What interested you about the world of undocumented people in Paris?
My wish for this film, Et toujours nous marcherons, was to write a tragedy. I wanted to unfold my story around people with a great deal at stake. Which is the case for undocumented people who are at risk of arrest, detention and expulsion every day. Very much in spite of their situations, they carry the hope of their families who remained behind, and some of them have crossed half a continent, escaped wars or terrible situations, mourning the loss of loved ones who did not survive the road of migration. I wanted to situate my characters at precisely that point of intensity. But more than being simply a film “about undocumented people”, the film is about those who live on the margins, in hiding, within urban spaces that they have re-appropriated, with codes and dialects all their own. I like making films that immerse me in worlds that are different from my own. That said, to answer the question, the film combines newly-arrived migrant characters, undocumented immigrants, refugees and French people born of foreign parents. For me, Simon, the main character, is defined first by his situation as a newly-arrived migrant in a world that he does not know, more than by the fact that he is undocumented.
Did you do any research to recreate the world you’re talking about?
A few years ago I made a documentary (Ceuta, douce prison [Ceuta, Sweet Prison], which came out in 2014) where I followed the paths of migrants en route towards Europe. Some time after filming, some of them managed to get to France and I was able to share some snippets of their life as newly-arrived immigrants. I discovered a city within the city when I accompanied them to packed hairdressers, or to dinners in underground restaurants, or to political conversations in the common rooms of hostels. So I got a glimpse of their world, which gave me a starting-point for the script. But my research in preparation for filming was long and intense. We engaged in a long process of immersion with a collaborator (Romain Silvi) who was charged with casting the non-professionals and with scouting. We had to take it in stages in order to gain access to the places that I was interested in (migrant hostels, underground restaurants, etc.), then negotiate shooting there, and finally getting permission to re-appropriate them (by repainting the walls, totally changing the lighting, etc.) For living spaces such as the massive hostel that we filmed in, or for heart of the streets in the Château-Rouge neighborhood of Paris, that was not easy task. It took us long months. But that was what I was looking for: having a precise, expert artistic direction, in embodied locations pulsating with life at every moment.
How did you conceive and construct that duality of mutual assistance and competition among the undocumented immigrants?
While writing, I wasn’t afraid of archetypes. Simon’s quest is a sequence of tests in a world where it is difficult to trust, where new arrivals are mistrusted. He is faced with confrontations, as well as with allies. There was no blind optimism in the writing, there are no “undocumented immigrants” but a great number of communities, languages, personalities, a hierarchy based on seniority, etc. This grouping gives rise to the duality, or very nearly.
Why did you opt for the idea of searching for a lost loved one rather than the more traditional search for a job?
That again touches upon my desire let myself be guided by pure fiction, by my desire for a story and to lean toward a dark, tragic film rather than towards a more usual, blandly realistic representation. So the film’s ambition is to follow a strong plot, Simon’s quest (and implicitly his initiation). I definitely did not want to produce journalism. Guided by the different issues faced by the people he meets, Simon becomes very lonely, standing outside the context he is confronted by. For me, the idea of a character’s isolation with respect to a world he is discovering is one that is perfectly cinematic. It brings to mind the great figures from the films noirs that are my reference points. But it is also true that through this character, I wanted to offer a different point of view on migration: a Cameroonian who is not prepared to leave everything behind in order to make it to Europe. I wanted to get out of a clichéd stand with no nuances where every African dreams of coming to live here, in the cold, the particulate matter and the social and economic austerity. Simon has a position in Cameroon, he enjoys his life. He very much plans to return home after he’s completed his mission. Through his character, I also wanted to show the great weight that these migrants carry around with them – a family that depends on them, at least to distill the hope of a better future, and to whom they can refuse nothing.
What interested you about the “invisibility” of undocumented immigrants who nevertheless move in a well-defined, “integrated” sphere within the French system?
I don’t believe in the term “integrated”. I’m more drawn to the fringes that are populated by people who live in the interstices of the city and who interact very little with the “visible” world. What interests me when I create is filming places that we do not habitually see, and working on the dark, mysterious texture that characterizes them, full of half-light. The places here are hidden back halls, restaurants with their shades drawn, clandestine warehouses where you need a password to enter, rooms at the end of convoluted corridors in hostels for migrant workers. These are not places that are open to the general public.
What interested you about the theme of the “big brother”?
That is the starting point of the tragedy: the weight of tradition, roles that are predefined by birth order. And then the overturning of roles that we gradually witness between Simon and his brother.
In your film, you bring out the contrast between the “big brother’s” real daily life and the fantasy that his family back home imagines. What do you think the reasons are for the persistence of this conception?
The film implicitly recounts the difficulty of communicating, the inability to explain failures to those who depend on us, to parents who have sacrificed a great deal so that their children can reach Europe. But this is not always the case, for a great many migrants have no choice and they leave their countries for reasons of survival. In those cases, it is no longer a question of the difficulty of living in the country where they are headed, simply the idea of survival.
Any cinematic coups de cœur in the past year you’d like to tell us about?
A few of the films I was excited about are The Ornithologist, Train to Busan, Tony Erdmann, and La Mort de Louis XIV [The Death of Louis XIV].
If you’ve already been to Clermont-Ferrand, could you share with us an anecdote from the festival? If not, what are your expectations for this year?
I must confess that this is my first time at the Festival.