In an homage to John Ford’s The Searchers, director Thomas Bidegain tells the story of a young Frenchwoman who leaves home to convert to Islam. Convinced she’s been brainwashed, her father embarks on a mission to bring her home that will lead him around the world, his unwilling son in tow. •Availability: Opens June 24 New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Click here for trailer and theater listings. •Thanks to Emma Myers and Nathaniel Baruch, Brigade Marketing, and the New York Film Festival for arranging this interview.•
DT: It seems that some people love the film, like I did, while others don’t respond to it at all.
TB: They’re seeing it as all white or all black. I think the film is very straightforward. There’s no irony in it at all. It’s just first degree all along, so if you watch it and don’t get inside—if you look at it from afar—it will seem improbable. If you enter the film, you’ll believe. You will believe because this film has a classical thing to it, this suspension of disbelief, like you have to believe that Humphrey Bogart was a marine officer. So when people get in and are there for a good ride, they’re very moved at the end. The film has that quality of being very straightforward. It doesn’t try to be clever.
DT: Don’t you think that’s true of genre films in general, and especially contemporary Westerns? There’s something very distancing about a Western in this day and age. You have to come to it with a determined viewpoint, saying, I am going to suspend my disbelief in order to get into this film.
TB: You have to get in with a certain amount of naivete, a freshness. Extend a generosity to it. Say, OK, I’m in for a ride. If you try to judge, it will seem very long. But I’m very proud of the film. It’s exactly the film I wanted to make.
DT: You’ve written many wonderful screenplays, but this is your first time directing.
TB: When you direct, it’s a machine to reveal yourself. It’s very different from screenwriting, where you can always hide. When you’re directing, you make all the decisions, and each decision will reveal something of you. And to you. It’s a weird process.
DT: Will directing a film change the way you write?
TB: I’ll write shorter scripts. Also, through editing, I learned a lot about what things to get rid of.
DT: Let’s talk about the European fascination with cowboy culture. As an American, it’s very hard for me to understand. What do cowboys represent in Europe, especially in relation to 9/11?
TB: A lot of communities celebrate country/Western culture; there are a lot of festivals, all year long, every weekend. Sometimes it’s just about the music, sometimes it’s more about the dance. People love to square dance. Sometimes it’s the horses, but it’s always with that cowboy theme. About twenty percent of the people are really decked out, but the rest are just wearing a hat or boots, like the father in the film.
I think it’s something reassuring for them, plus it’s very white. You go there and it’s very nice and everybody’s very nice, but at one point you look around and say, This is not [ethnically] mixed at all. So it’s nice, but within a limit. When you come to a festival like that from Paris, you say, Something’s strange here.
I wanted to create certain images because I wanted to talk about the community. The fact that the daughter leaves will affect the life of her father, her family, but also the entire community will be changed. And even the life of a girl in Pakistan will be changed because of that. It’s like a ripple effect. This community is us. The movie opens with a country/Western festival. The second time you see the festival, we’ve included a woman in a veil, and you have an image of our society. It’s just that: this community is our community. You always have to think about the images that the story will produce, and this is definitely one that I had in mind from the very beginning.
DT: You dealt with sensitive material in an intelligent way. How did you avoid stereotypes?
TB: I always believe in being true to the character, really telling the story from their point of view. We never show anything the main character doesn’t see; it’s always their point of view. There are no crane shots, it’s always at their height.
Sometimes they don’t understand, sometimes they get thrown. Small people get thrown into the tumult of the world—that’s really what the film is about. So yes, it’s sensitive material. Sometimes the father will say something racist, but it’s the father, not the film. If you’re above the characters, you have to judge, but if you’re at their level, then you just have to go through it. Life forces us to go through things and sometimes we don’t know what to do, like the second country/Western festival, where people are trying to rip Shahzana’s veil off. The sheriff is helpless; he just doesn’t know what to do.
DT: The next question deals with The Searchers. What were the dangers of remaking such an iconic film?
TB: It’s not a remake. I took the theme. If I was to make a remake, I would never have chosen The Searchers. I was inspired by the theme and wanted to make an homage to all the films that gave me so much. I’ve learned so much from John Ford, John Huston, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz. I’ve loved so much from those classics that it was very important for me to pay that homage and to give back.
When I had the idea for this story, I knew it was my song, and I knew it was for me to sing—not to write it for somebody else. I have a very specific American cinephilia that’s about those times, so it’s more an homage than a remake.
DT: In The Searchers, John Wayne is forced to confront his racism. Does the father do that in this film?
TB: The film starts with people who think they’re cowboys and believe Arabs are the Indians. That’s why I wanted to confront this culture.
At one point in the ’90s, when the movie starts, people were talking about a world civilization and what would happen when two cultures collide. What better portrait, what better metaphor can you find for a war of civilizations than cowboys and Indians? I believe that the father cannot reconcile with the other because he thinks they are a civilization and they are apart; he believes he is a cowboy, and he believes the other guys, the Muslims, are the Indians. His son, Kid, will not see Muslims as a civilization. He will see them as human beings, so there’s the possibility of reconciliation at that moment. That’s where racism is: seeing the other as a different civilization. They’re not. They’re just human beings. As long as you see things as world civilizations, as cowboys and Indians, no reconciliation is possible.
DT: What was the political climate like when you were writing the film?
TB: I first read about jihad a long time ago, when nobody was talking about jihad. While we were writing the film, we were reading more and more testimony in the papers depicting scenes that we had already written. At one point we were afraid that the subject matter would devour the film because it was too overwhelming. While we were shooting on the border between India and Pakistan, everybody said, Be careful. One week later in Paris, it was the Charlie Hebdo shooting. We go to Pakistan, and it’s the homeland that’s under attack.
Everyone in the cast and crew was very shaken by that. We spent our night listening to the radio while we were shooting, but I talked with almost everybody, and we felt the only thing we could do was this kind of film: represent the world, portray what it is when that kind of tragedy happens to you. Don’t try to explain it, just show. I think that in itself is a political act. Just to represent.
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