A platoon of French soldiers is stationed in a far-off valley in Afghanistan. The monotony of their routine is soon broken when one of the soldiers, and then another, disappears. The French captain blames the Taliban, until the Taliban leader reveals that his men, too, are disappearing. Both turn on the local villagers, demanding explanations that become more and more otherworldly. In Neither Heaven nor Earth, Director Clement Cogitore and cowriter Thomas Bidegain have fashioned an unnatural tale that is completely credible. •Availability: Opens August 5, New York City, Film Society of Lincoln Center, with a national rollout to follow. Click here for a trailer and local listings near you. •Thanks to Susan Norget and Keaton Kail, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Sura 18, the Sura of the Cave, is mentioned throughout the film. What role does this text from the Koran play?
CG: It’s a sacred text in community life that seems to give answers. It doesn’t really, but it’s connected to what is happening in real life, including the magical element. So when the soldiers hear this text, they feel a strong connection with what they are experiencing, and they’re hoping there is a clue or a solution in the text. But not only with the Sura of the Cave but also with the text of the Book of Job. When the black priest comes to the soldiers’ camp, he reads a text from the Bible, and this text is also connected to the situation of the soldiers. They feel that there is a link to the experience but there is no solution. That’s the role of the text.
DT: The French and the Taliban both brutalize the local villagers. Is this a political statement?
CG: For any filmmaker or scriptwriter writing about violence or war, you know that these cases are happening, and you know that each time the locals are suspected of being in touch with the enemy, there is some violence. You know that when the Taliban, or whoever is arriving, wants something, they brutalize the locals. Not every time, not everywhere, but these things are happening every day in countries who are at war, so that came naturally in the script. You know that soldiers and the Taliban are brutal with the locals, so as a scriptwriter you include it in the script.
DT: So it was more a statement about reality than a political statement.
CG: Yes. It’s the reality of war. In every war situation, the locals are the first victims.
DT: How did you choose Thomas Bidegain as your cowriter?
CG: I was hoping to work with him, like anybody here in France. When I started the script, it was 2011, and he was just finishing The Prophet with Jacques Audiard. At first I thought he was too expensive and not available and he would never accept working with me. I’m too young, this is my first feature film, and that’s it.
My producer and I started to look for somebody else, but we didn’t find anyone who connected enough or was involved enough. There was no evidence of a strong connection with me or with the project, so my producer said, “You want to work with Thomas.” Of course everybody wants to work with Thomas, but we said, Let’s try. We managed to have a meeting together, and in this first meeting I immediately saw that he completely understood the project and he was the scriptwriter to help me contact the story through the final draft. Fortunately he was interested by the project, by the idea I had, and he accepted. I’m so grateful to him.
We decided to work together for my next feature film. Thomas is really important for me. For me he’s the most interesting scriptwriter in France, so I feel very lucky that he managed to have time to work with me.
DT: The scene where the captain sees the Sufis praying is incredibly powerful. Can you talk about the meaning of the scene and how the meaning affected the way you directed it?
CG: The meaning of that scene is the same as the scene where the soldiers are dancing with the music. Remember the soldier with the tattoo of an eye on his back? This fighter understands that his weapon is not useful anymore for his fight and that he has to find another way to fight and face this phenomenon. In a way it’s a spiritual fight. For the soldier it’s impulsive, an improvised, lawless ceremony. For the Sufi it’s a ritual and collective and old spiritual tradition. These two scenes are connected because they have the same meaning.
The way I directed the Sufi scene was actually quite simple. The sound is from a real ceremony, but the people you see are actors. They just studied the way of Sufi praying, the energy, the movement of the body, but the element you feel in the sound is from a real Sufi ceremony.
DT: You’re a still photographer as well as a filmmaker. How porous are the borders between film and photography for you?
CG: The border between film and photography is quite clear for me. What’s not really clear is the border between fiction, documentary, and video art. What I love in photography is that in just one picture you have everything. A lot of my photographic work is like mise en scene. When you shoot one picture, it’s like a painting; you have one single picture. When I’m shooting a shot in cinema or video, I always have to think, ‘What’s the shot just before and what’s the shot just after?’ Each time you’re creating a picture, you have to relate it to another picture immediately. There is no picture working alone. With a photograph, you can make just one single picture and this picture has its own meaning and there’s no need to have another one connected to that.
DT: Are you a fan of Gregory Crewdson?
CG: I like his work.
DT: You worked with the local population when you shot Neither Heaven nor Earth. How did they relate to the story?
CG: I shot in Morocco, not Afghanistan. It’s a population from the Islamic tradition, but the language is not the same, it’s a completely different situation, and for them a film located in Afghanistan is as far as it is for us. Of course they had the script and they worked with the story, but they had no particular or specific connection to it.
The actors who were playing the Taliban were Iranian or Afghani actors, so there the situation was closer to them, but the Moroccan locals who played the villagers were not even Arabic, they were Berbers. They don’t even speak Arabic, so it’s really far for them. The Afghani situation is a completely different world.
DT: Was the film a warning sign?
CG: That was not my aim, but I really don’t know. As an artist or storyteller, you’re thinking you have to tell a story. You don’t know why or how the world is turning one way or the other.
My film is not about fanaticism or extreme violence or terrorism, so I don’t feel there’s any connection to what’s happening in France today. I made a film about a kind of war that maybe won’t exist anymore—this kind of war where a Western army is sent to a remote country and fights with the locals or the Taliban or whatever but it’s really far and sometimes you have news on the TV. This is not the situation France or the USA or Germany are facing now. Attacks are in the home country, and most of the time from people living in the country—from French or American people—so if you mean this kind of warning, I’m not sure. Of course it’s a consequence, because there was a lot of colonialism in the relationship with these countries, but the situation in France now doesn’t have anything connected or related to what I’m talking about in the film. [Editor’s note: the question was meant to refer to the colonialism Cogitore mentions, not to the recent terrorist attacks in France.]
DT: You mentioned that you are going to be working with Thomas Bidegain again. Is it going to be another film with the same themes, or do you want to completely get away from this in your next film?
CG: It will be completely different. The film will be set in Paris and the main character is a medium, a guy whose business it is to interact with dead people. But he’s a liar and just knows what to say to people who are suffering. One day he will have a real vision, and this vision is going to create a lot of trouble for him.
DT: It sounds wonderful.
CG: I don’t want this to be a comedy, but it won’t be as dramatic as it could be.
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