Fine grains of truth
An award- winning film tells a story about France’s Arab migrants, writes Rosalie Higson
COUSCOUS with fish, that spicy, delicious North African dish, is at the centre of a contemporary drama from France. Released here as The Secret of the Grain , the film’s original title is La Graine et le Mulet : the grain and the mullet.
Nourishment is at the heart of Abdel Kechiche’s film, which he wrote and directed. It’s set in the port town of Sete, in the south of France. This is not the glamorous place where the Euro rich play, although Sete has its share of yachts, a beautiful beach, a historic quay and plenty of French provincial loveliness. It is also a working port, with trawlers, fish markets and sprawling, ramshackle wharfs, where cars are ferried between France and Morocco. There are also the crowded apartment blocks where the waterside workers and their families live.
Kechiche dedicated the film to his father: The Secret of the Grain is about a man’s struggle to support his family, to open a couscous restaurant against all odds, and to elicit some kind of respect from his family and French society.
Born in Tunisia in 1960, and reared in a working- class family in France, Kechiche knows something about the tensions among an extended migrant family in a hostile land.
‘‘ There are a lot of scenes in the film based on my own experience — for instance, the big dinner scene and all the family scenes — but the story is not literally the story of my father,’’ he says by phone from a cafe by the sea in Tunis, where he is holidaying.
‘‘ I dedicated it to him because I wanted to make a film about that generation of men who migrated to France and worked in France and who have kept silent all these years. There is nothing written about them.’’
The Secret of the Grain is Kechiche’s third film. His second, L’Esquive , about working- class immigrant teenagers in the Paris suburbs, won France’s Cesar award for best film in 2005. French cinema legend Claude Berri is a fan: he admired L’Esquive and wanted to produce Kechiche’s next film. During a two- year period, Kechiche showed him several scripts, among them The Secret of the Grain .
‘‘ Berri was so keen to do the film that, in fact, it was not too difficult to find the money,’’ Kechiche says. Berri’s confidence in the multistrand family drama was not misplaced: the film took the special jury prize at the 2007 Venice film festival, and best film and best director at the 2008 Cesars ( beating La Vie en Rose , the Oscarwinning Edith Piaf biopic). Kechiche also took out the Louis Delluc highest film honours.
Kechiche is fond of long takes, often focusing on a scene for an uncomfortable length of time. He prefers to work with professional and nonprofessional actors: ‘‘ The actors bring the technique, the experience, the method, while the young actors bring their own freshness. The mixture of the two brings a lot of energy to the film, that exchange between rigour and concentration, and this kind of gift that the non- actors bring.’’
Habib Boufares plays 60- year- old Slimane Beiji, retrenched after 35 years working as a boat builder in the Sete dockyards. His weatherbeaten looks, world- weary air and restrained
France’s performance are reminiscent of Clint Eastwood.
‘‘ He was never an actor, he worked on a building site,’’ says Kechiche, who was introduced by his father to Boufares years ago and was struck by the man’s presence. ‘‘ You will recognise immediately that he has an aura, some truth coming out of him, which I thought would be perfect for the character of Slimane.’’
And when he discovered young Hafsia Herzi at an audition, Kechiche was bowled over: ‘‘ It was an exceptional encounter because I immediately recognised that she had something that is very rare, an incredible gift as an actor, and she was able to put a lot of her own belief in the character.
‘‘ She has that other rare thing, that when she appears on the screen you can’t help noticing her, she drags everyone else.’’
Herzi won best- newcomer awards at the Cesars and in Venice for her performance as Rym, the teenage daughter of Slimane’s lover, who becomes his unlikely ally in his quest to open a restaurant on a derelict hulk. While his family rallies to lend a hand with the heavy lifting and offer endless advice, Rym helps Slimane negotiate with the banks and the unbending French bureaucracy. Meanwhile, there are dramas within the family: fraught relationships, roving husbands, feckless youths, dissatisfied young mothers, unemployment, never enough money and, underlying everything, society’s general suspicion of Arabs.
There is also great love and, although the film is dedicated to the Arab men, women play an important role: they are the cooks whose recipes will make Slimane’s restaurant successful and, ultimately, they are the ones keeping the family together.
Kechiche says he never wanted to follow his father into the building trade: ‘‘ It’s very difficult to know one’s motivation to become something, but I always had aspirations to do something artistic.’’ He started in the theatre and had his first stage role at 18. Finding this unsatisfying, he turned to writing and directing, and released his first film in 2000. ‘‘ Through acting, I couldn’t express enough what I wanted to express, and there were so many things I wanted to say, particularly about that particular world, that social milieu, which is not well represented in French cinema,’’ he says. ‘‘ Also, I felt a feeling of a duty, that I needed to tell those stories about some of those characters.’’
Critics loved his film, French audiences were interested without making it a huge hit: ‘‘ People were touched by the description of the social milieu. Some spectators may have been disconcerted by the way the story is told; some recognised themselves in the film and thought that it was important the story be told.’’
For all that, Kechiche doesn’t want to become cemented into the role of spokesman for France’s Arab migrants.
‘‘ I don’t want to make the next film as if it was a recipe that I always follow. It all depends on financing, but I may do something that is the complete opposite of what I have been doing, a story set in the 18th century, a remarkably different way of making and shooting a film.’’
from The Secret of the Grain is on in Sydney and Melbourne and will be shown in other cities later.
Attention- grabbing performance: Hafsia Herzi as Rym in The Secret of the Grain
Winning blend: A family meal scene from the film