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Mathieu Gérault • Director of South Sentinel

"The belligerent art of war spilled through into the story and its characters"


- This promising French director’s debut feature is a film noir about a traumatised man who returns from the war against a backdrop of trafficking and a disillusioned search for a brotherhood of arms

Mathieu Gérault • Director of South Sentinel
Mathieu Gerault on set during the Emergence directing residency (© Marie Augustin/Emergence)

The first feature by France’s Mathieu Gérault, which also recently won the Bergamo Film Festival’s Audience Award, South Sentinel [+see also:
film review
interview: Mathieu Gérault
film profile
is due to be released in French cinemas on 27 April, courtesy of UFO Distribution. Written by the director in collaboration with Noé Debré and Nicolas Silhol, the movie was produced by Agat Films & Cie and stars Niels Schneider, Sofian Khammes, India Hair, Denis Lavant and Thomas Daloz in its cast.

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Cineuropa: Where did you get the idea for a film revolving around soldiers who are returning to civilian life and showing signs of post-traumatic stress?
Mathieu Gérault: It started with the idea of war, as an event but also as a feeling which I wanted to tackle: the feeling of being at war, besieged. I soon gravitated towards my characters being soldiers who were returning from war, which is a really interesting moment because it’s a time for self-reflection. I also wanted to depict my characters based on their childhoods, a period which might have dictated their decision to go to war, to meet a commander, to take a moral stand, to choose to do the noble thing, to go beyond oneself, to look for a courageous set of rituals in the transition to adulthood. It also allowed me to examine fraternity, disillusionment, the pain of coming home when you’ve lost brothers in arms.

How did you infuse the film with such credibility in terms of the codes of the military world?
Clearly, the talented actors who subsequently joined our project played a huge part in this. We needed authenticity during the writing phase, to access a certain truth. We did this via research. I didn’t want to meet any soldiers directly because I was looking for fiction, and to have distance and a space where I could develop the main character, Christian Lafayette. So I approached people who could talk about the experience soldiers have of coming home. I met lots of nurses and occupational therapists in military hospitals. I also watched a huge number of documentaries and read scores of books about various wars, notably Indochina, Algeria, Lebanon, Vietnam, Iraq, IDF operations, etc. The belligerent art of war spilled through into the story and its characters.

The film unfolds in the social context of the suburbs and the rural areas where these soldiers hail from.
I come from a very rural environment, from the wooded farmlands in the northern reaches of the Mayenne department, a region characterised by hunting, motocross and Catholicism. I wanted to make Christian quite a quiet character who’s very close to the land and give him a nervous and cunning sidekick who’s a bit more politically minded and who strives to understand what’s going on. It’s something I experienced when my parents separated, and we hurriedly moved on a social housing estate in Laval with our mother. It felt like Brooklyn, and I met someone called Mounir there who initiated me into the codes of the city. I’m also passionate about New Hollywood cinema, films such as Scarecrow and Midnight Cowboy, films about friendship, revolving around duos with real archetypal and very different characters, and all that fed into the fraternity you see in my film.

The story also touches upon the topic of integration.
It was important to me to explore this issue, and Sofian Khammes really took hold of the questions which the character of Mounir carries within himself: what is France? Where do we come from? In integration terms, it’s a baptism of fire, as these soldiers would say, for these youngsters of Maghrebi origin from troubled neighbourhoods, who must contend with disillusionment, racist experiences within the military apparatus, and the looks cast by the Muslim community when you’ve just returned from fighting in Afghanistan, for example: it’s anything but easy for them!

You’ve taken all these elements to create a film noir which also covers opium trafficking, a jewellery shop heist, gypsy gangsters from the Parisian suburbs, etc.
I discovered that tonnes of opium were found in a French army truck during the Indochina War. I haven’t heard of anything similar happening during the war in Afghanistan but given that the country is responsible for 80% of the world’s poppy cultivation, which reaches as far as Western pharmacopoeia, I thought it would be interesting to run with that idea, to reveal that people are patrolling in poppy fields and that it’s a geopolitical and economic issue. As for the film noir aspect, whilst the characters are mostly born out of my personal experiences, in this respect they’re actually motifs which represent my passion for film which I experienced alone for several years. I lived in the city like a foreigner, a little on the margins, just like Christian experiences it. And within this love for film, there were elements which I wanted to explore in my first film, elements from heist movies, romantic films and films about "brothers".

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(Translated from French)

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