Jawad Rhalib • Director of Amal
“I chose to tackle this subject through fiction, because it was very difficult to do so through the documentary format”
- Cineuropa met with the Belgian-Moroccan filmmaker whose new film takes us to the heart of the educational powder keg that represents a Brussels school
Jawad Rhalib’s filmography navigates between fiction and documentary, always around strong topics, and from a politically engaged viewpoint. Unveiled as a premiere at Film Fest Gent and soon in competition at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Amal [+see also:
interview: Jawad Rhalib
film profile] is no exception, as it questions the freedom of expression of teachers, and thus, to a certain point, of students.
Cineuropa: What are the origins of this project?
Jawad Rhalib: I did a lot of screenings for schools with my documentary When Arabs Danced [+see also:
film profile], which talked about the relationship between art and Arab culture. We realised that there was a real danger regarding the point of view that some young people in the North Brussels schools defended. Always a minority of the students, but the majority remains silent. I talked with a lot of teachers and school principals, who off-mic describe a catastrophic situation, but no one dares speak about it. That’s when the idea of treating this question through fiction took root, all the more so that during the writing period, there was the murder of Samuel Paty, which unfortunately came as no surprise to me. I think this kind of gesture was expected, in particular by politicians, who turn a blind eye to the situation. In order to avoid losing voters, some prefer to push the dust under the carpet, there’s real hypocrisy. I had the feeling that teachers were abandoned, that they were scared, and didn’t dare speak up. So I decided to tackle this subject through fiction, because it was very complicated to do so through the documentary format. Speech isn’t free.
How did you decide to give shape to this question?
From the very beginning of the writing process, I had Lubna Azabal in mind to play Amal, this teacher who defends freedom of speech. I involved her very early on. We worked together for almost two years, exchanging and talking. This character symbolises exactly what I want to say, to scream, even. She couldn’t be just a tool at my service, she had to be convincing. Lubna has experienced similar situations, in particular when defending her films in front of young people.
For the religion teacher, I wanted to get away from the cliché of the North African teacher who wears a beard and a djellaba, and show a teacher in a suit and tie who distils his radicalism. We had to get as close to reality as possible, especially since I’ve sometimes been accused of islamophobia, a real hurt for me, when I released When Arabs Danced for instance, and it was therefore important for me that all the actors get involved, that we got as close to reality as possible.
The nerve centre of the story remains the school, but there are also a few forays into the private lives of a handful of characters.
I wanted to show several faces of Muslims. My mother and my sister are believers and practising. It isn’t Islam that I’m attacking, but an interpretation of Islam that above all is very harmful to Muslims. In Amal’s Islam, Mounia’s father is the open-mindedness that rules everything.
Within the school, what takes precedence is the observers who stay mute, who don’t take sides.
That’s what is taking place in schools. People would rather not speak. A Brussels religion teacher wanted to talk about homosexuality in class and got fired by the school because he’d wanted to talk about a subject that hurt certain sensibilities. We don’t even let the law do its job. It’s at once hypocrisy and fear.
These teenagers are at a moment in their lives where they are very malleable.
I’ve experienced in cinemas some screenings where students who were silent in class came to thank me discreetly for having opened their eyes. Sometimes, all you need is to flip a switch. We mustn’t be afraid to address any kind of subject. If we’re scared of upsetting young people, we leave them at the mercy of fundamentalist manipulators. And young people also refer to dangerous texts on the internet, that we must deconstruct, we have to offer them something else.
Why was it so important to you to make a radical film?
Because I’m pessimistic. I think the deradicalisation of the youth is a very complex process, and which can be very slow. We must sound the alarm on the situation, and I believe in the power of fiction to alert people. I think the notion of living together today is utopian. We have to see what is happening in the banlieues. The situation is very worrisome.
(Translated from French)
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