Laurent Cantet, better known for “La Classe”, his film Palme d’Or de Cannes 2008 on a teacher and his Métis students in a disadvantaged Parisian suburb, highlights the flaws of French society in the reflection project “Arthur Rambo . ”
The film, which premiered in Toronto in the Platform section and in competition in San Sebastian, is inspired by the true story of Mehdi Meklat, a young man who grew up in a French project in the Parisian suburbs and became a journalist. star and an author celebrated by the main French media and intellectual circles on the left. But in 2017, as Meklat reached the peak of its success, it was publicly shut down and dropped by its editor after his heinous tweets – written under a pseudonym before he rose to fame – came to light. The film follows the fall of this anti-hero over the next 48 hours.
Rabah Nait Oufella (“Raw”), who starred in “The Class” as a child, delivers a groundbreaking performance as Karim D. aka Arthur Rambo. The rest of the cast is made up of Antoine Reinartz (“BPM (beats per minute)”) and Sofian Khammes (“Chouf”). Cantet wrote the screenplay with Fanny Burdino (“After Love”) and Samuel Doux (“The Prayer”).
The themes of the film are both universally relevant and extremely touchy as societies around the world struggle to define the limits of free speech online, especially when it flirts with hate speech; and fight against the so-called “cancellation” of public figures on social networks. These burning questions take on an even more dramatic dimension when applied to a person belonging to an ethnic group who is the victim of systemic discrimination in France, going so far as to ask whether there is a double standard in terms of sanction.
“Arthur Rambo” is produced by Marie-Ange Luciani at Films de Pierre, the company behind Robin Campillo’s Grand Prix in Cannes “BPM (Beats Per Minute)”, and co-produced by Alexandre Mallet-Guy at Memento Films Production (“A hero”) by Asghar Farhadi and France 2 Cinéma. Underlining its contemporary resonance, the film has already been sold by the Parisian company Playtime in Canada (MK2 Mile End), in Brazil (Vitrine Filmes), in Spain (Golem), in Portugal (Films 4 You), in Scandinavia (Scanbox) , in Israel (Lev Cinema), Benelux (Cineart), Switzerland (Filmcoopi), Turkey (Bir Film) and Taiwan (Av Jet).
While in San Sebastián to present “Arthur Rambo”, Cantet chatted with Variety on his interest in the story of Mehdi Meklat, as well as on the sub-themes and societal implications of his film.
The case of Mehdi Meklat is so fascinating and at the same time so complicated to talk about it without ending up on a slippery slope. What made you want to make this story into a movie?
The true story that inspired this film had given me a lot of questions. How could this young man who was the author of articles that I found incredible on the blog of Le Monde (the great national newspaper) and that I listen to regularly on France Inter (a leading radio station), could he be? the same person who wrote those tweets – which of course I didn’t know and found out when the scandal erupted. I asked myself: “How could all of this coexist in his head? This is actually what his girlfriend asks him in the movie. It was this kind of schizophrenia that interested me. Not in the register of pathology, but rather because it seemed to reveal a generalized immaturity vis-à-vis social networks. I think young people like him, when they write their tweets, they often do it without thinking about it, and the internet has a rock-solid memory.
Can you elaborate?
It was very rewarding to be on the sidelines and to be a punk, not to follow the general order, but today, the goal of people on social networks is to please the greatest number, to make exist the most popular likes and followers. .
The film also shows France as a fragmented society.
Yes, the film describes a very compartmentalized social geography. We see it through the reaction of Karim’s younger brother. This is where we realize the weight of words, and the fact that we do not write them with impunity.
Even though it only took six seconds on a phone keypad, words are loaded and we often forget it when we want to be the first to respond, or the most provocative, or win the best punchline.
It must have been a very difficult part for Rabah Nait Oufella as he’s not a particularly likeable character, and yet he needed to build empathy.
I think Rabah has totally succeeded and found the right balance. It’s not nice, but it’s neither a monster, nor a victim. He knew how to express the complexity of his character.
We don’t really know what Karim really thinks and believes in, whether he’s Arthur Rambo deep down, or his civilized alter-ego Karim.
That’s what interested me. I wanted to create a character that was sufficiently enigmatic in the eyes of the public, but also in his own. I think he doesn’t understand what is happening to him and is deaf. The film shows him visiting people around him who keep asking him the same question: “Why the hell did you write these things?” And he has no answer. We slowly show him becoming more aware; he is on an inner journey, the last stop of which is with his mentor, who believed in him, and is like a mother to him. She said to him, “Now go to work. It means “now is the time for you to seriously think about the consequences of what you have done and to grow taller.”
So to you, when Karim writes anti-Semitic tweets or stuff celebrating terrorism, is it just provocation and he doesn’t realize what he’s writing?
It is about provocation, which leads to a form of extremism and simplification. It’s all about slogans. There have always been and they have always led to extremism because in three words, it is impossible to address the complexity of a thoughtful discourse. Also, these tweets are an expression of (their) anger, and social media feeds anger, extremism and totalitarian thinking.
The film also wonders if there are not double standards when it comes to punishing a young person who has no power or status.
Yes, when you see that Eric Zemmour, (a French journalist and prominent presidential hopeful known for his anti-Muslim comments) continues to have shows on public television, it is surprising that he has not been put on public television. away because of his statements. He was able to broadcast his hate speech in the mainstream media. When you are a young person whose parents are immigrants, who will be immediately sanctioned.
But you also show in the film Karim frankly admitting his prejudices towards the Jews.
Because indeed, it reflects the reality of French projects. I approach it very carefully because I do not want to stigmatize these disadvantaged young people who are so often stereotyped in our popular culture. They should not be put all in the same basket as a homogeneous group which is defined by its anti-Semitism or by its violence. This group is not more homogeneous than the festival-goers of San Sebastián.
Don’t you think that there is also an awareness problem which could be partly solved by education and transmission?
This is something that I strongly believe in and I hope the film contributes to it. I think if young people see the film and think about their own practice, then the film will not have been made in vain. I am also very happy that the film’s distributor (Memento Distribution) is setting up a collaboration with schools in France to help teachers address these issues. I think movies can sometimes tackle complex subjects in a more subtle and intelligible way than a sociological essay.