Laurent Cantet, best known for “The Class,” his Cannes 2008’s Palme d’Or-winning film about a teacher and his racially-mixed students in an underprivileged Parisian suburb, highlights the cracks within French society in the thought-provoking “Arthur Rambo.”
The film, which played at Toronto in the Platform section and is competing at San Sebastian, is inspired by the true story of Mehdi Meklat, a young man who grew up in a French project on the outskirt of Paris and became a star journalist and an author celebrated by France’s mainstream media and left-leaning intellectual circles. But in 2017, as Meklat reached the apogee of his success, he was publicly shut down and dropped by his publisher after his heinous tweets – written under a pseudonym before becoming famous — were revealed. The movie follows this anti-hero’s downfall through the next 48 hours.
Rabah Nait Oufella (“Raw”), who starred in “The Class” as a kid, delivers a breakthrough performance as Karim D. aka Arthur Rambo. The rest of the cast comprises Antoine Reinartz (“BPM (Beats Per Minute)”) and Sofian Khammes (“Chouf”). Cantet penned the script with Fanny Burdino (“After Love”) and Samuel Doux (“The Prayer”).
The movie’s themes are both universally relevant and extremely touchy as societies around the world currently struggle to define the limits of free speech online, especially when it flirts with hate speech; and contend with the so-called “cancelation” of public figures on social media. These hot-button issues take an even more dramatic dimension when applied to someone who belongs to an ethnic group that’s been victim of systemic discrimination in France, going as far as to question whether there is a double standard when it comes to punishment.
“Arthur Rambo” is produced by Marie-Ange Luciani at Les Films de Pierre, the outfit behind Robin Campillo’s Cannes’ Grand Prize winning “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” and co-produced by Alexandre Mallet-Guy at Memento Production (Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero”) and France 2 Cinéma. Underscoring its contemporary resonance, the movie has already been sold by Paris-based outfit Playtime in Canada (MK2 Mile End), Brazil (Vitrine Filmes), Spain (Golem), Portugal (Films 4 You), Scandinavia (Scanbox), Israel (Lev Cinema), Benelux (Cineart), Switzerland (Filmcoopi), Turkey (Bir Film), and Taiwan (Av Jet).
While at San Sebastian to present “Arthur Rambo,” Cantet chatted with Variety about his interest in the story of Mehdi Meklat, as well as his film’s sub-themes and societal implications.
The case of Mehdi Meklat is so fascinating and at the same time it’s so complicated to talk about it without ending up on a slippery slope. What made you want to turn this story into a film?
The true story that inspired this film had brought a lot of questions to my mind. How could this young man who was the author of articles that I found incredible on the blog of Le Monde (the big national newspaper) and whom I regularly listened to on France Inter (a leading radio station), could be the same person who wrote these tweets — which of course I didn’t know about and found out when the scandal erupted. I wondered, “How could all this cohabitate in his head?” That’s actually what his girlfriend asks him in the film. It’s this sort of schizophrenia which interested me. Not in the register of pathology, but rather because it seemed to reveal of generalized immaturity with regards to social media. I think young people like him, when they write their tweets, they often do it without thinking them through, and the internet has a foolproof memory.
Can you elaborate?
It used to be very rewarding to be on the margins and be a punk, to not follow the general order, but today, the goal for people on social media is to please the most people, to get the most likes and followers to feel that they exist.
The film also shows France as a fragmented society.
Yes, the film describes a social geography that’s very compartmentalized. We can see it through the reaction of Karim’s younger brother. That’s where we realize the weight of words, and the fact that we don’t write them in all impunity.
Even if it only took six seconds on a phone’s keyboard, words are loaded and we often forget it when we want to be the first to react, or the most provocative, or win the best punchline.
It must have been a very challenging part for Rabah Nait Oufella because he’s not a particularly sympathetic character, and yet he needed to create some empathy.
I think Rabah totally pulled it off and found the right balance. It’s not likeable but he’s neither a monster, nor a victim. He was able to convey the complexity of his character.
We’re not sure what Karim really thinks and believes in, whether he’s Arthur Rambo deep down, or his civilized alter-ego Karim.
That’s what interested me. I wanted to create a character who was enigmatic enough in the public eye, but also his own eyes. I think he doesn’t understand what is happening to him and is tone deaf. The film shows him visiting people from his entourage who keep asking him the same question, “Why on earth did you write these things?” And he doesn’t have an answer. We show him slowly becoming more aware; he goes through an inner journey, whose last stop is at his mentor’s, who believed in him, and is like a mother to him. She tells him, “Now, go to work.” That means “now it’s time for you to think hard about the consequences of what you did and grow up.”
So for you, when Karim writes anti-Semitic tweets or stuff celebrating terrorism it’s just provocation and he doesn’t realize what he’s writing?
It comes down to provocation, which leads to a form of extremism and simplication. Everything is about slogans. There’ve always been there and they’ve always led to extremism because in three words, it’s impossible to tackle the complexity of a thought-out speech. And also, these tweets are the expression of (their) anger, and social networks feed the anger, the extremism and totalitarian way of thinking.
The film also questions whether there is a double standard when it comes to sanctioning a young person who doesn’t have any real power or status.
Yes, when you see that Eric Zemmour, (a French journalist and rumoured presidential hopeful known for his anti-Muslim comments) continues to be interviewed on shows on public TV, it’s surprising that he hasn’t been sidelined because of his declarations. He’s been able to spread his hateful speech on mainstream media. When you’re a young man whose parents are immigrants, who will be immediately sanctioned.
But you also show in the film Karim candidly admitting his biais towards Jews.
Because indeed, it reflects the reality of French projects. I tackle it with a lot of precaution because I don’t want to stigmatize these underprivileged youths which are so commonly stereotyped in our popular culture. We should not put them all in the same basket as one homogenous group that’s defined by their anti-Seminitism or by their violence. This group is no more homogenous than festivalgoers at San Sebastian.
Don’t you think that there’s also a problem of awareness that could be partly solved through education and transmission?
That’s something I believe strongly and I hope the film will contribute to it. I think if young people see the film and reflect on their own practice, then the film will not have been made in vain. I’m also very happy that the film’s distributor (Memento Distribution) is putting in place a partnership with schools in France to help teachers tackle these issues. I think films can sometimes touch on complex topics in a more subtle and intelligible way than would a sociological essay.