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“Culture is the answer”

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Régis Wargnier • Director


- We met with the Oscar winning director Régis Wargnier at the Bari Bif&st, where he screened in the international competition his latest, thrilling film The Gate

Régis Wargnier  • Director

“I owe my life to a man who has killed thousands: an assassin”: these words mark the beginning of the story of François Bizot, a French ethnologist, captured and imprisoned unfairly in Cambodia, at the beginning of the 70s, by the Khmer Rouge who accused him of being a CIA spy. Bringing this true story to the big screen is Régis Wargnier – Oscar winning director for Indochine in 1993 – in his latest, thrilling film The Gate [+see also:
interview: Régis Wargnier
film profile
, selected in competition at the 6° Bif&st - Bari International Film Festival (21-28 March 2015). For Bizot (played wonderfully by Raphaël Personnaz), his only hope for survival is to convince Douch (Kompheak Phoeung), the chief of the camp in which he is being detained, of his innocence. Aside from the roles that History has assigned to them, between these two young men – the victim and the executioner – an indescribable bond forms. And when years later he will be called on to testify on Douch’s human rights crimes, Bizot will find himself torn apart.   

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Cineuropa: Even in the extreme situation of a prison in the midst of the jungle, your film doesn’t neglect to narrate the humanity of prisons. How did you manage to do this?
Régis Wargnier: Executioners are human beings, if you forget that then you can’t understand how certain things happen and you won’t find solutions to fanaticism. Nowadays the same is true for Islamic fundamentalists; ideological fanaticism transforms people into executioners. For me it’s a mystery, I haven’t found an answer but I’ve tried to perceive something during the moments in which the two protagonists are close, like when they recite poetry in French. What saved Bizot was the fact that he knew the khmer language and culture, and Douch knew the French language and culture. Perhaps culture is the answer. Too many ignorant people don’t think, don’t have it in them to change and to better themselves. The boys depicted in the film were really young, they were illiterate peasants. Their country, which wasn’t at war, had been bombed for a year, and Vietnam was on the border. It was easy for a khmer to convince these peasants to join them, in the name of justice.

The Gate is based on a true story. How did you come to know of it?
My father was in the army, and the French colonial war has always been a part of my life and my sensitivity. I read François Bizot’s book (The Gate) fifteen years ago, and I immediately thought that it should become a movie. But when I met the author, he wasn’t ready to become the film character, already writing the book he had revisited some very painful emotions. Then, many years later, Douch was arrested and became the first khmer to be judged for crimes against humanity. Bizot thought that he was dead; he was torn apart because he didn’t know whether to return to Cambodia and see his captor once again or to stay in France. I saw him again at that time and I told him that perhaps, now that the story had a different perspective, the time was right to make a movie out of it. All that was missing was the third element in order to make a movie out of this story: the meeting between Bizot and Douch before the trial in Phnom Penh. 

Which style and language did you choose to deal with this story?
When you’re telling a true story, you have to have complete respect. I worked on the screenplay with the author’s best friend, in that way he felt protected. Then preparing the film, we decided not to have music. I love music in cinema, but here there wasn’t any suitable. Thus we worked on the sounds, which became very important: the voices, the khmer language, the forest sounds, the empty city. I preferred to always have two cameras, in order to maintain a constant dynamic in telling the story. That was useful particularly for the actor playing Douch, Kompheak Phoeung. In actual fact he’s a professor of French literature, who had never acted before, but had been the interpreter for the real Douch in court: a sign of fate.

And Raphaël Personnaz? Why him in the role of Bizot?
The producer tried to convince me to take on a more well-known actor, but I wanted an actor around thirty years old, like Bizot at the time, as well as with his Northern European physique and blue eyes. Because Personnaz is less famous, when we see him onscreen we believe him more easily. I wanted to be as close as possible to reality. He was fantastic, he lost weight, he learned the khmer language, he spent a lot of time in Asia, in the forest, in difficult conditions. The site we chose for filming is two and a half hours by car from the archaeological site of Angkor, I wanted absolute silence. We had no comforts, but we were all very happy to live this experience.

(Translated from Italian)

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