Return to Bollene is Saïd Hamich's first feature film, yet the young director is hardly a stranger to the film profession— after graduating in film production from the Fémis in Paris, he became an executive producer on a variety of well-regarded films, including Boris Lojkine's Hope, and both founded Barney Production, his own production company in France, and partnered with Montfleuri Production in Casablanca. Through these entities Hamich has produced fifteen shorts for international directors including, most notably, Zakaria by critically acclaimed Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid— who later went on to direct her first feature, As I Open My Eyes—for which he received the award for best producer at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival in 2013. His portfolio as producer also lists several features by award-winning filmmakers including two critically acclaimed films by fellow Moroccans: Nabil Ayouch's Much Loved and Faouzi Bensaidi's Volubilis. Hamich is emphatic that he will keep producing, although he would welcome the possibility of another directing experience if, once again, a subject comes to him with the urgency Return to Bollene did (1).
While not strictly autobiographical, Return to Bollene has personal significance for the director, who also wrote the script and produced the film. Born in Fez, Morocco, in 1986, Hamich moved with his parents to the South of France and lived with his mother for three years in Bollène while attending high school, before leaving to study cinema production in Paris. Hence protagonist Nassim's return to Bollène is also Saïd's return to Bollène, even if the convergent circuit of protagonist and director might well end there. Hamich insists that the film's personal dimension consists in his take on French suburbs and the banlieue films he accuses of always treating the topic of marginalized communities in French suburbs in a dramatic fashion, reducing them to the rehashed narratives of drugs and violence, without paying attention to the personal, individual dimensions of the their lives. The clichéd tropes of banlieue films since Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 Hatred / La Haine are definitely absent here— gone the gangs of Banlieue 13 / District (Pierre Morel, 2004), the detectives of De l'autre côté du périph / On the Other Side of the Tracks (Bertrand Tavernier, 2012), the sex and violence of Girlhood / Bande de filles (Céline Sciamma, 2014), or the drugs of Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016). In Return to Bollene, Hamich "wanted to film the France— my France— that never gets shown at the movies… through one character and his family," adding that it was important for him to film in his old town.
Bollène is rather typical of the Provence region of France in its recent political veering to the right and its abandonment of the population it 'hosts' in derelict projects that sprawl into cold, nondescript suburbs. Marie-Claude Bompart, who has been the city's mayor since 2008, co-founded the League of the South with her husband, Jacques Bompart, mayor of Orange. The League's ideology is founded on a pure Provençal and Catholic identity— as opposed to the Front National's French identity— to defend against encroachments by the ‘outside' at all costs. Among other bizarre racist, xenophobic and homophobic statements, the League of the South calls for the closing of French borders to block all foreigners from entering (2). Although Saïd Hamich clearly locates his film against the social and political backdrop of Bollène, he does not film the very real issues of the region frontally, but rather lets them filter through his main character's private story. By focusing on Nassim's perspective of the city as he meanders through his old neighborhood, rather than on the squalor of the projects and their various ills, Hamich avoids the pitfalls of banlieue filmic narratives.
The film follows Nassim, a well-to-do thirty-something, who returns to visit his mother and siblings in Bollène after spending four years in Abu Dhabi. He has an American girlfriend, Elisabeth, whom he introduces to his mother and siblings as his fiancée. He appears as a visitor in a distantly remembered city rather than an Odyssean character returning to family and old haunts. Some people have not changed, like his half-brother, but others have been completely transformed during his absence— his revered history teacher, who was once a die-hard Marxist, now belongs to the League of the South. Nassim clearly has shed his Bollène skin, as he freely admits to his sister: "I don't want to be an Arab from Bollène." In fact, the very first images of the film show the tall towers of Abu Dhabi by night and its famous Bab al Qasr hotel, as Nassim takes in the gliding view from a taxi en route to the airport. Already, his refusal to be 'an Arab from Bollène' manifests in his English response to the Arab-speaking cabdriver and his phone-call to his girlfriend whom he will meet in Paris at the Train Bleu, a posh restaurant at Gare de Lyon. When he and Elisabeth arrive in Bollène, they do not go to his family home but to a hotel, much to his mother’s chagrin. Nassim wishes to avoid his father at all costs.
The film pits Nassim against his city as a marker of the past he has tried to escape. Nassim is played by Moroccan actor Anas el Baz, a star in Morocco since the 2008 film Noureddine Lakhmari's Casanegra. Anas el Baz was chosen for his talent as well as his ability to speak French, Moroccan darija and English fluently. For Return to Bollene poses the issue of immigrant communities' language and identity in stark terms. Nassim's parents only speak darija, and in order to free himself Nassim starts to learn and speak English until it becomes his own language— that of his girlfriend, of his new life, of his new self in Abu Dhabi. At first, he appears as an unpleasant character, set in his ways, self-absorbed, unable to communicate his feelings, isolated and consumed by his resentment towards his father. The carefully-crafted identity that Nassim has built for himself is not monolithic and starts to show cracks. But it takes the entire film for his deep vulnerability to gradually surface and be revealed. El Baz is sober and nuanced in his acting so that his character always teeters on the verge of emotional revelation while he keeps a stiff upper lip. It is his best film performance so far.
Opposite him, the cityscape of Bollène is shown with a sweeping panning camera as Nassim drives through a town emptied of resources and workers. Bollène is thus introduced with a startling contrast— the local mayor's poster campaign claiming "Bollène: one city, one identity" is juxtaposed with shots of crumbling projects, empty spaces in which kids play soccer, clean circles for cars to drive around, a night vista of the city and its neighboring power plant looming in the near horizon of the suburbs. The old medieval city of Bollène sits perched on a rocky mass that remains off screen, and thus irrelevant— the French people who have resided there for generations do not mix with the population of Maghrebi origin, most of them Moroccan, who reside below. The resulting landscape is disjointed and belies the mayor's proud poster at the beginning of the film with an insidious disorienting effect. The 'return' to Bollène proves impossible because Bollène does not clearly exist onscreen— just as the 'return' home cannot happen because there is no space for a real home in this lifeless divided city in Provence.