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“Arts have the potential to transform society”

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Neïl Beloufa • Director

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- TORONTO 2017: Visual artist Neïl Beloufa picks apart Western prejudice in his second feature, Occidental, which has had its North American premiere in the Wavelengths section

Neïl Beloufa  • Director

Drawing on his celebrated career as a visual artist, Neïl Beloufa is exploring a more experimental form of cinema as a film director. His sophomore feature, Occidental [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Neïl Beloufa
film profile
]
, enjoyed its North American premiere in the Wavelengths programme of the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival. Cineuropa sat down with the French filmmaker to discuss today’s prejudices, his influences and the role of artists in changing a society.

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Cineuropa: Do you feel that we live in a world full of prejudice?
Neïl Beloufa: I think that prejudices are human; the non-prejudiced “society” is a construction that we associate with progress or openness. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but making society believe that there is no such thing as prejudices, racism or social class is as dangerous as officially defending those notions.

Why did you decide to set the action in the claustrophobic and closed surroundings of the Hotel Occidental?
It was a pragmatic choice, a matter of budget, as the film is self-financed. I already knew how to construct it, and I was renting a big studio at the time. So the cheapest way to maintain control over my shoot was to build the set myself. Apart from that, I kind of like the concept of huis-clos and movies that are built on nothing – without the safety net of a beautiful landscape or any other valuable production elements. I really enjoy the micro-tensions that this environment creates.

Is Occidental a visual artistic installation, or do you feel closer to classical narrative cinema?
I had hoped that it would be a narrative project, and that is what I tried to do, but at the end of the day, since I directed it and wrote it, I could only go by what I have the most experience in, which is not classical, constrained films.

Not much has been said about the influences for your film; what was the main inspiration behind Occidental?
I don’t know if we can call them inspirations, but the movies I was thinking about while writing it were Trouble in Paradise (1932) by Ernst Lubitsch, Johnny Guitar (1954) by Nicholas Ray, Some Came Running (1958) by Vincente Minnelli and Muriel (1963) by Alain Resnais. What I enjoy in those four films is the way they don’t reveal what they really are, and the way they portray a structure of society that was never thought of before. In Lubitsch’s movie, the social classes are abolished temporarily, as the rich and the poor, who are corrupt, have a common desire for luxury goods. With Ray, it’s a matriarchally structured movie, and it has the most beautiful love scene I have ever seen. In Minnelli’s, the Republicans and the Democrats oppose each other in a village, but both refuse to face a community that includes drinkers, prostitutes and gamblers, which Sinatra preferred to join in the end. Finally, in Resnais’ film, everything is a construction – history, traumas, love – and you just get these feelings without clearly understanding the script, which does not actually focus on its main subject, Muriel.

You’ve previously stated that you don’t want to take art “seriously”; can artists change society, though?
What I meant is that the only coherent political position, from a global standpoint, is to be distant and not to reproduce the systems we criticise. We cannot be too affirmative or play the experts, the heroes or the serious, fair people, since we are part of this system and we are as complex and corrupt as it is. I believe that arts are important, and I hope they might have the potential to transform society, but I don’t believe that we, as individual artists, can do that on our own.

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