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“I didn’t want to make a biopic”

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Etienne Comar • Director

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- BERLIN 2017: French filmmaker Etienne Comar spills the details on Django, premiering in competition in Berlin

Etienne Comar • Director
(© Berlinale Goes Kiez)

Flanked by actors Reda Kateb and Cécile de France, French screenwriter and producer Etienne Comar shared all the details of Django [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
Q&A: Etienne Comar
film profile
]
, his first feature film as a director, with an audience of international press. The film has just enjoyed its world premiere as the opening film of 67th Berlin International Film Festival.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

Why did you choose Django Reinhardt as the subject of your directorial debut?
Etienne Comar: First of all, he was an artist, a genius of swing jazz, who made music that was just extraordinarily vibrant. He’s someone who has interested me for a long time, because I’ve been a great fan of his since I was young. I’ve always had a real feel for music, I’ve made music myself, and I have always admired the freedom of musicians — their ability to withdraw from the world around them into their own time and space. This is also a time in Django Reinhardt’s life that most people know little about. He’s best known for the pre-war period, when he first started to rise to fame alongside Stéphane Grappelli, with his European tours and his swing music, which was the cutting-edge music of the time. However, I soon found out that there is very little biographical information about Django: I had to piece the story together from various books and from talking to people, but I stand by the fictional core of the film. With Reda Kateb, we were trying to portray the character in a way that preserved the mystery surrounding him, and to recreate a figure who was full of contradictions. I focused on the war period, given that it fit with the story I wanted to tell: the capacity of musicians to remain in their own world in a very difficult moment in history, to the point of not being fully aware of what was happening around them. I didn’t want to make a biopic, so I decided that focusing exclusively on a two-year period would allow me to convey a great deal about the dedication of artists that comes across in their passion and their art. We can see that Django was a divisive figure. He wasn’t a hero; he was just trying to live his music in a complex time — but in the end, the requiem that he wrote was his response as an artist, and I found that very moving.

Is it a political film? Does it tell us something about the world we live in today?
After choosing this period I realised that it had a lot in common with today’s world: refugees, freedom of movement, the status of artists, the choice of whether or not to perform for audiences who hold ideas you don’t agree with... Music is also at the very heart of the lives of the Tzigane, a people who have suffered so much tragedy over the course of history, and who have repeatedly found themselves forced to move on, to emigrate to a new country. We see these things every time a totalitarian or terrorist regime starts to crack down on social freedoms; we see how music comes under attack. It is no coincidence that in the film we see Nazi propaganda targeting the fusion that you find in music, trying to impose the rules of jazz, when by its very nature it is a music that requires freedom.

How much music is in the film, particularly the requiem?
The music by Django that you hear in the film was recorded by the Rosenberg trio before filming started. Along with Biréli Lagrène, they are the best performers of this kind of music today. It was really important for the dynamics of the film that Reda Kateb be surrounded by real musicians, not actors, and that’s what guided the casting process. As for the requiem, Django played it just before the war, but he never transcribed it — only the first few bars of the organ part. I thought it would be really interesting to ask a present-day musician to use those notes as inspiration for composing their own imagining of what Django’s requiem might have been like. I met Warren Ellis, who has a background in rock music and plays with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He’s not the kind of musician who would be naturally inclined to compose for a symphony orchestra, and in that respect he’s a bit like Django at the time when he was crossing over from jazz. The only thing we know about the requiem is that it was composed for organ, chorus and strings, and those were the only three parameters I gave to Warren. The words are in Romani; it’s a bit of a “weepy” song, because Django was a devotee of sacred music — he was a great admirer of Bach, for example.

(Translated from French)

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