Saturday, 23 January 2010

'A Prophet' and racial tensions in recent French cinema

Yesterday I listened to a radio interview featuring the French director Jacques Audiard, whose prison drama 'A Prophet' was Sight & Sound magazines film of 2009 after topping their annual poll of international cinema critics, ahead of such films as 'The White Ribbon' and 'The Hurt Locker'. What struck me about this interview was Audiard’s response to questions about the films scenes of violence, as he stated that it was not so much the violent acts themselves that had shocked viewers in his native France, but that an Arab (Malik [left] as portrayed by Tahar Rahim) was committing them. It was this statement which has caused me to wonder whether there is a movement in modern French cinema, united by its depiction of racial tension in an ethnically diverse modern France.

Indeed other recent internationally successful French films portray a similar picture of France to 'A Prophet', whether it’s within the inner-city classroom depicted in Laurent Cantet’s 'The Class', or a middle-class, white Frenchman’s journey through a seedy Muslim criminal underworld in the thriller 'Anything For Her' or in the frequent depictions of racial abuse and violence seen in last year’s 'Mesrine' films. And whilst Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s 'Amelie' was criticised upon release for doing to Paris what 'Notting Hill' had done to London in terms of racial representations, his latest whimsical fantasy comedy, 'Micmacs', depicts France as a place where socially marginalised misfits (amongst them a black Muslim) must do battle against nefarious arms dealers, who we learn via an amusing office desk photo reveal, are chums of Nicolas Sarkozy. If these films, when viewed together, form a picture of a modern ethnically diverse France which is divided along racial lines (as well as economic ones), then perhaps they have a point. You need only look back to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s surprise rise to prominence in 2002, as his Front National party (in many ways the French equivalent of the BNP) polled second in the Presidential election, or to the huge race riots of 2005, to see some recent historical evidence to support the version of France represented in these films.

Is this view of France a hallmark of modern French cinema? I must admit I am living in a vacuum with regards to French film en masse. The French film industry is responsible for a great many films which receive little or no international distribution, the content of which I cannot assess with any authority. Perhaps the films which tend to be exhibited outside of France are the ones which seem to offer some kind of commentary on modern France for outsiders.

So what of British film? Aside from the odd film like 1999’s 'East is East' or 2007’s 'Brick Lane', British cinema seems not to share French cinemas preoccupation with issues of racial difference. Is this because Britain is more tolerant than France? Or rather, is it because we are still more focussed on social class (as in the work of Andrea Arnold, for one example)? Or is this simply because we are not engaging with the issue? I’d be extremely interested to read any views you might have.
'A Prophet' is screening every day until Thursday the 28th of January at the Duke of Yorks Picturehouse in Brighton and is rated 18 by the BBFC.

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