time to step back. I've had a career with lots of twists and turns. I sometimes want to do comedy, sometimes things a little more serious. Here, I ask myself questions about Algeria, its social and political plans, psychology, new generations… I don't always have the answers, but I am all for a vast debate that should be launched. We have experienced things that were so dreadful that we can't suddenly decide, like flipping a coin, to blanket them in silence: that would be heading towards something else without first having settled the problems which have undermined a whole society. How could we ever have reached the point of such savagery, such violence ? When I was filming in the forest that you see at the end of the movie, very beautiful, in superb weather, basking in natural greenery and extraordinary peacefulness, I wondered: how can one kill, massacre, in such places? Algeria is a very beautiful country, very diverse, but unfortunately it hasn't yet managed to click into what everyone is waiting for, especially the younger generations who are increasingly impatient and angry. In my last films, I have tried to set down the problems within the extent of my means.
Is the burden of the past the film's main topic?
People try to block out this very serious period by preferring to discuss the colonial period, which hasn't been dealt with properly either. I don't know what needs to be done, but I believe that we can have a nationalist option as in all other countries, we can talk about the colonial period, but we shouldn't block out what we lived through ourselves. Algerians killed each other without anyone's assistance, they massacred each other, cut each other's throats, and it lasted a very long time. There were thousands of victims, some people went into exile, others lost their memories etc. And when everything stops, we're supposed to forget! It's impossible. That's the only question I'm asking.
Was it easy to find funding for the film?
No. It's almost entirely self-financed. I used the money from a prize I won. I haven't had any funding from the cinema authorities in Algeria, who rejected my screenplay. I filmed the movie very quickly, in 20 days, with the means at my disposal. For example, I would have liked to be more mobile, with a Steadycam. It's a small film, but I had the dynamism of these actors and actresses pushing me on. During the shooting, I felt very young.