French-Arabs battle stereotypes

Ethnic community fights for fair representation

The spectacle of 2005’s Paris riots exposed a parcel of Gaul’s 6 million immigrants — mostly from former North African colonies — who find insufficient or one-dimensional representation in French cinema. And although the insurrections alone did not improve French-Maghrebi citizens’ depiction in France’s popular culture, they provided the right momentum for serious pics like Rachid Bouchareb’s ’06 hit “Days of Glory” and Abdel Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain” to be propelled to the front lines of social and cultural debates in Gaul and abroad.

According to Films Distribution prexy Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, who distributed “Days of Glory,” “A turning point in French cinema occurred when (Kekiche’s 2003 pic) ‘A Game of Love and Chance’ won a Cesar for best film. It showed that even films that take place outside of the (wealthy) 5th District of Paris can be critical successes and good B.O. performers.”

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For his part, it was the stereotypical representation of inner-city French-Maghrebis in local fare of the ’80s and ’90s that drove Tunisia-born Kechiche to switch gears from acting to directing.

“There was in the ’80s a caricaturist approach towards the so-called ‘beur movement’ that made me very uncomfortable,” the helmer says, referring to the French-Arab identity movement. “I thought I was well suited to portray this social milieu since I was brought up in it.”

Kechiche’s cinema explores the alienation as well as social stereotypes and economic struggle experienced by French-Arabs from the emigre generation, albeit in a subtle and almost philosophical manner.

“I try to not be preachy because I don’t want to become a spokesperson for the French-Arab community,” Kechiche explains. “Showing these people laughing, talking and living their lives like ordinary people is more powerful than a prefabricated discourse would be.”

Kechiche’s three films have all met with critical and commercial acclaim. His second film, “A Game of Love and Chance,” won a Cesar in 2004; “The Secret of the Grain,” produced by Pathe, garnered top honors at the 2007 Venice Film Festival and went on to win the Prix Louis Delluc.

“Kechiche draws from traditional French cinema of auteurs like Pialat, Renoir and Pagnol that raises problems with an uncompromising realism and offers no solutions,” explains Frederic Bas, chief film editor of Chronic’Art.

The cinema of Kechiche and Bouchareb contrasts sharply with such ’90s films as Jean-Francois Richet’s “Ma 6-T va craquer” or Matthieu Kassovitz’s “Hate,” which glorified a raging multiethnic youth in the projects. Recent films about French minorities have been less confrontational and therefore benefited from a broader and more universal appeal.

“We tried to copy the film’s look from classic American war films like ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ ” admits “Days of Glory” producer Jean Brehat. “But what’s innovative about the film is that we see French-Arabs as war heroes, whereas 10 years ago they were almost always portrayed as drug dealers and thugs.”

Indeed, underneath its Hollywoodesque packaging, the Oscar-nommed film is a politically engaged piece that denounces discrimination in France through the true story of a group of North African soldiers who fought for France during WWII — but were denied pensions because they were not considered French.

The unspooling of “Days of Glory” at the presidential palace even prompted Jacques Chirac to reverse a 50-year-old decision and award equal pensions to foreign veterans who fought for the French army.

As Liberation film editor Didier Peron points out, “We get a sense that France is in the last stage of its cultural transformation when Claude Berri decides to drop $11 million in a pic like ‘The Secret of the Grain,’ that features an almost entirely French-Arab cast and crew.

“It might be a film about French-Arabs, but it’s as exotic to today’s French folks as a film from Marcel Pagnol used to be.”