‘Rookies’ Directors Thierry Demaizière, Alban Teurlai on Bringing Parisian Hip-Hop to the Big Screen

Credit: Alban Teurlai

Hip hop is a popular pastime in Paris and its suburbs, having now made its way into many of the city’s high schools. At The Turgot high school in central Paris, hip hop is now part of the curriculum, as the Berlinale documentary “Rookies” (“Allons Enfants”), by Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai, shows.

This compelling film follows some of the school’s most talented hip hop aficionados train and battle under the watchful eye of a demanding coach. It served as the opening film this year for the Generation section at the Berlin festival, a sidebar dedicated to new films exploring the lives of teens and children. The film is a testament to the power of embracing raw talent and turning it into potential.

Producer-director Demaizière is best known for the documentaries “Lourdes” and “Rocco,” both of which he collaborated on with Teurlai who is an editor and director.  “Lourdes” was nominated for a Cesar in 2019. The duo cut their teeth in filmmaking directing documentaries for top French broadcasters on subjects including the late Karl Lagerfeld and Vincent Lindon. Recent projects include “Move,” a six-part series on modern choreographers for Netflix.

How did you finance this film?

Teurlai: Canal Plus got involved in the financing of the film from the start. We pitched the film to them before we started filming and they immediately committed to financing. Then, we met France Télévisions. Unfortunately, they did not select the film for French public television, for France 2 Cinéma or for France 3 Cinéma, and they didn’t enter into a pre-purchase or co-production of the film. Instead, Le Pacte set a minimum guarantee for France and international distribution. There remains to this day a funding gap for the production.

Was it scripted or did you develop the film with the students?

Demaizière: We worked with an auteur, Elsa Le Peutrec, a former student at the Lycée Turgot. She had spotted the story and then investigated, but the narrative thread of the film became integrated with the students by following their school year and their competitions. But as is often the case in documentaries, the film was mostly put together in the editing phase.

Why is hip-hop so big in Paris?

Teurlai: Along with New York, Paris is historically a city where hip-hop has been well established since the 1980s. France has hip-hop dancers and choreographers who perform all over the world who have danced for Michael Jackson, Madonna and Beyoncé. These dancers almost all come from the suburbs of Paris. Paris is a very dense and concentrated city and has a strong urban culture.

How did you gain the trust of the students?

Demaizière: By explaining our intentions to them. Being adopted by the students, along with our camera, was not difficult because it is a generation that films itself non-stop and shares its stories from morning to night. In hip-hop, we like to ‘represent’ our neighborhood or our high school, so the idea of being in a film did not displease them, on the contrary.

Why did you choose this subject?

Teurlai: Because Hip Hop was a perfect way to portray a generation of young French people and enter the halls and classrooms of a Parisian high school. Because this educational project in France immediately appealed to us because it spoke of diversity.

How do you feel about the result?

Demaizière: Complicated to comment on your own film, but we hope that our film is a bubble of optimism, that the energy and determination of these kids is infectious, and that the benevolence and patience of the teachers is to be saluted.

Did you watch other hip hop films for inspiration?

Teurlai:  For the dance side and the battle spirit we watched “Rize” by David LaChapelle, for the school dimension “Entre les Murs,” by Laurent Cantet, even if it is a fiction.

How long did it take to complete the project?

Demaizière:  We were shooting a dance series for Netflix at the same time and we had to delay our editing of “Rookies,” so this project is spread over two years. We edited it during confinement.