London River: Interview with Actress Brenda Blethyn

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Rachid Bouchareb’s “London River,” a follow-up to the Oscar nominated “Indigenes” (aka “Days of Glory”) is a tale about love, hope, vulnerability, and humanity.   It’s the story of a man named Ousmane and a woman named Mrs. Sommers, both humble people living ordinary lives, he in France, she in the Channel Islands. He has a son, she has a daughter, and both kids are students in London.
 
On July 7th 2005, without any news of their dear children, they decide to start a journey together in search of the teenagers. And although they come from different religious backgrounds–Ousmane is Muslim and Mrs. Sommers’ Christian–they will share the same hope in finding their children alive. Putting aside their cultural differences, they give each other the strength to continue the search and maintain the faith.
 
Q: Your involvement in the project? What was it about the screenplay that attracted you it?
 
Blethyn: Actually, when Rachid asked to meet in London and I didn’t know who he was! But I met him anyway and he was really quite inspiring: everything about him – his attitude, his demeanour, these things. And of course it helped that he liked my work! Then I saw ‘DAYS OF GLORY’ and I thought it was wonderful. But I wasn’t sure that the dates were going to fit – and if I remember rightly at this point he didn’t even have the script ready, just the story. The other thing was at the time the incident was still really very fresh in the memory. It still is, but then it was even more so. But then the film isn’t about that incident, it just takes place then, that’s when their paths cross. And I found my character’s ignorance of the Muslim faith interesting – I think many people are ignorant of others’ faiths. Although it’s not about that either though really. I just thought, two people, completely different cultures, completely different faiths, coming together and finding a meeting ground, it’s an interesting story. And I knew it would be a good film with Rachid directing. So Rachid said he’d wait for me, which took nearly a year in end. Then of course there was the fact of working in French, which was a new challenge for me.
 
Q: Performing in another language?
 
I didn’t speak very much French before I agreed to do the film–a little bit, but not enough. Prior to shooting I was working up in Manchester, so I went to a French school to get some tuition. Sadly like anything else, it fades if you don’t keep it up, but I did learn enough to improvise during the shoot. What I’d have to do was anticipate what might come up, so that if a scene went into that area I would be able to improvise. And of course, I was surrounded by French people all speaking French. All the crew were speaking French, all the instructions were in French.
 
Q: That must have been difficult
 
We got by. Sometimes it was hard, but people helped me. Occasionally we had to scrabble around to find translators. In any case, it didn’t have to be perfect French – after all, she’s an English speaker, talking French. The character lives in Guernsey, where many people are bilingual. I don’t think she was born there, but has lived there for many years.
 
Q: Your character finds herself in a foreign country that is as alien to her as it is to Ali’s father.
 
It’s foreign to both of them really. They’ve both come from working with land, nature. It’s a sleepy place, Guernsey: trying to find someone in the middle of the bustle of London, when you come from order, must be a nightmare. Also she’s very reserved. In the alley, for example, when she meets the butcher, she’s thrown–that’s not the sort of person she’d interact with. And its only when he explains that he’s the landlord that she lets down her guard. He’s got a role then. She says to her brother on the phone, “Its crawling with muslims”. I was a little wary about that phrase, which was an adlib, but that’s the way she thought. Suddenly she’s been embroiled into this strange world. Being an outsider in that community must be as close as white people come to the experience of exclusion that many black people have – just look how helpful the police were as soon as she mentioned that there was a black muslim with a picture of her daughter!
 
Q: She’s certainly very insular; is she a racist?
 
Not racist, but certainly ignorant. She’s conservative. Then again, in Sotigui’s culture, too, there are prejudices. There, I think, the women are still to some extent second class citizens – for example it’s frowned upon for a woman to smoke in front of a man in that culture. When my character lights that cigarette in front of him – and she doesn’t even smoke! – you can see that’s something he’s uncomfortable with. But I suppose you could say that it takes something of these proportions to make people think about these things. If it hadn’t been for those terrible events she’d still be at home, feeding her donkeys – she wouldn’t even have thought about other ways of life, hers was ok thank you. She was perfectly happy with the prejudice she didn’t know she had! Then this happens, and she starts to question everything. Where is she, where is her daughter? I think really until the perpetrators are caught, she still must think that she’s been kidnapped or something, maybe held for ransom. And at the same time she’d even think that that’s absurd to think that, that her daughter’s probably just too scared to call her, because she knows the sort of reaction that she’d get if she were to call up and say “Mum, I’ve met this guy, he’s black, we’re getting married at the mosque.” The silly thing is, when it comes to it, she’s actually pretty ok with it. She reaches the point where she can leave a message for her daughter about buying a new hat for the wedding. In the end it’s ok, because nothing’s as bad as her child being lost. Nothing’s so bad that she can’t call her mum, they’ll deal with it.
 
Q: You and Sotigui come from very different backgrounds. How did you find working together?
 
It was a hugely pleasant experience! Being with Sotigui was like being in the presence of royalty. The majesty of the man is… well, how lucky was I to be working with him? He’s just wonderful, and I just hope a little of what he had rubbed off on me. He has true inner strength. We’d have long long conversations, both of us struggling to be understood, and by hook or by crook we got there. With a bit of pigeon English, a bit of pigeon Malian, and a bit of pigeon French on my part–we’d sit for ages chatting. The whole family was great really. Everyone. Working in the East End of London, the weather was terrible, it rained everyday, but everyone that contributed was wonderful. And then we went off to France to shoot all the interiors and the Guernsey scenes and it was even better! Sometimes you get a project that ticks all the boxes: above all the people you meet, who you admire and you want to go on that journey with. And it was a journey I’m glad I took, because I learnt something along the way.