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There is nothing pretty about “French Blood,” the second feature film by the French writer-director Diastème, that has world premiered last month in the Platform section at TIFF. Though compared incessantly to “American History X,” “French Blood” aims for a different aesthetics, far more realist in its approach, perhaps as a consequence of the writer-director’s previous work as a journalist. The gritty, cinéma vérité portrait of the rise of the French National Front party and its associated right-wing movements covers several decades – from 1985, when Marco (Alban Lenoir) and his brother are drawn in by the dramatic rhetorics of the Neo-Nazi groups, until 2013, when the same people dress smartly to go to church on Sunday, rising from street thugs to notable faces of local conservative politics.
But ultimately, more than the extremist or right-wing movements themselves, “French Blood” is about how difficult it is to break from the vicious cycle of hate and violence you are born and raised into. Marco, who we first see beating and harassing everyone from random teenagers to older Middle Eastern men in the suburbs of Paris, is not alone in his involvement with right-wing extremists; his brother, friends and ultimately even his wife also participate, and it’s the pressure of his immediate and most intimate surroundings that make it almost impossible to break free of his situation.
The subject of Diastème’s film seems to be somewhat taboo in France, where reportedly, no such film has ever been attempted before — and the threats that the movie theaters received right before the preview screenings of “French Blood” would seem to confirm it. Still, given the recent events in European politics — from the January tragedy of “Charlie Hebdo” to the right-wing parties wining the EU parliament elections all over Europe and finally, the present refugee crisis — it seems that the issues that “French Blood” tackles are more relevant than ever.
Indiewire spoke with Diastème in Helsinki at the Love and Anarchy film festival, where his film was screened in the French Kiss Selection program. Read more from Diastème below. The film does not yet have a U.S. release date.
I’m not a big fan of “American History X.” I don’t like the form, and how stylized it is. You are watching all of the violence, impressed by how beautiful it is, by the lighting, the slow-motion. Everything is as stunning as it can be, glorified. Of course, it was the director’s style, and it’s not mine. I think my film is made more in the tradition of Alan Clarke’s films, like “Made in Britain.”
But generally, I really don’t have role models when I make films and theater. I check how other people did the things I don’t know how to. I never studied film, I studied life [laughs]. I was a journalist for 10 years, from my twentieth to my thirtieth and I think those years were my classes. “French Blood” was the first time I shot violence or fight scenes. I wanted to see how other people did it. So there was one more thing I saw before I made “French Blood”: The “Pusher” trilogy, but only because I hate violence and I never watch violent movies. I wanted to watch one — and I thought the first “Pusher” was especially good that way. So I made my crew watch it, too.
I decided to have long takes in fight scenes. Usually, with action or gangster films, those scenes are heavily edited. When I informed my fight choreographers of my decision to film in long takes, they warned me against it, but I thought we had to try. I wanted the camera to move with Marco; not to look at him, but to be with him. In real life, there are no cuts. I wanted my violence to be real, not stylized. I wanted to show how dodgy it is. I thought that way, it would be more unbearably violent for the spectator, too. It was the way that I wanted to tell the story.
I knew skinheads for a long time because I grew up with them in the same Paris suburb. I was in kindergarten with the children that would become the first French skinheads. I lived in the same places they lived in, went to the same buildings they went to, I’m from the same city they are from. So I’ve always known them. When I became a journalist, I started following the extreme right in France for work, too. In a way, all of my life up to this point was leading to this “French Blood.”
Marco is a fictional character, but he’s inspired by a lot of real people. The same goes for the events in the film. They were inspired by real, historical events. For example, 20 years ago, some people killed a black man in France by forcing him to drink a bottle of drain cleaner. The scene in my film is based on the event, but it’s transformed a little bit, adapted. I don’t want to be too literal, after all, those that did it, did their time. I didn’t want to point my finger at them again after all of these years.
A character in “French Blood” labels Neo-Nazi movements as mistakes of the youth, but I don’t think it’s a youth problem. I think it’s a stupidity problem. The no-culture problem, the problem of education. In the beginning, skinheads were not racist. The movement originates from Jamaica, and in Great Britain, it changed because of class antagonism with the punks, who were seen as petite bourgeois. There are still two kinds of skinheads in the world: The Nazi ones and the anti-racist ones, but both are proletarians. The National Front party in France employed them as their security in the eighties. Not anymore, because they’re too dirty.
Officially, the National Front has no connection with the white supremacy movements, at least for 10 years or so. Officially. But the associates of Marine Le Pen are members of groups that were violent extremists in the eighties. They still exist, but their members wear suits now, and they have hair – or they would have had it if they hadn’t gone bald, but their way of thinking hasn’t changed, it has just become cleaner on the outside. They got rid of all the people in the movement that were to flashy, too hateful. They have to be respectable, because now, they’re not a small, mean, anarchist party anymore. Now, they want to govern.
Threats weren’t made just to me, but also to my actors, the theater owners, their friends. On the internet, there was a hate campaign running. It was quite sportif. In two hours after the trailer went online in May, we received thousands and thousands of hate messages from everywhere. The extreme right is very well organized on the internet, it’s very fast. There was a lot of hate. The theater owners were threatened that their theaters will burn if they showed the movie. “French Blood” was supposed to be released in 150 theaters, and in the end, it was only released in 65. So, the hate campaign worked. That kind of thing works. Intimidation works.