Rappers and Filmmakers Hamé and Ekoué on How ‘Paris Prestige’ Shows People in ‘Their Complexity’

Memento Films International screens the feature debut at the 19th UniFrance Rendez-Vous

Ekoué Labitey and Mohamed Bourokba (Hamé
Courtesy: Memento Films Intl.

Starring Reda Kateb, whose “Django” opens Berlin, Slimane Dazi (“Only Lovers Left Alive”) and Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”), “Paris Prestige” marks the awaited feature debut of Mohamed Bourokba and Ekoué Labitey, two of France’s best known rappers who as Hamé and Eboué leapt to wider fame when Hamé was (unsuccessfully) sued for libel by Nicolas Sarkozy in a case that ran for eight years from 2002.

Produced by Hamé and Ekoué, “Paris Prestige” packs prestige partners: Haut et Court, which produced Cannes Palme d’Or winner “The Class” and the French original TV series “The Returned,” co-produces and distributes in France, bowing the film on Feb. 22; Memento Films International, which sold “The Class,” Asghar Farhadi’s films and “Winter Sleep,” another Palme d’Or winner, handles international sales.

Hamé and Ekoué are no rookies. Hamé studied cinema at the Tisch School of the arts at New York University, and with Ekoué co-directed TV movie “Ink” for Canal Plus. Hamé’s short, “This Path Ahead,” again with Kateb, was selected for Cannes Competition in 2012. “Paris Prestige” returns them to Pigalle, where they founded rap group La Rumeur in 1995 and subjects close to their heart

Shot on the hoof as a hand-held camera hugs close to its actors in the bars, clubs and (often day-time streets) of Pigalle, the film turns on Nas, just out of jail, who attempts to turn Paris Prestige, the bar he co-owns with elder brother Arezki within spitting distance of the Moulin Rouge, into a hot nightclub for high-rollers and deep-pocketed tourists. The film at once delivers the bigger economic picture – a wistful portrait of a rambunctious inner city community as big brands begin to move in taking over its small enterprises, and the human side: Here, the story of two brothers who have to learn to accommodate each other’s very different life dreams. Hamm and Ekoué fielded questions from Variety before “Paris Prestige” screens at the UniFrance Rendez-Vous in Paris later this week.

About half way through “Paris Prestige,” there’s a lovely vignette of a young guy selling CDs and clothes to small shops in Pigalle, hawking the latest from various countries in Africa. That could be said to be one illustration of the film’s major thrust, its story of Nas which is that of the symptomatic fate of a small entrepreneur in a big inner-city environment. I wonder if you could comment.

The first starting point for the film was to depict the Pigalle neighborhood at a human level, to take the pulse of the zone measured by the daily lives of the ordinary people, via what’s left of the local dwellers. Hence the original title “The Last Parisians.” And like the street vendor who sells CDs and DVDs, everyone does what they can to earn a bit of money, exist and live on the streets and inside the walls of this capital – where life is becoming impossibly expensive.

I feel “Paris Prestige” avoids several clichés. One is a portrait of Pigalle as a multi-ethnic crime centre, a vision which equates ethnicity and immigration with crime. Another is to suggest that everybody in Pigalle wants the same thing out of life. You very carefully differentiate between the life dreams of brothers Nas and Arezki, for example…..

We’re not frightened by clichés. Pigalle is full of clichés. It’s a neighborhood that has been represented, filmed, photographed, and sung about thousands of times. A cliché is a one-dimensional image, repeated an infinite number of times. But a cliché becomes interesting from the moment when we flip it around, as if removing some orange peel. Behind the clichés we find people. You have to show people in their complexity. Show the reasons why they act and think as they do and then build a narrative based on oppositions and nuances. That’s how characters and situations really begin to come alive and move beyond clichés.

You’re directing two actors who have international reputations –   Reda Kateb and Melanie Laurent – and another, Slimane Dazi, who is highly respected. How did you direct them? 

We have known Reda Kateb and Slimane Dazi for 20 years. Long before they both began their acting careers. We began as friends. Even if their roles were carefully scripted, the keyword on set was “perform freely, uncut, seek accidents, improvise, as in a concert of La Rumeur”. Mélanie Laurent who joined the project just before the shoot, settled into the team with this state of mind, with tremendous professionalism and rigour.

In general, what were your major decisions when it came to directing the film?  

We wanted to make the film an immersive experience, to feel part of the crowd and not see things from the outside, create a sense of intimacy and a certain fluidity in the characters’ movements. This quickly resulted in an emphasis on long shots or sequence shots, as well as a choice of lenses and framing that is closer to the human eye.

Could you talk about the music in the film both the scores and the song?  

We come from the world of hip hop and electronic music. We asked composers from this environment to propose some songs and variations. The music is composed by Demon and Pepper Island. We wanted two types of film music: one for the clubbing scenes, and the other more acoustic, closer to the French “polar” crime thriller genre and the “Pigalloise” tradition, to suggest the central characters’ inner lives.

And talk a bit about La Rumeur Filme? Does it have anything in development, or is producing or planning film, TV, web content?  

La Rumeur Filme is in full swing. In addition to the release of “Paris Prestige” in France on Feb. 22, we’re preparing to produce two other feature films that are scheduled to shoot in 2017. We are also planning to produce a mini-series for an international mobile phone application. We have loads of projects, which we’re handling one at a time.

Martin Dale contributed to this article