PARIS — Inspired by a film workshop he co-lead in a secondary school in Paris, “Young Tiger,” Cyprien Vial’s feature debut, is a multi-front coming-of-age tale, following Many, a Punjabi 15-year-old, from the moment he sets foot in France. This is not a classic immigration tale. Since Many is underage, French law dicates he must be protected against harm. Many is taken in by the authorities, given kind foster parents, schooling from attentive teachers. But the demands made on him by his father to send money home to pay off the debt contracted sending him to France sees him taking on ever more work as a paid-cash-in-hand house decorator, outsourced by an Punjabi entrepreneur Kamal, who becomes a near second father for Many. All this kindness has a catch, however. Many’s a bright lad, a high flyer, could go far. But he struggles to meet the demand of his father, the school, his foster parents to form part of their family, his girlfriend. And the judge overseeing his case recommends that he applies not for university but for a technical school to learn a trade, aiding his chances of being able to stay in France. Many’s future in France is circumscribed even before he has come of age. “Tis is a nice new take on immigration,” said Nicolas Brigaud-Roberet at Films Distribution, which is selling “Young Tiger” at the 17th UniFrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema. “It’s not about getting by and cutting corners, it’s about Many’s living up to the expectations of other people, a nice reversal of the way to tell an immigration story.” Variety talked to director Cyprien Vial about his feature film debut:
People might say that this is a film about immigration, but I think in a way you use immigration as a pressure cooker, a context, to really talk about, and focus on issues of coming-of-age.
Yes. I was very impressed and surprised by French legislation concerning underage people from anywhere in the world who arrive in France, whom the state, because they are underage, are supposed to be help. I was very moved. I met a lot of people working with these children and I met young immigrants. I found in immigration a small subject, a way to talk about the teenage years and I found that those young people I met were a strong metaphor for what I wanted to say about youth, coming-of-age. And so even though I was not connected very closely to the story of these people, because I am a young French man from a bourgeois family, I was drawn closer and closer to their story, and I realize now that what really motivated me instinctively was the fact that they were acting with their instincts and the fact that they were both surrounded by many people, and also pretty much alone. And that’s what probably connected me strongly to the subject.
One of the defining characteristics of coming-of-age is the attitude that the individual adopts towards authority, and here you have the germ of a dramatic conflict. One authority – Many’s Punjabi parents – make demands on him, which conflict with the those of both the French state, the judge and his school, and his foster parents. There you begin to have a drama.
Exactly. And the tension stemming from different authorities is what I liked and what I worked on in my short films. I thought it was a very strong instance of confrontation with authority for a young person. And I really wanted a very decisive movie rhythm and I thought the fact that my character is linked to so many circles of authorities was a very powerful way to show his coming of age.
Another issue that the film treats is the patterns of immigration. Many is a first-generation immigrant. The very cause of his immigration- poverty – is the source of his problems because in earning money – and I think this is true of a lot of first immigration – he sacrifices, to a certain extent, his possibilities of a bright and privileged future, which he maybe merits because of his intellectual prowess.
Exactly, and that’s a very…I wanted to show that the French system is partly humanist, but it lacks…I mean the efforts that are being made by the people taking care of the children are often destroyed by the strength of the law, and these children who come at first as immigrants, have a lot of pressure, are often very bright at school. For me Many’s character represents just what I saw in real life. These children learn French very easily and very quickly, they stand out at the high schools classes they go to, and there is a very harsh moment when they realize that their efforts at school cannot be met by great propositions from the system to study as long as they would like to, or that they deserve to. That’s another dramatic point that I wanted to show: when my character is disappointed by the system that he tries to respect. And that’s the moment for me when he realizes that he is totally alone and that the only person who can help him is maybe a person who is another kind of authority, which is Kamal, in the movie, which is an illegal authority, but who is the person who gives him the most balance…I wanted to show that even professionally he could help him by giving him the opportunity to find a job at the SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, an apprenticeship there. And that’s what struck me when I met people: Sometimes it’s via an illegal path that children manage to build their professional future. I was struck by the ambivalence of all the people I met and all the situations that young people can find themselves in.
That ambivalence is reflected by a legal system that demands that under age illegal immigrants are taken care of with state aid, but that they are taught a trade, so that they could have a legal means of sustenance, once they end their secondary school education. That is another ambivalence of the film, I think: that Many’s possibility of going to university and coming out at the age of 22, 23, without a job is rejected by the judge.
Yes, it is rejected and the judge appears to be very harsh at that moment but she has no choice and the system is forcing everyone to act in a rush. I could feel an obsession from judges and social educators to help the children get a diploma, as light as it can be, and a job opportunity, and there is no time for reflection, for proposing longer-term studies. In thefilm, the judge wants young people to get their papers, their official ID cards. It’s both cruel and positive.
But negative for the future of France because France needs bright people, like anywhere else….
Yes, very negative, because it shows that the system pushes people into acting in a way that they don’t want to act, and become a traitor. I mean this foreign part of him, like at the end of the movie – it’s a fake happy end. For me, part of him is destroyed; his culture is destroyed by what he has done…
It’s quite interesting the type of film you choose to make. It begins as a kind of social film, but gradually builds into a kind of social survival thriller….
Yes, a very simple survival thriller, but I really wanted to have the audience feel what I felt.