French audiences these days are as likely to see Jamel Debbouze or Gad Elmaleh onscreen as they are Gerard Depardieu. But despite the popularity of actor-comic Debbouze, the son of Moroccan immigrants and producer and star of hit “Days of Glory” and Elmaleh, the popular Jewish Moroccan comic, France still has a ways to go to give its increasingly diverse population more screentime.
The 2005 summer uprising in the Paris suburbs raised a flurry of interest in the lack of representation of French minorities, particularly Arab and black, in Gallic media. Then-president Jacques Chirac promised to pass a law requiring more minority representation on television. But it took until February, as Chirac’s administration made a slow fade, for the government to take action and create the Images of Diversity Commission (IDC).
The IDC has committed e10 million ($13.5 million) to help fund films, TV shows and docus that represent the diversity of the French people, particularly immigrant populations. The program’s goal to aid 500 projects per year (so far, 99 have received funding) is a big commitment for a country that has traditionally frowned on affirmative action and forbids collecting statistics describing national origin.
France’s National Agency for Social Cohesion and Equal Opportunities has been running a similar but much smaller program for 15 years, but now will team with the Centre National de la Cinematographie to distribute the funds.
Even more than the 2005 uprising, the Arab-themed WWII film “Days of Glory,” was largely responsible for the diversity commission’s creation. A rep from the Agency for Social Cohesion says the pic “made politicians realize how important these kinds of films are, that they can make a difference, and so they need more support from the government.”
One of the first projects to receive distribution aid was Corsican comedy “Sempre vivu,” by helmer-thesp Robin Renucci. Released in June, the pic is filmed in the Corsican language and raised an internal debate about the types of projects IDC should fund. How far should images of a diverse France go?
Fabienne Vonier, co-topper of producer-distrib Pyramide, known for taking on challenging pics, says “the French are slow to make films about their own social and political issues, although the material is certainly there.”
France may grapple with its own diversity, but it does appreciate the diversity of other cultures. French coin helps fund films from around the world, including many from Arab countries.
Recent Franco/Arab co-productions include “Cartouche Gauloise,” Algerian-born French helmer Mehdi Charef’s vision of Algeria on the eve of its independence; “Delice Paloma,” the third film by Algerian helmer Nadir Moknieche, which takes place in Algiers but is shot in French and “Caramel,” from Lebanese first-time helmer Nadine Labaki, which pays homage to the women of Beirut. Labaki wrote and stars in the pic, developed at the Cannes Residence program in 2004.
While French coin funds Arab and Franco-Arab filmmakers making films outside France, projects about these communities within the country still struggle to make TV presales, the principal source of funding for French film.
“French TV has strong auto-censorship,” says Vonier, “They don’t like funding projects that upset the power system.”
The IDC lobbies hard to help producers find additional financing and distribution for the projects they support.
“The larger TV channels often shy away from programming they consider ‘difficult,’ but as the quality of the projects increase, so will support from TV,” says the ASCE rep.
The success of Cinema Beur (slang for Arab) in the 1990s, which showed the suburbs as the only Arab reality, paved the way for different kinds of roles and projects, as well as launching a long list of careers, including Debbouze, helmer Abdellatif Kechiche and helmer Djamel Bensalah.
“Now every cop movie has two Arab cops,” says Richard Pena, director of the Lincoln Center Film Society and the New York Film Festival. “And an actor like Roschdy Zem doesn’t just play ‘the Arab’ but has become the French Everyman, a French Danny Glover.”
Zem recently helmed his first feature, “Mauvaise foi” (Bad Faith,) about a mixed Muslim-Jewish couple. He co-wrote the pic with Pascal Elbe and Agnes de Sacy, and stars opposite Cecile de France who plays his Jewish wife.
The IDC also helps distribute challenging films to audiences who might not normally have access.
In May, Luc Besson tried to take matters into his own hands and bring Cannes to the Paris suburbs, simultaneously projecting fest pics in one of 10 suburban cities each night. The fest didn’t cooperate, but Besson did project films from previous years.
He told French daily Liberation, “These suburbs suffer because they feel abandoned, the screenings are a sign of affection from someone who knows he can’t do much.”
The fledgling commission won’t be able to dole out all the money by year-end, but not for lack of interest.
There are so many applications that the IDC doesn’t have time to properly process them all. For the future of a more diverse French cinema, it’s a good sign.