Arab stars show way to French box office

Foreign heritage no longer a detriment to stardom

PARIS — It’s a great advertisement for tolerance and no small achievement for cinema that today’s stars at the Gallic box office are just as likely to be called Jamel, Jalil or Roschdy as they are Gerard, Jean or Vincent.

Part of the generation known as les beurs, French street slang for Arabs, thesps such as the single-monikered Jamel , Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem and Said Taghmaoui as well as a half a dozen others have become an important element of Gaul’s recent cinematic renaissance.

“Their success is a reflection of today’s society and the fact that those with Arab roots are better integrated in France than ever before,” says Bertrand de Labbey, chairman of France’s largest talent agency Artmedia, which represents Zem and Jamel .

Their success has taken a long time to foment says agent Laurent Gregoire, who represents Franco-Arab thesps Gad Elmaleh and Ramzi at Intertalents.

“Those reaping the rewards of today are mostly second-generation Arabs. … “The previous generation of Franco-Arab actors struggled to make a mark because they basically performed a (stereotypical) function; (for example, playing) the Arab immigrant before being able to play a bank manager or teacher, etc.,” says Gregoire.

Moroccan bridge

One of the new generation’s hottest properties is 25-year-old Jamel, whose parents moved his family from Morocco to France in 1979.

Jamel, who began his showbiz career as a stand-up comedian, is now a household name in France thanks to popular TV shows like Canal Plus’ sitcom “H” and roles in hits such as UGC’s “Amelie” and Pathe’s “Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra.”

Expected to give “Asterix” a run for the local B.O. crown is the third installment of the moneyspinning “Taxi” series, which opens Oct. 16, starring another actor with Arab roots Samy Naceri.

The series, produced by Luc Besson’s Europa, about a speed-loving cabby, has made Naceri one of the hottest acting properties in French cinema. The 41-year-old thesp will next be seen starring with Isabelle Adjani (herself half Algerian) in helmer Laetitia Masson’s “La Repentie” (ARP), slated for local release April 17.

Although these actors have found success, there is still the ghost of prejudice in the biz.

Hail Cesar

Jalil Lespert, who won a French Cesar for best newcomer in Laurent Cantet’s 1999 pic “Human Resources,” says, “My skin color is quite light, so the kind of roles I play are not always those of Arabs — sometimes I might be Frank, other times Karim.

“This versatility is good for me, but it is difficult for other actors, and I can understand why some of them don’t want to (talk about it) as there is still quite a lot of discrimination out there, and they do not want to draw attention to it.”

Lespert’s next starring role is as the younger brother of another Arab actor Sami Bouajila in helmer Jean-Pierre Sinapi’s “Vivre me Tue.” Lespert adds: “I still think it’s very important today for actors like myself who have Arab roots to talk to the press and give a positive image of Arab people after so much negative coverage following the attacks on America.”

Yamina Benguigui, one of a handful of successful Arab filmmakers in France, believes that French producers are slowly beginning to understand that with about 5 million people of Arab origin living in France, there is an audience out there just waiting to be tapped.

That “means making pics with Arab actors about subjects that will appeal to that target audience” says Benguigui. The documentarian’s first fiction feature, “Inch’Allah Dimanche,” recounts the adventures of one of the first women to immigrate from Algeria to France at the end of the 1960s.

“Inch’Allah” has proved to be so successful — Benguigui reckons it will eventually make about $2.1 million in France — that Canal Plus has agreed to finance her next two pics.

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