interview and portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
and film stills from OUR DAY WILL COME
featuring VINCENT CASSEL and OLIVIER BARTHÉLÉMY
Could it be that ROMAIN GAVRAS will inject new life into French cinema? This young filmmaker — the son of the celebrated ’70s political director, Costa Gavras — became a sensation with his two violent and controversial music videos, “Stress” (2008) for the French band Justice, and “Born Free” (2010) for M.I.A. Building on his internet success, Romain has just completed his highly anticipated first feature-length film, Our Day Will Come, with the French actor Vincent Cassel, the star of La Haine.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You started shooting films when you were a kid and then, with your friends you founded the collective Kourtrajmé (French Pig Latin for “short film”, called KTM).
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes, I started out with Kim Chapiron in ’94-’95. We’d been friends since we were little — and his father was also my big brother’s best friend. We were born a year apart, and were both from artistic backgrounds. My father is the film director Costa-Gavras. His father is Kiki Picasso, a politically engaged artist, graphic designer, and video director.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Kiki Picasso is one of the founders of Bazooka, the most important collective of graphic designers from the ’70s. What was the first film you did with Kim?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — I was 13 and Kim was 14, and we were shooting by ourselves with our little V8 family camera. Our first film was called Paradoxe perdu (Lost Paradox). We had zoophilia in it because we’d found some videocassettes at his house and we showed excerpts from them between our shots. Our editing was pretty crude: I’d come over on weekends with my VCR under my arm and we’d edit, VHS to VHS. As neither of us had many friends, we played all the roles, and would intercut scenes we’d stolen from other films. We put out a cassette in middle school and after that all our friends wanted to be in our films. So, little by little, we started making short films with more characters. Someone would do the music and someone else would deal with the dialogue. That’s how I became a filmmaker.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you grow up in Paris?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes, in the 5th arrondissement. But my big brother and Kim lived in the 20th. I was always running back and forth between the 5th and the 20th. Our group was pretty eclectic, from all over the place, from bourgeois areas as well as the projects.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That was rare.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — In France, for sure. In any case, when I was growing up, it wasn’t all compartmentalized like it is now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You could’ve gone to university, done something else…
ROMAIN GAVRAS — At the age of 18 I took the bac exam to please my parents. Right after that I started working, so I could be more independent and keep going in film. We made a DVD of all the short films we’d shot from age 14 to 23. We distributed it independently, and we toured around France to screen our films. We sold around 40,000 copies. It did well.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was called Kourtrajmé, right?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes, but it was also called Seigneur ne leur pardonnez pas, car ils savent ce qu’ils font (Father, do not forgive them, because they know what they’re doing). It was three hours of short amateur videos and films — which we took seriously so they would look good. We also did music videos for rap groups back then, which were pretty successful.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Including Mafia K’1 Fry.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes. That one was probably the first fake amateur rap video. After that they did them all like that, out in the projects with four hundred kids screaming.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it your way of being independent — of breaking away from the French short film system?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Short films do the lamest circuit in the world. Going to the Festival in Clermont-Ferrand makes you want to kill yourself. It’s a parody of the film school idea of short films. Even the term “short film” is horrible — a nightmare. Anyway, shortly after the success of our DVD, Kim Chapiron made Sheitan, his first feature-length film.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you were able to avoid the classical FEMIS film school bit.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes, because we were lucky enough to be immersed in an artistic environment. I mean, if you’re reasonably smart, you can do your own stuff.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re a child of the ’70s, through the influence of the political cinema of your father and the activism of Bazooka — via Kim’s father.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Between my dad and Kim’s dad are two different generations. My father is older, and he made overtly political films. He’s from a generation that thought film could change things, whereas Kim’s dad was more part of the punk/nihilistic movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s, which was more hard-core, angry and ironic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Already a disillusioned generation.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Having grown up when I did, we lost all the illusions our parents had. Our era is more purely nihilistic. Maybe during the ’80s, in spite of the prevailing irony, people still believed in things a little. I see nothing. Today we know how badly it’s all failed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And yet you still seek to shake people up with your images.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — But I have no illusions. I don’t think I can really change anything with a film.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the same time, there’s still — and was when you were 14 or 15 — a political aspect to the way you’ve organized yourselves, founding a collective and working together, stepping outside the established circuits, choosing to work in the seamier parts of the city, and with French rap groups.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — In the ’90s, when we were 14 or 15 years old, the artistic drive and creative energy was in rap. At 13 I discovered Snoop Dogg and the albums of Ministère A.M.E.R., and it was revolutionary — the message is so direct, but not preachy. It was almost punk — but the kind of punk that made sense at that time. When you’re a teenager listening to rap, you scowl, you’re sure you’re right and that everything else is shit. Afterward it was all taken over by the industry, money, and morality. Rap now is depressingly moral, with Good on one side and Evil on the other. If I’d been 28 — the age I am now — when that happened I would have thought differently.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Aside from rap, were there other artistic revelations?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — I felt the same energy when Daft Punk came on the scene, without words, with nothing. It spoke to me, immediately. And in film, Harmony Korine meant the same: a kid that young could be doing that kind of work that changed my perspective.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you think, in spite of your disenchantment, that there might be a possibility for you to express yourself?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes, at least in art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you and your group find inspiration outside the rap scene in the projects?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — In France today the only real protesters are kids burning cars. Of course, when they burn their neighbor’s car, they’re not making a political statement. But how else can they express their rage? That seems to be the only sane form of protest in France. That’s why they piss people off so much — especially when they explode in the Paris suburbs. The cause is legitimate, but you can’t channel their rage into a political message. It was a similar reflex on our part. I remember that when Le Pen made it to the second stage of the French presidential race we rushed our cameras out into the street, thinking there would be massive protests. But there was nothing, just a few tame groups of hippies and old-timers. Perhaps a more intelligent reaction would have been to break things the way the kids in the projects do when they can’t take it any more. Dissent today can only be physical. There is no political positioning behind the riots. Look at what’s going on in Greece, my second home — my father is of Greek origin. The big Western banks have crippled the country. The young people, and not only from the working classes, are all in the streets brawling with cops, burning down the banks.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What does this explosive rioting, on the edge of civil war, do to you?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — It’s sad. But for an artist this sort of real-world, physical confrontation is stimulating. Sometimes the best films or works of art come out of these tensions. Even if someone says, “Oh, he’s just a petit bourgeois, it’s the violence that excites him.” And the truth is, artistic creation becomes interesting and necessary when there’s real tension and danger. In sluggish, placid times, nothing creative happens.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially since the danger and tensions are rooted in real social injustice.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes, of course. But it will always be there. The bad guys are winning, as they always do. It’s been like that since the end of the ’80s. I don’t believe in “Somewhere over the rainbow.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — We can say it’s exactly the other way around: the rich get richer and the poor are more marginalized and the violence in the street is getting worse. These explosions are not caused by delinquency, there’s a political divide that no one seems to address.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — That’s what the documentary, 365 jours à Clichy-Montfermeil, said about the 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs. Ladj Ly, one of the founders of KTM, directed the film. He lives in Les Bosquets, and comes from one of the largest families living there. The riots practically began in his building and he immediately went out with his camera. He shot it from inside the riots, like a real civil war. It was one of the first films in which you really saw what happened, raw, rough, and without judgment. It’s not at all the colonial vision you see on the TV news.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You shot it with him?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — No, because we couldn’t get in there. It was all locked down during the riots. But I did shoot with Ladj Ly three years ago. We shot student protests, which deteriorated because they were infiltrated by suburban thugs who came to pillage. It was a lot of fun to shoot.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What interested you about that chaotic mess?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — It happened right in the middle of Paris, and you could really gauge the division between the kids from Paris and those from the suburbs. On one side you had middle-class students from the Sorbonne in their Che Guevara t-shirts, yelling “Don’t break everything!” They were ripped off by the caillera [French Pig Latin for scum] who came in to tear down whatever they could find. From a cinematographic and visual point of view, there was a lot to see and show. I’m convinced that everyone understood their reasons, and that their points were legitimate. But they somehow needed to channel their actions better. But violence can’t be shaped. It’s about destruction, where there’s never a shape.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you think of the Black Blocs and the more organized anti-capitalist operations?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — The only word that comes to mind is cool — even if that’s not the right adjective. But they also upset me. They’re not fun. They don’t turn me on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They’re anti-consumption?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yeah, especially the white Rasta, bongo-playing protesters. They’re the problem. These days there aren’t any real sexy icons of political opposition. There’s no one there to inspire you. The alternatives are living in tents, in the mud, in squats. It’s lame, but I have no interest in following a protester who’s poorly dressed. Jacques Vergès once said, “The revolution, sure — but in style, in luxury.” I completely understand his position.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So for your generation, which came of age in the 2000s, the spasmodic, spontaneously violent, shapeless riots in the suburbs offered more of a spark of hope than the radical Left.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes, in spite of it all, the violence triggered a little bit of hope. I said to myself that the younger generation still wants it, even if they have nothing to say. I really see the punk side like in that Johnny Rotten song, “I don’t know what I want but I know how to get it.” This is how I see this kind of violence.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, politically, in welcoming this violence, in being open to it — can we say that you’re still a Leftist, perhaps even a radical Leftist?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — The words Left and Right don’t really mean anything these days. They made sense to my father’s generation. He made films about that political environment, using his vision and what he took from the times. I made stuff about what was around me, because I’m absorbed by it, but I understand nothing about my own era.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe recognizing that we no longer understand anything — maybe that’s the radical Left today?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Okay. I guess I would consider myself as being a radical Leftist were it not for the fact that I don’t believe in anything. I have values that belong to me, not to the preaching of the Left. I’m an artist and it would really piss me off if I had to explain it politically. This is why, when I made the two music videos that generated the most attention — the one called “Stress” for Justice and the video for M.I.A., both of which are very violent — I refused to give interviews or to explain them. My silence is part of the package. There’s nothing to say. You take from it what you can.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s shocking in your films is your use of special effects — of a type used in action films. But you apply them to a violence that’s more social and political than psychological. In the M.I.A. video, ruthless, genocidal practices are directed at adolescent redheads.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — In general, in a film, each scene of violence must be justified in the last 15 minutes, when all is revealed and everything is wrapped up. What is upsetting in my video is that I do nothing to explain it. I don’t present what’s right or wrong. I don’t want to moralize. There’s no point made, no hidden rant.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And that’s what creates the malaise. For example, if you take the spectacular violence in the films of Tarentino, it’s sort of comforting, and respectful of cinematographic codes. You pull yours out of actual social and political violence. In Stress for Justice, violent kids from the projects come into Paris, and in the M.I.A. video it’s racial violence. You represent violence that doesn’t have a cinematic implication. So we ask ourselves, what side are you on, the victim’s, the delinquent’s, or the cops’?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — I’ve been accused of using gratuitous violence. But for me, blind violence exists, but not gratuitous violence. At least I don’t think so. I don’t see the point of purely fictional violence, like the space battles in science fiction movies. I love watching Star Wars, but making a film like it doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to provide a clear answer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So what do you think of the violence in action films?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — If it doesn’t reflect the reality in which we live, I don’t find it interesting. But again, I’m not moralizing or explaining. I don’t even want to comment on violence. We see what we want to; that ambiguity is part of my thought process.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have very beautiful images accompanying the violence — magnifying it one might say. But one has to ask, are you somewhat fascinated by fascist violence?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — It may seem pretentious to not reveal answers, but that’s exactly what keeps the ambiguity. You don’t know if I’m a Leftist who wants all the cops dead, or if I’ve committed myself to a manifesto against violence in all its forms, or if I’m a little fascist fascinated by racial violence. I’m not interested in demonstrating anything. Those kinds of things make no sense today. Everything is unclear — and no longer the way it was in the ’70s, when you could separate the good guys from the bad guys and have two clear forces going against each other. Ideals were still there. Today the codes are all mixed up and everyone is lost.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you’re not doing it to shock, but to maintain indecisiveness.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Ambiguity, indecision, and a lack of clarity and useable markers are symptoms of the times.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So are you both fascinated and repelled by this violence?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Probably. That’s how it works. When you’re both fascinated and horrified by something, it gets you.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not fascinated by the visual techniques you use?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — As far as pure technique and special effects, knowing how to move the camera and how to stage scenes brings out emotions. I’ve been doing that since I was 14, so it doesn’t interest me, really. What interests me is where to put the cursor. And I think it was placed correctly in my two videos, because otherwise they would have sunk without a trace, and there wouldn’t have been any debate or commentary.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does that come from too many video games?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — No, I never really played those. It comes from what I see in protests today, which are so limp and so self-righteous. Either I see stuff that is vapid, cloying, or unbearable, or I see stuff that is too politically engaged, too much like those stupid ranting pamphlets. I want to see something I never see.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In any case, before I met you I had the impression that there really wasn’t a workable path of contestation that could be shown in films or in pictures in France, because images always evoke a political discourse. Showing the violence of those suburban kids no longer exists in French cinema.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Except in Un Prophète, the classic film by Audiard, which I thought was a very good film. There’s something revolutionary in it. All the characters are either Arabs in prison or Corsicans with their amazing faces. Making such a huge film brought so many people to the cinema.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m still stuck on Bertrand Blier’s Un, deux, trois soleil [One, Two Three Sun].
ROMAIN GAVRAS — That’s also a great film.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was the M.I.A. video censored on YouTube?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — You can’t see it on the American YouTube. But you can if you live in France, if you have a YouTube account. Plenty of kids re-upload it onto their Web pages. The censorship stops the clip from having millions of viewers on the official YouTube site, but it’s been seen millions of times nevertheless.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So it’s an international success.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes. I measure the success by the number of screenplays they send me from Hollywood — maybe 20 in just a couple of weeks. Being censored by YouTube reinforced the clip’s success. Censorship works in dictatorships. But in a democracy, with access to the internet, there’s no better way to increase interest than to cut access to it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of budget did you have for your first feature, Notre Jour Viendra (Our Day Will Come)?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — It was a low budget picture, but we shot it in 35mm. It cost the equivalent of what I was paid to shoot the ad for the perfume, Opium — and it was produced by Vincent Cassel and Eric Névé.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you choose to shoot in the North, with all those deserted Duras-ien beaches?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — I don’t understand why there aren’t more films shot in Dunkerque. French films are always shot in the South, because the weather’s good. But it’s so ugly there these days. Whereas in the North, it’s like Mad Max. You don’t know where you are. You could be in England, Germany, Holland… There’s something universal up there, in that part of Europe, and the light there is just crazy. All the actors, except for Vincent Cassel and Olivier Barthélémy, are really non-actors, who I found up there over a period of four months.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you get Vincent Cassel to be both actor and producer?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — It’s a long story. Our upstairs neighbor in the 20th arrondissement was Mathieu Kassovitz. He was a little older than us, but he was really cool. He collects caps and bicycles. We were 13, 14 years old when his film, La Haine, came out. So it was more Mathieu and Vincent who made me want to make movies, rather than my parents. We were slapped in the face by La Haine — and on top of that it’s your cool neighbor who made it. So, you say to yourself, “I want to be that guy.” Later, Mathieu and Vincent helped us with our cameras and with some weird stuff. Vincent Cassel also acted in some of Kim’s short films. So when I wanted to do my first feature he immediately said, “Sure, let’s talk about it.” Vincent always supported my filmmaking. He said, “For your first film, either you make the film that you want to make — but it’ll be a very low budget — or you accept a commission and try to earn as much money as possible so you can do what you like afterward.” We took the first option. I doubt it will sell a lot of tickets, even with Vincent starring.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You wrote the screenplay?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes, with my friend Karim Boukercha, who runs one of those outsider magazines, Tant pis pour vous [Too bad for you]. He’s from my generation. In fact my father stole him to write his next film.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does it examine the same kind of violence?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — No, I wanted to make a very personal film, something different — without the kind of violence and provocation that were in my two videos. The film’s violence is more internalized. Anyway, hardcore violence for 90 minutes makes no sense. The tone of this film is a little more narrative-based, but still abstract. With my co-writer, each time we’d get too expositional we’d yell at each other. So in the end we got rid of the explanatory stuff — all the “he’s a bad guy because his dad had AIDS when he was a kid” crap. But now I think the film may disturb a lot of people.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the story line about a character?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — It’s about two guys, two redheads. In fact, the idea for my M.I.A. video came from the film. Vincent plays a sort of redheaded dandy, a loser. And he takes this young kid without much of an identity under his wing. He belongs to no tribe. He’s not a Goth or a delinquent or a clubber. He’s just a redhead and a bit of a victim.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You “redded-up” your two actors?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — I “redded” them up a little. In the film they’re only partially redheads because I found it more interesting that they identify with a nonexistent community, instead of making them carrot tops, which is a running gag and another slightly disturbing piece of the puzzle. They never say the word “redhead,” they say “guys like us.” They invent a community that doesn’t really exist, to which they do not really belong. They’re like half-breeds who never know where they belong. In this case, it’s about redheads.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So it’s about a young working class kid of today who belongs to a community but without community, and Vincent Cassel speaks for them.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — It’s a little vague. And the other kid is totally inspired by what Vincent says. He’s ready to do anything to follow this guy and his ideas. He wants to go to Ireland and found a new country for them. It’s a sort of road movie that goes nowhere, since they never get to Ireland.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there an aborted attempt?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — It’s a sort of sad, absurd, identity quest — an impasse — in the form of a wobbly brotherly duo. Who go nowhere, veering toward nihilism.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Apart from the two actors, are the other characters from around where you shot it?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Nearly all of them. I did local casting and it was great. There were a few weird moments when I was hanging outside of schools looking at 16 year-old girls, which was a bit embarrassing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What does your father think of your films?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Each time he sees one of the videos, he laughs and tells me I’m going to get in trouble. I think he’s proud of me. I mean, I could have become a drug addict.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is he protective?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — About my films, yes. He said only one thing, “Good work.” He understood my process. And in any case, ideologically, it’s so different from what he thinks and does.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not like his political vision of cinema.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — It’s much more vague ideologically. I love his films, but they represent his vision, whereas mine play with ambiguity, and the idea of my generation losing its bearings.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does Vincent Cassel understand that?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Absolutely — and there aren’t many French actors of his quality with whom I’d want to share an adventure like this. I kept him shut-up for three months in Dunkerque.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That must have affected the psychology of the film.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Yes. Vincent lived with the other actor, Olivier Barthélémy. The three of us are friends. And, little by little, I felt them letting go. I’d done a video for DJ Medhi’s song “Signatune” in northern France, and he acted in that, too. During the shoot in Dunkerque their relationship became a little like the characters’ relationship in the film. What I like about shooting outside Paris is that all of a sudden you’re living in your film’s universe — you’re away from your regular life, your house, your kids, dinners, your socializing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, the location rubs off on you. Would Vincent leave on the weekends?
ROMAIN GAVRAS — We were shooting on Saturdays, too, so sometimes he would do a round trip to Paris on a Sunday to see his girls.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a commitment, three months non-stop in Dunkerque. It illuminates the film.
ROMAIN GAVRAS — Between the casting sessions and the location scouting, I actually spent six months there. But I wouldn’t mind spending a few weekends in Dunkerque. When you discover the lives and the craziness of certain people and their environment, it’s fabulous, even if all there is is a bunch of deserted factories and very few people in the streets.
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