Fine grains of truth

An award- win­ning film tells a story about France’s Arab mi­grants, writes Ros­alie Hig­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

Prize, one

of

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.’’

your

at­ten­tion

away

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

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