Why were you interested in the relationship between a man reaching retirement age and a young man?
I wanted to talk about themes of handing something down, lack of affection, an encounter that promises, for a time, a certain happiness. It’s about a slice of life, a moment in the existence of two solitary beings. Ahmed feels the need to satisfy the fatherly instincts that he couldn’t fulfill with his own children. Mike is going to make up for this. Ahmed is given a new opportunity through this boy who lives just a step before the void. With Mike, I wanted to explore the force of passion and hope that is so particular to young people, the soaring of the soul that we adults often make fun of although we went through the same thing. I also wanted to confront two languages, both imperfect, but that symbolize two generations. The idea that language can be reinvented by two people who don’t possess the fundamentals but manage to understand each other.
Was the song in the film “Pas perdus” the source of your inspiration or was the song added later?
I did in fact see this made-for-TV movie as a child. It was the first time that a fiction film used an immigrant worker as its main character. I think its broadcast coincided with the march for equality movement where a part of the population living in the projects rose up and shouted that they exist and demanded more consideration. This TV movie, in a certain way, was part of the movement. It was a sad movie which talked about everyday racism and contempt. My memories are rather vague apart from the main character who wondered around like a shadow. However, I never forgot the film’s theme song, Le roi du balai, by the Kabyle group Djurdjura. And if I still remember the film, whose title I had totally forgotten, it’s because of this song. By the way, for a long time the short-film was called Le roi du balai. This kind of character was used a bit more in fiction, but in the end, not enough. I guess that I in turn wanted to turn this shadow into a hero.
Where did you get the idea of public baths?
It was a place I went to when I was a child and a teenager. A place I hated because it cast me back to my status whereas all I wanted was to be like other kids. As a kid, you develop a real talent for lying, you invent a life that’s the opposite of yours but that doesn’t hold up if your physical appearance betrays your real situation. By staying clean, I could pretend. Later, I realized that precisely because these places existed, I could blend in and keep my dignity intact.
When I went back to prepare the film, I found that nothing had changed. The people that go to this place are for the most part people we encounter every day without imagining that for the time of a shower they will find a moment of relief in their struggling lives. Some public baths in Paris admit more than 600 people per day with a wide variety of profiles: homeless, unemployed, working poor, retired people, students, single mothers, migrants…I have a feeling these people are virtually absent from our communal imagery. Ahmed is the keeper of this precious intimate moment. There’s a certain nobility in his task although he himself is a lost soul. He, the uprooted man, provides a moment of comfort to the other outcasts.
Why were you interested in the character of Ahmed, a foreigner who chooses to live in France in order to have a job with a salary and are you planning other film projects with this type of character?
I wanted to talk about a generation of men who fulfilled their duty towards this country and their own people. Evoke the wounds of being uprooted, the sense of sacrifice. It was often men who left their country young during the Trente Glorieuses,the post-WWII boom, and who often left behind a young wife, young children with the sole goal of meeting their needs. What they didn’t realize is that their absence, over time, would damage family ties. The consequence of their life full of sacrifice was that their own families got used to their absence. An absence that turned them into strangers in the eyes of those who stayed. They realize they don’t know each other or rather, no longer know each other. Some succeed in keeping the ties intact by coming home often or by bringing their family to France, as my father did. For others, it was more complicated. They weren’t able to maintain this tie either because of lack of means or because they lived in difficult conditions by choice or out of shame… Today, this is the end of a generation that lives in immeasurable solitude, and even if many of them are homesick they stay in France because returning to their village is a source of misunderstandings and simply because they’ve been here a long time. They’ve grown used to their life in France, their little room in a workers’ hostel, their neighbors with whom they share the same experience. I don’t know if I will explore this subject again, but this type of character will always be with me. Through him, I conjure up my own past.
Could we call Le chant d’Ahmed a film in the social realism genre? Do you feel connected to this film trend?
I don’t really know what trend Le chant d’Ahmed is attached to. The beginning of the film is handled as naturalism, almost a sociological immersion. You expect to see a documentary, then the story goes off in a new direction, fiction. This double-narrative threw some people off track when I first showed them the film because they weren’t expecting it to take this turn. What I think I can say is that I like talking about the world I live in while adding fiction and humor. My previous short, La dernière caravane, was about workers in the format of a western in black and white. The formats change, the themes remain. You can tell the same story a thousand different ways. I feel at ease and at home in this mixture of genres.
Would you say that the short film format has given you any particular freedom?
The short format allows me to be free in my inspirations and wishes. I can choose my subject, the actors, the style, the people with whom I want to work. There are of course constraints linked to lack of funds or time. But with a short film I can allow myself to try things, to take risks that the stakes of a feature-length wouldn’t permit.