Rebellion is the true story of an elite counter terrorism unit captained by Philippe Legorjus (Mathieu Kassovitz) sent to Ouvea Island in the French colony of New Caledonia to negotiate the release of 30 kidnapped policemen.
Kassovitz spoke candidly of the challenges of making Rebellion; a task that has taken ten years and also his recent controversial Twitter outburst over his disappointment at some of the responses to the film.
How would you describe Rebellion to anyone who has only heard of La Haine?
As a grown up version of La Haine. Less funny and less welcoming and accessible. But La Haine was about police brutality. This one is about government brutality so it’s a step up but it’s the same kind of energy and the same kind of message.
You seem very comfortable with this position against the mainstream of French politics.
One of the great opportunities of being a director is being able to tell stories and especially the true ones where you only heard one voice and one side of the story and you discover there is something else. Usually of course you can call it a revision of history because all of a sudden what you’ve been told is not what you discover.
There is nothing more fascinating than to be able to express that and to show it to people. That’s what historians are here for and sometimes by being a director you can be a historian. If you do your homework properly and if you take it very seriously, then you become a reporter. The movie becomes like a very important piece of journalism. But the difference is a magazine will get lost next week and a movie is here to stay.
When you’re saying something and you’re able to revise history or revise point of view or a way of thinking, it’s a great responsibility but it’s also the best thing. You can’t get a bigger kick than that because you’re not only making a movie but you’re also saying something and you’re going to reveal something. That’s very important. Of course I feel very comfortable with that, not just with movies but everyday life, I like that, I like to confront ideas and to shock people so movies are a great vehicle for that.
How has the film been received in France and on the island as it’s a colonial story?
It’s a hard story to deal with for France. I’m invested in that story. I know all about it. But people don’t care. They have other things to do. The story was 20 years ago and 25,000 km away and who gives a shit? This kind of movie requires patience and intelligence. I’m trying to be smart about it and design the movie to get the audience right in the middle of it, in Philippe’s shoes so you can say what would I have done if I was in his shoes?
It’s a difficult movie to sell and we got the best reviews ever but nobody went to see the film in France because of different reasons. When people are down you don’t want to hear again that the government is lying. You’re like I know; you don’t need to stick my nose in my own shit. I know about it but I don’t want to hear about it all the time. So I get that and people want to laugh and I get that. It’s strange for me because I’ve never had such good reviews and no one went to see the movie. I was really shocked. It’s about our history and I would think for a French audience they would take it and they would say yeah. We’re fighting this because we’re French and that’s what we are. But French people aren’t French anymore. Five years of Sarkozy has killed our spirit. And a year and a half of Ayrault is not bringing it back so we’re not the French people that we were before. I thought we were still the same people but we’re not.
In a year from now New Caledonia will vote for their independence. I think the movie will be revealed then. But you need to be able to sit down for two hours and just think about what you’re seeing which is not what movies do today. You can’t know if a movie like that will work. I’m a little sad, not for me because I did it, I’m very happy I did it and I’m very happy with the movie. I’m sad for the actors who want to do that kind of movie.
Would you embark on that kind of project again?
I’m burned out right now. 10 years to make a kind of movie like that and no one goes to see it, it’s painful. You’re like why would I put another 10 years of my life into a movie that no one cares about? I will but people ask me how I found that story. You don’t find stories like that, stories find you. The right time, the right moment, you stumble onto something; you got to tell that story. So you need to actually cross paths with such a story. It can be something that you witness in the street. It can be a historical event, it can be whatever but you need to find it. If you don’t find it then you don’t have anything so right now I don’t have the energy to find something like that. I can’t create that inspiration; it has to come to me. Right now I’m working in Hollywood so I’m doing exactly the opposite and I’m resting my brain and building good muscle tone!
How have the Kanaks responded to it?
First of all the movie was censored in New Caledonia. The theatre owners said that they were scared the people would burn the theatre down. So that was a reason not to show the movie and to try to hide it a little longer.
Did you expect these kinds of responses?
That… no! That was too far. If I had expected that, then I would have made a much harsher movie for the French government. I didn’t show a lot of stuff. I didn’t show torture. I didn’t really show the violence. I didn’t go that far. I wanted to make a movie really balanced so that I wouldn’t have that kind of problem, like censorship or being partisan. But still people say the movie is partisan, you take the side of the Kanak. The story is actually that the French army came and killed people so there are victims, but the military are victims also. You have to really explain why and how it happened but there are no two sides for that story. Some people can be on the side of the military. What I really want to do is make the military and the people that were responsible for that to see the movie and to have a different point of view. I don’t want to shun them; I don’t want to slap them in the face. Even with trying to be as subtle, not as arrogant or mean or hard core as I could be, they can’t accept it.
How does Philippe feel about the film? How involved was he?
Very much. As soon as I started to work with the Kanak. I started with them in 2001. In 2003 they were like yeah why not [make the film]. Then I got in touch with Philippe and we started to work together. He was very involved. I had to understand what he went through. But the guy is a snake; he’s a cold blooded animal. They are very professional... they can’t let their emotions take over and they have to be really on top of their game. So they don’t communicate that much. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t really tell me what he felt during that event because it was just happening. He realised a few months later what happened. So he likes the film. The Kanak like the film and he likes the film. I got from both sides the same kind of relationship. Both parties were so involved that they knew exactly what they were going to get.
Do you think there is a more open culture amongst the Kanaks now with being able to talk about the events?
The movie is here. Discussions are up in the air. If they want to talk about it they have a first stone that they can step onto and start to build on that. They needed that. I told them I’m not going to tell your story, I’m not going to tell their story, I’m going to tell the global story and try to be as close to the truth as possible. Your bad actions will be shown and their bad actions will be shown.
They needed something that they can regroup around and now they have a piece of material they can talk about so it’s very important for them. That’s one of the first things they said that they want to be portrayed in a real way, not a good way or a bad way but what they are and what they’re fighting for. And their reason to live and what they are here for. They’re very proud of that because the movie’s very true to what they are. You can really feel that. I spent so much time with them. I really loved that island and the culture, even if there are a lot of problems and it’s very complicated to deal with. That’s why they let me do it. I really spent time with them. I became one of them.
It was the same thing with them as I did with La Haine in the projects. I’m not from the projects so I could step in and look at it from a distance. That’s the only way you can have a point of view on something and share it with somebody else. If you were in the projects all the time then you cannot see what is going on because you’re knee deep into it. If you’re a Kanak you cannot really have a judgment about Philippe Legorjus because you’re passion is too much. You need somebody like me that can take a step out, that can stay out of it but can still be invested in it.
What can you say about your angry Twitter reaction to the single César nomination Rebellion received?
I won I think three of them in my career. I never went to get them. Even my first movie called Café au lait I was nominated as an actor. I never went to get it. First of all I think it’s tacky. It’s the tackiest ceremony in the world. It’s boring. I’m not keen being seated next to these people. I’d loved to go to the Oscars because I’d love to be seated next to Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, all these amazing directors. But in France, no. I need to admire people I want to sit next to. And I hate competition. I love competition before the movie was released but once the movie is released, I don’t like it.
Didn’t you accuse French cinema of being too enthralled with Hollywood?
I said fuck French cinema. It’s a global thing. Just to say that I don’t really care about having a César or not but when Rebellion was not nominated; I was very, very shocked. It’s not because it’s a good movie or not. The movie didn’t do good in theatres. If the French industry doesn’t support movies like that, you know there’s not another movie like that out that year. It’s not like we had 10 political movies. There’s this one and that’s it. If they don’t support it, they say we don’t care. They gave Césars to the most successful movie of the year. Why would you give the César to a movie that doesn’t need it and which is probably not even the best one? But it’s not about the competition, just to recognize French movies and French cinema is also that. If you don’t need that and you just need comedies, then fuck you! And the other part is just trying to be Americans. But you don’t know how to and you’re just trying to look American, then I’m like what are we? We’re French! Right now we’re not the way we should be. I think Sarkozy killed us, killed the spirit. And Ayrault is not helping. I made Rebellion because I still thought that the French people were feisty. Not anymore. They’re not concerned anymore. They’re not interested.
I understand that the public didn’t go and see it because I understand it’s a difficult movie to take. People have other things to do and problems so they’d rather laugh and I totally get it. I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it anyway myself. But for the industry not to recognize it, not to support it, I was very, very shocked. I said, that’s it, I’m done. I did what I had to do in France. I gave my best. I think it’s time for me to go somewhere else.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
It’s simple... my parents were filmmakers and they were good filmmakers so they taught me the craft and the love for the craft. My father was very ethical about directing movies and he gave me the basics. Stay on schedule, work on a budget, if you can do it for less, do it for less. Problems are solutions. You don’t need money to find solutions. You need to be smart; you need to know your subject. He knew his craft and he just passed it onto me. My mother, the same. If they had been butchers and they would have done it right, I would be killing cows right now in a very good way… without hurting them [laughs]. I would have done what my parents taught me with passion. I was lucky it was movies so I can hang out with beautiful people, no dead cows.
Why political movies?
I have no fucking idea. Because with my parents it was the sixties, seventies. My father was coming from Hungary. He escaped during the Communist regime. I don’t know. It’s difficult to make movies. You have two choices. Either you make movies because wow I make movies and it’s a fucking great way to make a living or you make movies because you have something to say. That’s where it becomes really interesting because it’s such a powerful and amazing medium to play with. I realised doing this movie when you make a movie like that, that’s it! The movies done and you say what you had to say and it becomes the truth so it’s a great responsibility but it’s also a great honour. I said the truth about that story and that’s going to influence the vote next year. That’s amazing. I’m doing politics at the same time. It’s very difficult to make a movie so it’s better to make it for a purpose other than your bank account.