Prophet: Interview with Director Jacques Audiard

A highlight of the 2009 Cannes Film Fest, “A Prophet,” Jacques Audiard’s award-winning drama will be released by Sonny Classics in the late fall after traveling the festival road. (See Review).


Condemned to six years in prison, Malik El Djebena, part Arab, part Corsican, cannot read or write. Arriving at the jail entirely alone, he appears younger and more fragile than the other convicts. He is 19 years old. Cornered by the leader of the Corsican gang currently ruling the prison, he is given a number of “missions” to carry out, toughening him up and gaining the gang leader’s confidence in the process. Malik is a fast learner and rises up the prison ranks, all the while secretly devising his own plans.


The irony in the title of A Prophet


Audiard: The title acts as a sort of injunction, moving people to consider something which isn’t necessarily developed in the film – namely, that we’re dealing with a little prophet, a new prototype of a guy.  Originally I wanted to find a French equivalent of “Gotta Serve Somebody” a Bob Dylan song which says that we are always in the service of someone. I liked the fatalism and the moral dimension of this title but I simply never found a satisfying translation, so it stayed A PROPHET (UN PROPHÈTE).


How did you come to tell the story?


What interested both myself and my co-writer Thomas Bidegain was to ask how we could begin with an idea given to us by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit and create a pertinent cinematic story. We had to find a way to make A PROPHET (UN PROPHÈTE) resonate in a contemporary way.  We wanted to create heroes out of people that we didn’t know, that didn’t already have an iconic representation in cinema. Arabs are a good example. In France the tendency in cinema is to represent them in a naturalistic or sociological fashion. So instead, we chose to do a pure genre film, in the manner of a western that spotlights people we don’t know and transforms them into heroes.


Casting the youthful looking Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena


I was always attracted to certain masculine prototypes that weren’t necessarily characterized by their levels of testosterone. There are many similarities between atthieu Kassovitz with whom I worked with several times and Tahar Rahim. Not necessarily in that one makes me think of the other, but both are male prototypes that I find intriguing.


Allowing the spectator to identify with the character?


I have problems projecting identification beyond myself but, of course there was that desire. I found it more pertinent than the usual prison film cliché of having the place full of super virile men. The convicts in my film aren’t muscle men, they’re not made for this environment but paradoxically, they go on to develop the qualities that permit them to rise above the rest and dominate.


Te idea that knowledge Gives Access to Power


Yes, and it’s this idea that I find most interesting. This type of person breaks the mold. He’s not your usual hooligan. Following Malik, we see his mind at work, a mind that shows phenomenal adaptability. He uses this adaptability through various scenarios, first and foremost to save his skin, and then to survive and improve his lot. Ultimately, this helps him reach another level of power.


The film evokes another character, Dehousse in Self Made Hero


Yes, you could say that these characters are models of a certain type of education.

I chose to introduce these people in utter destitution. From there, we give them an opportunity, a possibility to construct a heroic personality. The story of A PROPHET(UN PROPHÈTE) , depicts someone who reaches a position that he could never have attained had he not gone to prison. Here lies the paradox.


Tuning Malik into a hero


In part from following the image of Arabs in cinema, which is either stupid, representing them as terrorists, or simply naturalistic, in a sort of social realist context. It was this idea that brought me very quickly to the question of casting. For the role of Malik, we needed someone extremely polymorphic who would correspond perfectly to the theme of identity in the film. A young man, who has no history, yet will write one before our very eyes. From early on we knew this role couldn’t be filled by a known actor precisely because it’s a story of a rise to power, to visibility.


The desire to decompartmentalize French cinema?


It’s inherent in the project. I don’t have a long filmography, I’ve only directed five films. I’ve worked with Matthieu Kassovitz, Vincent Cassel, Romain Duris, and other actors of formidable talent. But after THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED, I wanted to work with unknowns. This idea went hand in hand with the feeling that cinema should have a strong social inscription that if it doesn’t recount the world as it is, as it plays out, then what use is it? When I say that, it’s not a polemic, it’s just my way of registering fiction into what would seem to be reality.  I think that in France today, cinema is incredibly reductive on this point of view. I don’t know the reality French cinema so often speaks of. Therefore, one of the film’s goals was to break down this idea of casting as much as it was to take into account the fact that the world changes and that heroic figures must evolve. In my mind there are new mythologies to build on new faces and new routes to follow.


Malik’s detached and opportunist rapport with his identity.


The Corsicans consider him an Arab and the Arabs as a Corsican. He is permanently between the two camps. However he will naturally lean towards his community. It’s here that he will discover something he has been ignoring. In the same fashion, he is part hooligan and part believer.


The ghost that accompanies Malik and inspires his mystical visions?


The film does have fantastical moments but it’s not because of an intention to be mystical. Reyeb’s ghost comes from the scriptwriters as a way of helping us into the possibilities, a way of to passing into a level of freedom and imagination. It’s also thanks to him that we also invoke the ideas of Sufism and the Dervishes and allows the screenplay to take on another dimension.

The current cinema trend for darker, damaged heroes.


There is always a default way of making anti-heroes. This doesn’t interest me so much. I like my heroes to learn something, to put it to use. I find that cinema has that function: it looks at the real to teach us how to use it. Perhaps the lesson which strikes Malik is paradoxical, but it still interests me.


The Idea of Learning


To learn, to be attentive, to not open one’s mouth all the time, to be reserved and most of all to not make the same mistake twice because the third time you’ll be dead.


Is A Prophet a moral film?


Yes, what would have been immoral would have been to create a character without conscience. However he is conscious of both good and evil precisely because of all the evil that has been inflicted upon him.


Mailk’s mysterious smile at the moment of the shooting?


Malik suddenly has the feeling of invulnerability, as if he becomes like a character in a film who cannot be hurt. The others are reaching a stalemate in the events which are unfolding. Malik is a person who, instead of getting heavier under the weight events as they transpire, gets lighter, and frees himself, little by little.


The prison as a metaphor


Evidently, genre films always present themselves as metaphor. The character was incarcerated for a long sentence. The intention was that he would understand within himself that which would serve him later. When he finally arrives outside, he is at a parallel between the two universes.


The character of Cesar played by Niels Arestrup as a king.


Yes, in reference to the characters of Giono. A King; an ogre at the end of his road that will reign over a tribe of spiders.


The character of Cesar is based on mythical archetype.


It’s true, but we didn’t want to be too literal. Niels Arestrup in the role of a Corsican godfather is fairly improbable and it’s because of this that the film reverberates in a more interesting way.


Cesar’s relationship with Malik


At the time of writing we really wanted to maximize the idea of a father/son to underscore the master/slave relationship. Cesar is not the father of Malik but he holds him under his power. He is hard with him and shows no paternal tenderness at all. There is no sentiment of friendship or affection between them. It is uniquely a relationship of control.


Your other films show love stories and Prophet seems abruptly stripped of this


I think it’s linked to Malik, and to what we make him do. As Malik is really someone who comes from nowhere, there simply isn’t time to construct a love story. It’s for this reason, at the end of the film that we suggest he could be with Djamila. Because his life was ‘amputated’ very early on by prison, he takes on the life of someone else which of course, suits him fine. With this conclusion we wanted to suggest that taking his place beside Djamila was his intention all along. It’s both peaceful and calming and he’ll probably make a great father.


The ending of the film suggests a sequel


Indeed. It does induce us to question Malik’s destiny with this woman, this child and his life stretched out before him. Especially since Malik is a hooligan that hates hooligans, finding them unreliable, stupid and dangerous. He is someone with a very critical viewpoint. He wouldn’t tolerate bling or outward signs of hooliganism.  I would like to see Malik continue to develop his skills and watch him learn. A little like in THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED. That through trying to become a concert pianist the hero becomes really competent. He’s like Malik in the way that we leave everything just formed and we sense that he has an interesting future…


One of your talents as director is to create ideal conditions to make a film


What you say pre-supposes that I’m conscious of myself in some way – which I’m not. Only production companies like Why Not can make the object coincide with the tool. Elsewhere it would be complicated for me. To direct a film is something difficult, very heavy. Either way it’s the only profession that I am capable of doing. I believe that people see qualities in me that I don’t necessarily feel I have. Those that surround me have more confidence in my abilities and it’s these people who push me forward. The fact that I took a long time to write, that I fully metabolised my story, that I fully questioned the pertinence of the subject, to have searched and immersed myself in a real cinema project, to have followed a long preparatory phase – gave me the feeling of knowing what the film should be like. After this you have to make others understand the world in which the film is situated and this phase is a passionate one. It’s a process that makes cinema unique, when we collectively make a creative project. The only thing that I know for certain is in which conditions and how the film needs to shine from the fundamentals. Sometimes the collective conscious doesn’t work at every level and that can be accompanied by moments of loneliness or doubt. There are moments when I no longer know what makes sense. It’s for this reason that I’m both happy and grateful for the support and of the people with whom I work.


Any constraints by the budget?


I felt the pressure on many levels on this film! It’s a dense screenplay which we already estimated would be 2 hours 30 running time before shooting so we knew it would be a long and difficult shoot. Additionally, it was impossible to film in natural surroundings so we had to construct a prison, a difficult task that removed us a little from naturalism. Next we had to populate the prison, to give it life, and that constitutes a considerable amount of people to organize each day on set. So at that point the prison itself was a character with its significant part to play. In directing the mise en scène you had to work in reverse and put the background in place before the actors. It is this aspect which most signified the constraints and upheaval to shoot in such an environment.


A film anchored in popular culture?


This is what I wanted to do. Basically, we wanted to make an anti-SCARFACE. For me, neurotics are pure cretins and simply cannot be objects for identification.  The rise to power of an absolute crazy person does not interest me at all.


Director of actors


With the actors, we go deep into stripping down the character, but it’s only so far as to accompany them in their states. If you remain clothed, if you express your fear, your concern, you won’t have the engagement of the actors. You have to be with them, to go through the same surprises, to doubt together and to be scared all the time together… otherwise, as soon as these things become ‘accepted’ it is like sleeping.


What do you expect from an actor?


What I’m looking for in an actor is precisely what I’m not expecting. That they are capable of producing something that I didn’t prepare. And I think it’s also what they wish, that the devices set up for them will take them to a new place.


Your cinema seems free of constraints of traditional framework.


Indeed, beforehand I was in a more geometric or mechanical way of working. I thought of the technical aspect before thinking of the acting. But since READ MY LIPS the reverse became apparent. Even if technical aspect was important, it’s the actor that counts first.


Images totally obscured leaving only one detail.


Yes, it’s a little effect I call ‘La Mano Negra’ which I did for my super 8 films and, now I do it on a larger scale, it’s an expensive special effect. In fact, it’s just because I find sometimes that there is too much image, too much light, too much ‘field’, that its too open and it needs to be reduced. These are completely fetishist relationships I have to the image. I am always amazed by the image of silent films which come to us after generations of inter-positives and inter-negatives. They seem to emerge from such a far away world.


Is it a form of signature?


No, and I would have to stop if it seemed that way. I do feel that I have to stop with the film and chemical tools. It’s a relationship that’s too fetishist which can be imprisoning. I no longer know if its a good tool for looking at the world.


It’s something we can only imagine in cinemascope.


I tried lots of different material for this film. HD, 16mm, ultra-light cameras, most of which failed to impress me. Of course I thought of scope but I didn’t retain the idea because scope means I was obliged to define too much. I though I’d be really unhappy after two weeks because the story and the set design were creating real antibodies in me… I tested a few stylistic things on the side which would never have really worked. But finally it was the film which dictated its own aesthetic, an aesthetic that was set in stone.