From the first shot of Rachid Hami's deeply personal film For My Country, we the audience find ourselves completely engrossed by the story. The shots of army cadets going through a hazing of sorts, before it all turns to tragedy, are perfectly cinematic and disturbingly human at once. After the accident at the center of the story happens, we follow the Saïdi family as if they were our own, trying to avenge their son's/brother's/nephew's name and bring some sense of closure to their shattered lives. In the process, we travel several journeys, both personal and across lands and continents, which add more intimate layers to an already profound cinematic experience.
But the genius of the film lies in the fact that the story is told in a way that allows the viewer to fill in the silences, which are masterfully sprinkled in by Hami, aided by some of the best French actors of MENA heritage around. His cast includes Karim Leklou, who starred in Romain Gavras' The World Is Yours and recent Cannes title Sons of Ramses, as well as Lubna Azabal, whom we know and love from Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now, Denis Villeneuve's Incendies, Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus and much much more. But also Shaïn Boumedine as Aïssa Saïdi, the tragic hero figure inspired by the filmmaker's own brother.
It takes real guts to tell such a personal story on the big screen without descending into pathos. Without giving into self pity and making the film slip into a dark and heavy drama that pits the good guys against the bad guys. Hami possesses that self-confidence which also makes him a spellbinding interview.
For My Country world premiered in the Orizzonti section at the Venice International Film Festival and it was a personal highlight to catch up with the French-Algerian filmmaker the next day, in the balmy morning sun of the Lido. We talked about trusting the audience, the power of cinematic silences, embracing our heritage and I also got to ask him if he believes cinema helps change the world. Hami's answer? Read to the end of the interview to find out.
This must have been a very difficult film for you to make, it is so personal. How did you keep yourself going through the shoot, as we often do not want to relive our traumas?
Rachid Hami: The main thing that drove me from the beginning of this project was the fact that I was trying to reinterpret my emotions in an artistic way, through cinema. So each time I was in the moment of reliving a certain situation, I was transforming it in a cinematographic way to avoid having just a movie that would have been more of a documentary.
I wanted to make a movie that would not be a documentary, rather pure cinema.
You succeeded in that, because what makes the film so beautiful for the audience is that we live through a story that feels very cinematic. Part of your success in pulling that off is your choice of actors such as Karim Leklou and Lubna Azabal, as well as your supporting cast. Can you talk a bit about how you chose them?
Hami: I didn’t just choose them — it was them or no one else. They were never just a casual choice, it was always obvious that no other actor could play these characters, and that applied to all the roles. Even the smallest ones. The need for me to recreate a real family, to recreate a real feeling of the army, each of these people that came along in the movie to join me gave me this beautiful gift of trusting me.
Did you write with your actors in mind?
Hami: I wrote from a personal space first. You know, when we are writing, we are writing. And when the moment comes to make the movie, my brain becomes more of a director’s one — when I write I’m more of a screenwriter. Especially for this story, it was a bit of a mess in the writing process, it took me a long time to give birth to the script.
When did you start with the idea?
Hami: The idea is born in 2013, and in between I did other movies, I did La Melodie (“Orchestra Class”) and for me it was always like a journey to come to this movie, because it was the most intimate one. And I wanted to have a certain maturity to not be stuck in my emotions but to be giving to the movie a more philosophical meaning. To give it more depth, and I think it was now the right time for me to tackle this movie, because it was still fresh but I had eight years in between to come to terms with it.
What shows great confidence as a filmmaker is that you allow a lot of silence where the most emotional scenes lie in the film. So I wanted to know from you, how do you find that perfect timing, also in the editing room, because the film never feels long or self indulgent?
Hami: I don’t have an answers for that, it’s just a feeling. It started on the set actually, when I’m with the actors and we start to work, some dialogues felt too much, because they felt like commentaries or explanations. And when I feel that, I tend to remove it and to trust other ways to bring that. I trust the work that we do with the actors. We try to convey emotions in a pictorial way, instead of the verbal way.
And you seem to trust your audience as well, which is such so refreshing in today’s cinema landscape.
Hami: Because I consider the audience all the time when I work — I make movies for the audience. From the beginning of this movie I wanted to make a film that was like an adventure. And in this adventure, I wanted to make them travel, I wanted to take them places and show them a different world from the one they know. And in this process, I was also thinking to give them a place to put their own emotions into the situations and not to tell them what to feel.
I wanted them to have an intimate relationship with the movie that is just their own. If it works, it’s a great gift for a filmmaker because it means we shared something with the audience.
Who were your cinematic influences when you were growing up?
Hami: I think I was always very moved by the movies of Edward Yang and [Akira] Kurosawa. I always have this great sensitivity for Asian cinema, for a long time. And when I speak about Edward Yang it’s because in some ways, it was having a resonance with my personal story about identity — understanding who we are when we are colonized which is the story of Taiwan but also the story of Algeria. And when you are removed from your roots, like they are removed from their own roots I was feeling that too, those themes are common in our experiences of life.
Do you have a favorite film that you revisit from time to time?
Hami: I love cinema too much to have just one movie. When it comes to movies I’m very polygamistic, I’m in love with too many movies. So that’s very difficult.
We talk about the marginalization of people from the MENA region, but there is also incredible beauty in the multiculturalism that you yourself represent. How do you feel about this statement?
Hami: I feel it is our duty to bring about a new vision. This time you have an Algerian family that is French, that has all the cliches we could find in many movies. But everything is different, as we talk about honor, we talk about dignity, we talk about integration, we refuse to disavow that we are Muslim, we embrace it. We embrace our cultural differences and richness and we say that we are part of the society and we bring something to the society. And I think the destiny of my brother is the most absolute proof of it — he was ready to die for France and he died for France because he was betrayed by his like, his comrades in school.
In some ways, who could say today that he is not French enough.
He died in the ultimate French institution, the Army. I forget at times, as I’m asking you questions, that this is such a personal story.
Hami: It’s my purpose! It’s about cinema after all. My purpose is to make you forget it’s a personal story. My purpose is to make you feel you are watching a piece of cinema and you are going through a journey.
Your brother and his inspiration have created an entire cinematic movement.
Hami: Yes, it needs to. We need to get out of the usual social films that we always see. We need to propose something that is going to change the vision we have of what a social movie is. Social movies have been coming on and on, and there is an aesthetic thing in cinema that I try to bring.
Do you think cinema is a good way to change people’s minds?
Hami: Cinema always changes our mindset. General media tells you the same story, all the time, while cinema changes the story. There is a movie I always think of because it changed our perception completely. It’s very recent but when I saw Moonlight it was very enlightening to come to this place. This guy shows you, there is a ghetto, there is people doing drugs but the gangster is not what we think, the little boy is not what we think, and this comes from his personal story — Barry Jenkins’ personal story.
This changed our perceptions and that’s how cinema changes the world.
Portrait of Rachid Hami by © Giorgio Zucchiatti, courtesy of La Biennale.