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Michel Hazanavicius on Why the Negative Reviews for ‘The Search’ Affected Him

Michel Hazanavicius on Why the Negative Reviews for 'The Search' Affected Him

Academy Award-winning French director Michel Hazanavicius was chosen by the COLCOA French Film Festival in Los Angeles for its Focus on a Filmmaker program this year. Besides revisiting the film that launch his international career, “OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies,” the festival hosted the L.A. premiere of the filmmaker’s latest work “The Search,” which premiered in competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Based on Fred Zinnemann’s classic film of the same name, Hazanavicius’s update is set during he second Chechen war of 1999 and stars Berenice Bejo and Annette Bening. The film is an epic drama that offers a look into the devastation of war through the eyes of an orphan child. A big departure from Hazanavicius most famous film, Best Picture Oscar-winner “The Artist,” the humanistic drama showcases a more political and serious tone than his previous efforts, while still proving his ability to capture engaging and moving imagery.
The director sat down with Indiewire at COLCOA  to discuss his new film, transitioning between genres, French politics, war and the effect critics have had on him.
You followed the OSS 117 films with “The Artist” and then ventured into a completely different territory with “The Search.” As a filmmaker do you feel the need to explore diverse genres and stories that are completely apart form one another?

It comes naturally. Maybe I would have liked to make comedies forever, I don’t know, I really love making them. But I also want to be free. If there is something I want to do, which is not a comedy, I want to be able to at least try to do it. That’s my freedom. After “The Artist” it became easier for me to try something new, so I took the opportunity to make this film. I don’t really have a plan. I try to follow my desire in the most honest way.

Was it hard to make the transition from “The Artist” to “The Search” — two projects that couldn’t be more different in terms of tone and subject matter?
Yes, it is completely different, but I also think “The Artist” was different from what I had done before, so any movie that I would have chosen to do after “The Artist” would have been different. “The Search” was very difficult to make for many reasons, but it wasn’t because it was different from “The Artist.” It was difficult because of the nature of the movie. Shooting in Georgia with non-professional actors, the army, and about this topic, that was much more difficult.
What was the most difficult aspect about making a war film with a much bigger scope, and with such dramatic events at its core?
I don’t think “The Search” is war movie in the classical way.  It’s a movie that takes place during a war, but it’s not a war movie. The war is seen form the point of view of average people. What happens when war comes into your country? What was very difficult was the writing because when you are doing research you read things, you see images, you watch documentaries and it’s a tough subject. There are testimonies in certain books that are very hard to read. It’s a tough process. This story had not been told in cinema, nobody had really told the story of the Chechen people. I don’t think people know exactly what happened during this war, so I felt like I was taking on a big responsibility.
The characters often mention how important it is for the Chechen people not to be forgotten by the rest of the world. Why was it important for you to tell their side of the story?
I feel like there are certain lines in the movie that are bigger than the movie itself. I think it’s very important to tell this story. The Chechen people lost the war and when you lose the war you can’t tell your own story because History, with a capital H, is written by the winners. I wanted to tell this story from their point of view.
You’ve worked with Jean Dujardin and with your wife Berenice Bejo on several occasions. Does it make things easier or smoother when you work with familiar faces?
It comes very naturally for me to work with them, I don’t really think about it. Working with actors is part of the deal when you are making a movie, but particularly with Berenice I think she has the ability to adapt. It was very difficult with her to work with non-professional actors in this project because in a way she was the exception. I’m not sure if this makes it easier for me, but I also don’t really try to go for the easiest thing.

How does the political situation in France affect the movies you want to make? You’ve mentioned that if you were to make a third installment in the OSS 117 series right now, it would be a much different film given the current dominance of the extreme right in your country.
It would be very funny to make a movie with no jokes in a country that voted for this people. I’m not sure it would be a realistic movie, but what I meant is that you couldn’t make the same comedic movie now, especially when it comes to comedies like the OSS 117 series that are very political and that talk about France today and how some French people can be a little bit racist, or misogynist, or anti-Semitic, etc. If you wanted to talk about these things, you wouldn’t talk about them the same way when the situation is fine than when the political situation is bad. I think we have a bad political situation in France right now because a lot of people are pushing towards the extremes. These people prey on other people’s fear, anger and frustration in order to push towards the extremes. That’s frightening. I don’t think you can write the same type of comedy in both situations.
What stands out in “The Search” is the idea that these tragedies are a collective failure and not only relevant to those involved but to humanity as a whole.
Exactly. I’m Jewish, but I don’t consider the Shoah a Jewish tragedy, it’s a human tragedy, that’s what we all should learn from it. When we talk about it, we shouldn’t talk about it as a Jewish issue but as a human issue. Also, I think that the story of the killers is as interesting as that of the victims, and we have to talk about it and face it. It’s not an isolated problem. It concerns us all. I’m not saying there is an easy answer to problems like this, such as simply sending the army, but at least we need to be aware of them. When we ignore a certain part of the world going through a tragedy, we will all have to pay for it eventually. We are all forced to live in the same planet.
Despite the difficulties, why did you feel so passionate about highlighting this part of recent history, which might not be widely known is the West?
“The Search” is about the strange flavor of war today. There are asymmetric wars in which armies fight against civilians. For Westerners I hope they see that this happened for real. I wanted to encourage empathy for these people because I feel like we don’t really feel empathy anymore and that’s a problem. These stories of war always come to us in the West through the news, and we’ve created a type of wall between this news and us. Sometimes we feel empathy, but it lasts a very short time. We forget very quickly. I wanted to show this war from a child’s perspective. 
How difficult was it for you to make this film after the huge success of “The Artist”? Did you feel a certain pressure?
Honestly I didn’t think about it. It was really great that this happened with the film, but I didn’t want to calculate or to think about what other people expected from me. I don’t really care actually. I was very lucky because “The Search” was a movie that I wanted to do before “The Artist.” I stuck to it and I said, “This is the movie I really wanted to do. Let’s do it now that I can.” Now the passion for “The Artist” has passed and I’m not the toast of the town anymore — which is great. When the whole awards thing happens, you have a lot of people around you and you don’t know if they just want to work with the guy who’s just won the Oscar, or if it’s really because of your work or because they really think you are the right person to do it. Now it’s almost back to normal life, but thankfully I still have some wonderful opportunities. I didn’t really think about all these expectations or feel the pressure to deliver.
As we know the reception towards “The Artist” was overwhelmingly positive, but, at least at Cannes, “The Search” wasn’t very well received. Did it affect you in any way to see that people didn’t respond to it?
It definitely affected me, I wouldn’t say a lot, but it did affect me. Not so much because of me, but because of the subject matter. It did affect me as a person, but mainly because of what the film is about. I hoped that people would have some compassion and interest for this story, but there was really no compassion at all. It was all about other things. I thought some critics were very mean. Of course, they have the right not to like the film, and there is no problem with that, but it did affect me. But that’s life; that’s how things go.
What are will you follow “The Search” with? What are your future projects?
Besides the one that has recently been talked about in Variety involving Tom Cruise titled “Bob the Musical,” there is another project with Paramount. I’m currently working on both projects.

READ MORE: Watch: ‘The Artist’ Director Michel Hazanavicius Shows the Devastation of the Chechen War in Cannes Entry ‘The Search’

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