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Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire • Director

"It’s about him battling his demons"


- Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire talks to Cineuropa about his powerful film A Prayer Before Dawn, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and is hitting French screens this week

Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire • Director

We met up with Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire in Paris, a French filmmaker who has embarked on a unique journey outside the borders of his native country. First noticed for his film Johnny Mad Dog [+see also:
film profile
– awarded in the Un Certain Regard at Cannes film festival in 2008 – there were yet further rumblings of excitement on the Croisette this year at the Midnight Session with his second feature film, A Prayer Before Dawn [+see also:
interview: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
film profile
, which stars Joe Cole (John Shelby in Peaky Blinders) and is due to be released this week in French cinemas by Wild Bunch.

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Cineuropa: When your producer showed you Billy Moore's autobiography, what made you want to make a film adaptation?
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire: It was a real mix of perspectives. Somewhere between a genre, prison and boxing film, which is always interesting to capture on film because they are equally interesting universes, and the fact that it was based on a true story meant that we could approach reality by using fiction, almost like a documentary crossed with a genre film.

What about Thai boxing?
That was also interesting because there aren't many Thai boxing films about, other than the Ong-Bak films and a few other martial arts films. It brought something extra to the film, beyond the English-style boxing that we often see on screen. There are also various other aspects that I really like, such as those to do with physicality, confrontation and the body – more so than words.

Why choose only non-professional actors – other than Joe Cole who stars in the leading role as a prison governor?
I'm really interested in creating something authentic. I thought that using ex-prisoners might allow for an experience that resulted in a realistic film, rather than something that came directly from the imagination of the scriptwriter or director. The film is a reflection on Billy’s mental state and him battling his demons, and how these demons are projected onto his surroundings – Thai gang members, covered head to toe in tattoos. Most of them have spent 10 to 15 years in prison. And the boxers in the film, who are also ex-prisoners, also have different bodies that have been sculpted due to training. That sort of thing can't be replicated when using an actor. The only person without that was Billy, and he had to work out before filming commenced, given that it was necessary for the role. He did some boxing training in order to sculpt his body into somewhat of a shell, a coat of armour, so that he could hold his own against the people in the prison he was thrown into, where he was forced to survive in an initially hostile environment and where he would ultimately find himself and paradoxically his own freedom in such a limited space.

Do all of your films explore the subject of violence? Why does this particular theme fascinate you so much?
I guess it's about continuity. Johnny Mad Dog ended with kids who were entirely abandoned after the war, having seen all that trauma and being forced to kill. How are they going to handle this violence when they become adults? Billy is a bit older, he was physically abused by his father and sought refuge in drugs. How does he end up realising that he needs to escape drugs and violence, because if not, only suicide awaits him? His three years in prison were a way of working on his own violence, and boxing was a sort of therapy. My reflection on violence is about how you can escape it when it becomes harmful. And it can harm everyone in different ways. How do you go about managing it, attempting to get rid of it, overcoming and fighting it? It’s a film about the violence of survival, real violence, rather than the entertainment-style violence that some films have a tendency to lean towards. I’m personally interested in trying to understand this more realistic type of violence, like the violence we see in A Prayer Before Dawn.

Do you have any updates on your current project, Addicted to Violence?
It's about a photographer who captures violence on film and travels the world, visiting different countries (Guatemala, Afghanistan, Syria, etc.) in order to try to understand it, but he is increasingly affected by said violence. It's about how he goes in search of a certain type of violence in order to understand it. I've finished the first draft of the screenplay, the project is currently in search of funding, and during the meantime I'm continuing research on the subject.

(Translated from French)

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