Saïd Hamich is a Moroccan-French producer, screenwriter and film director. He has produced several award-winning films such as Boris Lojkine's Hope, Nabil Ayouch's Much Loved and Faouzi Bensaidi's Volubilis. Hamich's directorial debut Return to Bollene premiered at Festival du Cinéma Méditerranéen Manarat, Tübingen - Stuttgart Festival International du Film Francophone, and Festival France Odeon, where it won a Jury Special Mention.
In an exclusive interview for Filmatique, Hamich discusses France, the power of language, caricatures of the banlieue and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: Return to Bollenetraces the return of Nassim, a well-to-do Frenchman of Moroccan origins, to his hometown after a four year absence in Abu Dhabi. Once in Bollene Nassim must confront not just the place but the people he left behind. When did you first think of telling this story, and when did the project take on urgency for you as a filmmaker?
SAÏD HAMICH: One year before shooting, I felt no special desire to make a film as a director. Maybe Return to Bollene was already unconsciously inside me, but it sprang up with brutality. The trigger occurred the day my mother called me to announce she was about to leave Bollene. It was good news; I was happy for her. She would live in a less sinister city with new opportunities. Bollene, the city where I grew up, was about to be erased from my life. I wouldn't have to set foot there ever again.
Yet this "good news" plunged me deep into melancholy, as if something had been ripped away from me. I understood Bollene was a very interesting place to talk about a certain France— my France. Very quickly this realization gave birth to the project more clearly. The man who comes back, who questions a place, a territory and thus questions the others and plunges us into reflections on identity. Once this trans-class figure took form, the film was born.
FLMTQ: Language is a form of power, a theory proposed most prominently by Michel Foucault in his discussion of the relationship between knowledge and systems of social control. Nassim speaks French, English and Moroccan darija fluently and is seen adapting the language he speaks depending on what he wants from each situation. In contrast, his parents have lived France for years but still speak darija exclusively. To what extent do you see power relations manifest themselves in France, and especially the country's immigrant communities, through the mobilization of language? How do the linguistic skills of Nassim and his parents communicate their respective power positions within these structures?
SH: This is a fundamental question. Unconsciously, Nassim speaks English to overcome the curse of French, the language his parents never managed to tame. French is the place of their exclusion. Speaking English with his American fiancée is a way to break his link with Bollene. Nassim had to leave the French language, as well as French territory, to climb the social ladder and eventually invent a new identity for himself, in which he would no longer suffer degradation.
In this way, Alain Bashung's songs are a melancholic link to Nassim's denied roots. Eventually, even though he cannot accept it, his identity is to be an Arab from France. To move forward, he must create filiations rather than fracture.
FLMTQ: Unlike more exploitative banlieue films,Return to Bolleneis an intimate, personal story of family, identity, and social bonds. As Nassim navigates his old city, however, the presence of right-wing politics is detected through several elements of the mise-en-scène. In your opinion, what is the best way to mediate the personal through the political in filmmaking, and vice versa?
SH: While the banlieue in French cinema is a popular theme, it is rarely questioned. It is a source of images: abandoned cars, trafficking, slang. I'm much more interested in the issue of identity. Who can you be when you're born in a cité? Nassim's return raises this question.
In most of these films the banlieue is caricatured, over-dramatized: it's only about talking, running, robbing, cars burning. But my own experience of the cité is of boredom and emptiness. It's the feeling of being alone, completely cut off from the city and from the country. It's a feeling of being left out. I wanted to plunge into the intimacy of a man and a family to convey this feeling. Everything had to remain concrete.
In my opinion, fiction cannot provide the support for activism or theory. I didn't want to promote my views but rather raise questions. How does this territory result in deadlock? Let's consider Nassim's old teacher who turned to the far-right political wing. I'm not interested in his political discourse but rather in his personal flaws. I wonder, when did he give up and abandon the collective?
FLMTQ: In addition to directing Return to Bollene, your first feature, you have produced and executive-produced several acclaimed films including Boris Lojkine's Hope and Nabil Ayouch's Much Loved, as well as Leyla Bouzid's short film Zakaria. What skill sets are most essential for directing in distinction to producing, and how did your experience as a producer serve as an asset on set of Return to Bollene?
SH: I produce author-driven films, it's my main job and an artistic practice in its own right. It taught me to develop a comprehensive vision of cinema as a whole and an ability to master its different stages. I find fascinating to follow a project from its first steps to its distribution. As a director you must fully assume paternity and authorship. You cannot hide yourself. It's a different positioning. You must unveil yourself.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
SH: I'm executive producing Lucas Belvaux's next film about the Algerian war, produced by David Frenkel. It’s an exciting script with great ambition. And I'll produce Zanka Contact by Ismael El Iraki, a first feature shot in 35mm, a musical and a love story set in underground Casablanca. We are developing several other projects in France and Morocco.
I try to find the time to develop my own projects. I wrote a short film about the story of a boy who must leave his mother and Morocco to live in France with his father. It's a film about memory and childhood.
And I'm beginning a longer work that will take time— the story of a group of friends over a fifteen years period from the 1980s and their arrival in Marseille from Oran in Algeria. It will be a film about Raï and the Ghorba (exile). Music will play a central role.