Director’s Statement of Intent
The film will be shot in colour in 1:85 widescreen format on HDCAM. I would like to be accompanied in this adventure by cinematographer Claire Mathon, who photographed my previous film, Le Chemin Noir, whose technical know-how and artistic sensibility is matched by her humane qualities which are precious assets when shooting with non-professional actors.
Apart from the Oran harbour, all pictures will be shot in the M’Sirda region where I was born, in the top North-West corner of Algeria.
On screen, I’ll play Omar. The final cemetery where we’ll shoot is where my grand-parents and ancestors are buried. Omar’s sister will be my real sister, his father, mine too, and the other characters, except for one, will be genuine Algerian people.
While shooting The Foreign Son, I’ll be on the lookout for what is fragile, hoping to capture it, and to this end, we’ll be open to the unexpected which will surely offer us much better, much truer material than what I could write. Characters are merely sketched in the synopsis. People will be chosen to embody them onscreen because of how they match what I’m looking for and how they know and can intimately be what my film is involved in. They won’t need to “act out.”
To inhabit the character of the deranged Lahcene, I’ll approach a particular dancer I saw dance at the Algiers National Theatre at the end of a training session directed by Abu Lagraa, the Algerian choreographer of “la Baraka” company. Before that session, he had never taken part in any official contemporary dance. I’ll have this dancer meet the real person whom the Lahcène character is based on. I’m sure that without trying to imitate him, he’ll know how to endow his own body with the pain and fright of the original Lahcène. Before the camera, I’ll often ask him to act with economy and restraint. Once, however, releasing his raw creativity and fantastic energy in the heart of nature, he will display a wild, striking danced figuration of the courage mixed with despair that may inhabit theAlgerian youth.
A voice-over will thread along the film: it will be in the first person. It will either be Omar’s or his sister’s voice. They are not “psychological” voices expressing feelings or a perception of the situation onscreen. As presented in the examples of the treatment, they tell of a time in the past of the siblings, of a little detail remained on the side, suspended in their memory. I imagine these voices often speaking over close shots of Omar’s – his body, this face – with an almost imperceptible camera movement, as if we circled slowly around him to slip into his head and read an occasional dream. Close shots of Omar’s face will be rare, aiming to provide breathing spaces in the film during which the viewer will actively make up his own story while Omar wonders about all these things he saw, the words he heard or the dreams he dreamt. Nothing in his face will show his state of mind – surprise, despair or hope. It will be the size of this body within the frame that will tell the state he is in. For instance, when he is a dot in the picture, he is lost.
In the Ghazaouet harbour sequence, when Omar meets that young man who spills his guts and rambles: “my country, it’s here… in my head…,” we’ll mainly see the speaker, the face of that man will take up the whole image, and only at the end of the sequence will we cut to Omar in whom the words of that desperate and lucid young man still resound.
The archive footage will chiefly represent the Algerian point of view – fighters halting or walking rather than pictures of actual fighting. They will not be featured as objective documents. The Algerian war caused the death of over a million Algerians, and there were other conflicts before it. The recent bloody decade also made 200,000 victims. Under Omar’s eyes, it will be as though those dead came back to life momentarily so that he can be in touch with them while he is walking across that land. As if, in order to adopt him, the Algerian land needed that he made his own everything it covered, everything “in its guts”– all the children the land lost, all those peasant dwellings burnt or deserted by the war…
I will view the archives at the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel. I’ll ask them for their support and collaboration, which will be precious, as for my previous feature film.
There will also be sounds – the sound of helicopters, of planes, or bursts of gun fire, and even sometimes a lone gun shot that will be heard across the virginal landscape, without our knowing whether it is a memory of the past Algerian war or the present-day Algerian army tracking down Islamists, or else a hunter in the underbrush covering the hills.
Sound will constantly be a very important element in the film since Omar walks in a slightly hypnotic way, as if blind, and as a blind man, will be all ears. The sound of a motorcycle running in the distance will for instance bring up the fresh memory of an older brother’s motorcycle taking Omar as a child to the banks of the river Mosel, in France, or the sound of a metal chainsaw will remind him of French factories where Omar worked. Sound will not systematically correspond with what is on screen and the meaning of a sequence will often emerge from the friction between image, sound and sometimes the voice-over – each of these elements being like the particular line of an instrument on an orchestral score.
We’ll probably hear some pieces of film music, which will be those that Omar carries inside him: classic contemporary music such as Arvo Pärt’s when Omar is drowned in nature, but also jazz music – such as The Art Ensemble of Chicago or Archie Shepp – when he meets with harragas, those young people wanting to leave, but where to?
Image will be more important than word. Rhythmic, visual and sound correspondences – this work that will be done at the editing stage will express Omar’s hesitation, his sense of loss, and later the profound joy of reuniting with his kindred.
As we read earlier, Omar is always on foot. Only once will we see him get out of a car. It is a yellow taxi that drops his in front of the house turned into a bunker where he was born, and where he meets his old uncle and aunt. At editing, we’ll make sure that those yellow taxis driving along the winding roads are felt like a threat. It is one such vehicle that Omar has seen when he left the port city at the beginning of the film. It carried a coffin and seemed inhabited by ghosts. These cars roam around as if looking for him, like predators for their prey – probably a metaphor of that fear that never lets go of Omar, the fear of meeting his own people as he gets closer to them, the fear of what that meeting will cause in him, the fear of dying in the process and being also carried like a corpse – a fear of stepping “through the looking glass” and not finding the way back to the life he left behind in France. My editor and I will make it perceptible through slight touches, so that it only brushes on the viewer’s mind. However, the viewer will have other reasons to imagine that this journey is a crossing, a passage to “the land of the dead.” Indeed, upon Omar’s first visit, the family cemetery is deserted. When he comes back again later, it will be crowded: his father will be there, and his sister too, a tragic figure dressed in black, and horsemen as well, dressed as those of Emir Abdelkader, against entrancing background music. Which side of the mirror will we then be on?
The narration borrows from the fairytale. It is the country itself and its history that come to Omar and unveil to him. Omar is moved around more than he moves himself, as if that journey was a dream which Amina, the little fairy of tales, has inspired in him. However, Amina will not be a hieratic character. She will be very real, laughing, playing like children do, and yet, she will also be the one watching over Omar’s sleep, bringing him to do what he has not done – visit his mother’s grave. It is Amina who will put a tortoise in his hand like an appeasing animal, as if to say: “Go ahead without fear, you are on the right way.” Amina can also be viewed as the eyes of Algerian nature fondling this prodigal son returning to her, but also as the eyes of Fatima, the sister whom we’ll never know whether she is alive or dead.
It is a story of land. The landscapes where we’ll shoot are located right by the sea. But we’ll frame them in a way that places the Algerian blue sky and the sea on the edge or off screen altogether. The sea, which will take up the whole screen in the opening of the film, will only be seen again at the very end, in the epilogue. The Algerian nature has “dressed up” to greet her returning son. It is rugged and beautiful, virginal looking: spreads of wild grass, rocks, trees, flowers, animals, bathed in the soft spring light. The viewer will be free to imagine that the shepherd seen catching a lamb to sling it across his shoulders may be Jason, on his quest of the golden fleece.