(Published in Sify.com on 28 May, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/movies/cannes-exclusive-merzak-allouache-on-surviving-terrorism-news-hollywood-mf2kkWifidh.html)
French-Algerian director Merzak Allouache is one of the top-billed contestants for the Director’s Fortnight Award at the Cannes Film Festival 2012. His film, The Repentant, tells the story of a surrendered militant, trying to fit back into the scheme of things under the new Civil Concord policy brought in by the government to end terrorism. He returns from the mountains, to his family’s disbelief and delight. But his reception from the townsfolk is mixed, and he’s blamed for everything the militants he had run away to join had done to the place and people. His fear of harassment from the police, from his neighbours, and from his former “brothers”, drives Rachid to take an extreme step – bribe a couple to show them their abducted daughter’s grave. Nandini Krishnan spoke to Merzak Allouache ahead of the announcement of the awards.
You’ve said the film was inspired by an article in a newspaper, in which a man had written in to the editor, saying he had received one such “offer” from a “repentant” – to be shown his daughter’s grave in exchange for money. How did you structure the film around it, and decide to focus on the militant instead of the father?
I first read this article in a newspaper, and thought it was a very horrendous, incredible story. You see, there had been a lot of violence in Algeria, which had stopped to a large extent thanks to this Civil Concord. But it was a sudden stop, it was like something we couldn’t speak about at all, this Islamist movement. And now, thanks to what is happening in the other Arab countries, we have started, little by little, to speak about this violence that existed in Algeria. And the central character was the militant, because he has more to do with the focus of this film, which is that disturbance, than the father.
You kept the “offer” in suspense for most of the film. The audience only knew that the father was devastated by something the repentant had said. What was the reason for keeping it secret?
What I’m interested in is the relation between the characters. I’m interested in the silence. I don’t want you to know straightaway what the secret is about. I want the viewer to actually follow the characters and try to figure out what kind of relationship these three characters have with one another.
I went to the film blind, so all I knew was that this militant surrenders. I expected him to be harassed by the militants whom he had left behind, or by the police, but what happens is that he himself turns aggressor in order to run away because of his fear of harassment, and not actual torment. How did you arrive at this understanding of his psyche?
I believe that when you see the film, you understand somehow what the psychology of this character is. This youngster has been manipulated in a way. We don’t really know why he became a terrorist, or how he fought, or how he left. We don’t know how much of a repentant he is. We somehow have doubts about whether he has actually left that life behind. So, I like leaving things to the viewer to construct, I leave it to the intelligence of the audience to understand the characters and their situation. The film doesn’t seek to provide answers. I’m trying to pose questions, and leave things for the viewer to figure out. What happened in the heads of all these characters – the father, the mother, the repentant, the policeman – is what I’m interested in.
The end of the film seems to be very definite, compared to the vagueness of the story. We see militants approach the group led by Rachid, we hear shots, and there’s a sense of finality. We don’t know where their story begins, but we see it end, we know they’ve been killed.
Are you sure? (Laughs) Well, no actually, I felt everything is left to the viewer even in this scene. You hear the shots. But you can think many things. You can think only the terrorist – the repentant – has been killed, and the others have been abducted. You can think all three of them are killed. You can think the terrorist is an accomplice to the militants he supposedly left. So, I don’t think it’s definite. I could have chosen to make you see a bloody scene, or brought it to a resolution, but this isn’t my problem.
You made up a very interesting character in the mother of the child, who wasn’t even a part of the original incident that inspired the film. She speaks to the repentant calmly, and wants to know what happened to her child, but she loses it when he refers to the kidnapper as “one of the other brothers”. The implication in the story is that the couple separated after their daughter was abducted. Often, the woman seems stronger than her husband. How did you envision this character?
When I speak about the article as the basis of my screenplay, I mean it was only part of what inspired it. I had to accommodate other events, envision other situations and characters to fill out the story. The article had been written by a man, who was speaking about his child, but didn’t say anything about his wife. For all I know, she could have been dead, or muted by grief, or maybe not a strong person at all. But this woman in the movie embodies what women have done through what we call the Black Decade in Algeria – the most terrible years of terrorism. Women were most often braver, and more courageous, than men during this time. They kept on marching against terrorism. They kept on taking their children to school despite the fact that the terrorists had forbidden it. So, the woman character in my film is some kind of homage, and I also worked a lot on the action that this woman could have. It was interesting to me to work out some of the violence that could build up inside this car, some behind closed doors scenes as the tension rises. At what point would her patience give way, at what point would she turn on him?
The woman may seem a contradiction to people in the West – she wears a hijab, and smokes throughout.
Yes, precisely. Let them see it and accept it. It does exist, and I wanted to portray the reality in my film.