On the fringes of lawlessness, an arsonist saves his victim
Pascal Elbé’s directorial debut is set in France’s immigrant suburbs
A lawless French suburb of concrete high-rises where immigrants eke out a living, the youths run in gangs, and the cops make occasional forays to bust a few heads – that’s the gritty setting for Tête de turc, a taut new drama getting its international premiere in official competition at the World Film Festival.
The 87-minute film marks the directorial debut of Pascal Elbé, who also wrote the screenplay and plays one of the main characters, an emergency physician who’s nearly killed when a Molotov cocktail is thrown at his car after youths mistake it for a police vehicle.
With the case making national headlines, the doctor’s elder brother ( Roschdy Zem), a policeman, is assigned to investigate. What neither knows is that the 14-year-old French Turk ( Samir Makhlouf) who threw the firebomb had a bout of remorse after he did the deed and, before fleeing, actually rescued the unconscious doctor from the burning car.
Word of the good deed gets around and the authorities go looking for the boy to give him a medal for civic bravery. Should he tell the truth, or accept the award as payback for police brutality in the ’ burbs?
Based on a true story, the meticulously researched film was a project close to its auteur’s heart. It’s a multilayered tale of mixed ethnicities ( an Armenian in the film, Elbé is himself of Algerian Jewish origin) and the immigrant “ problem” that continues to define modern-day France.
“ As a father, as someone who’d decided to be responsible in life, I started to ask myself why our society is getting less and less responsible and more and more individualistic. I wanted to talk about that,” Elbé said in an interview yesterday after the premiere at the Imperial Cinema.
“ At the same time, I didn’t want to make a heavy, political film,” said the 43-year-old filmmaker, who starred with Philippe Noiret in Père et fils, a 2003 family comedy he co-wrote and which was partly shot in Quebec.
“ My first film as a director honours those I most admire, like James Gray
Tête de turc screens at Quartier Latin 10 today at 5: 10 p. m. with English subtitles. It opens in cinemas Sept. 10 for a full theatrical run. ( We Own the Night, Two Lovers) and Paul Haggis ( Crash, In the Valley of Elah). It’s made on a human scale, and it doesn’t judge people.
“ I didn’t want to take my audience hostage by hammering home a message. I wanted an emotional film.”
Midway into the movie, though, the politics peep through. Preparing for the medal ceremony, the “ hero” boy’s little brother says he won’t shake the hand of France’s president, “ because he scares me.”
Was that Elbé’s way of taking a dig at Nicolas Sarkozy?
“ Sarkozy doesn’t scare me but his politics do – the security politics that now reign in France, the repression that Sarkozy started,” the director said.
“ But all the same, I’m not really anti-Sarkozy. I’m not anti-anything. As I explain in the film, police aren’t all swine and hoodlums don’t all deserve to be locked up. The truth lies between the two.”
Elbé cast himself in the film “ because I didn’t feel like going all around Paris meeting actors who’d rather play the role of the policeman, so the easiest route was to play the role myself.
“ The character is me; he’s giving my point of view when he says of those young hoodlums, ‘ What do you want to do with them? Drown them all?’ ”
As a writer, his favourite character is the teenager’s no-nonsense mother, played by Ronit Elkabetz, an Israeli star. “ I think of the mother as a cowboy in a skirt. She keeps her dignity, because if she falls, everything else does. Through her, I wanted to pay homage to all those mothers in the banlieues who raise the kids alone because the husband has gone. I chose an actress who reminds me of those great Italian stars of the postwar period, like Anna Magnani. We had to work a little bit on Ronit’s French, but she speaks the language really well.”
After years of acting and writing scripts, why did Elbé decide to finally direct?
“ Because I told myself I’m a big boy now,” Elbé replied. “ I had my fun as a scriptwriter, but there were frustrations, too. It’s always hard to let go of your script and put it in the hands of a director. And since this subject was close to my heart, I decided I wasn’t going to let go this time. I decided to go right to the end of the adventure – and I’m very happy how it turned out.”
His next project? Writing and directing a second film, this time about the true story of a con man who swindles the top multinationals in France and, with an international warrant out for his arrest, goes into hiding.
“ I’ve been to see the man and I want to make a film with him. No title yet, but it’ll be a film in the vein of Catch Me If You Can.”
Will he play in it, just as he did in Tête de turc? “ I don’t know. I haven’t even thought about that yet.”
Tête de turc director Pascal Elbé also wrote the screenplay and plays one of the main characters, a physician who narrowly escapes death.