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Etienne Comar on Directorial Debut ‘Django’ About Jazz Legend Reinhardt

More than a drama about jazz legend Django Reinhardt, Etienne Comar’s directorial debut, “Django,” is a story about the civic responsibility of artists in troubled political times, which strikes a chord in our Trump/Brexit era. That’s why picking “Django” to open the Berlinale is likely a political act in itself from the festival’s artistic director Dieter Kosslick. Pic was co-produced and is repped by Pathe. Reda Kateb stars as the Gypsy guitarist, who died in 1953.

The themes of “Django” such as the freedom of expression and political responsibility of artists are very contemporary. Why did you chose to make your first film about Reinhardt and explore these themes?  

I wanted to do a portrait of a tormented musician living through a particularly intense historical chapter. My dad loved Reinhardt and so do I. And when I dove into researching Reinhardt’s life, I found exactly the themes that I wanted to explore. What is it like to perform as an artist in troubled times? Can I play music without being political, no matter who’s listening, or is performing a political act in itself?

Can you talk about the way the film illustrates the way the Nazis approached popular music? 

Back then, jazz was hugely popular across Europe, even in Germany. But the Nazis considered it as music from degenerate black people. They were reluctant to embrace it but at the same attracted to it, which is why they were so eager to have Reinhardt play for them. They also had Nazi standards for musical instruments: some instruments were considered “Aryan,” others, like drums, were judged “African,” so they were unacceptable. It was a war of propaganda. The Nazis were trying to control Reinhardt because music is a very powerful tool of freedom and multiculturalism, which poses a problem in all totalitarian regimes that almost always attempt to repress it.

There have been so many failed attempt to do a film about Reinhardt.

Frank Marshall previously had the rights to make a film about Reinhardt with Johnny Depp attached to play him. But for some reason it never happened and at some point they give up those rights, and that’s when I came in. It was difficult to convince the rights holders about my vision at first because they wanted a more classic biopic, whereas I only wanted to focus on a single year of his life, 1943, and explore this period, which was so devastating for Gypsies because they were being persecuted by the Nazis. And I wanted to have the freedom to imagine things and project myself. But ultimately the rights holders are very happy with the result.

Why do you think Reinhardt has had such a long-lasting influence on artists around the world? 

He’s a symbolic figure for all the Gypsies across the globe. He’s the one who invented guitar solos. He’s influenced guitar players in all kinds of music, from rock to jazz. Even Jimi Hendrix named his album “Band of Gypsys” in homage to Reinhardt.

Does the movie feature a lot of non-professionals? 

There are indeed many non-professionals in “Django,” including the Gypsies who live in the camp. Reinhardt’s wife, for instance, is a Hungarian singer, while the musicians who play with Reinhardt are real-life musicians. Even if we were not recording them, they were playing live while we shot the performance scenes and it was very inspiring for Reda Kateb to be surrounded by them.

How symbolic is it for you to show “Django” in Berlin? 

I’m really honored that [Berlin artistic director] Dieter Kosslick chose to open the festival with “Django” and gave it a slot in competition. He understood that the film was about artists living in troubles times, rather than about war itself. And how ironic is it to have “Django” shown in Berlin more than 60 years after Reinhardt fled to not perform there!

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