INTERVIEW: Romain Goupil, veteran French activist and filmmaker

Menna Taher, Monday 28 Nov 2011

Ahram Online talks to Romain Goupil about his life in cinema and politics, and his views on the Egyptian Revolution

Directed by Romain Goupil, Left: MOURIR A 30 ANS, Right: LES MAINS EN L'AIR (HANDS UP)

Ahram Online recently spoke with French filmmaker Romain Goupil who has two films, Les Mains En L’Air and Mourir A 30 Ans, currently showing at the Eurofilm Panorama in Cairo.

Ahram Online (AO): How was it growing up in a cinematic home?

Romain Goupil (RG): It was like growing up in a circus. Being on set was ordinary for me, it was natural. I was always surrounded by film stars so it never occurred to me to get someone’s autograph. You are just caught up in that world and you start to make films when you are ten years old. My father taught me how to use the camera and the art of cinema.

AO: You have worked as an assistant to filmmakers Roman Polanski and Jean-Luc Godard. What were they like and how different are their approaches to directing?

RG: As an assistant you get a whole lot of experience as you are constantly observing what is happening on the set. Polanski’s approach is methodological and technical. He knows before shooting the exact frames he wants to capture and plans ahead; while Godard was more spontaneous and unpredictable. He would decide on set how he would like to shoot the scene.

AO: I really like the way you directed the children in your film Hands Up. How difficult was it to work with children?

RG: Basically, to work well with children you have to remember your own childhood and become part of their world. You have to regain the imagination of childhood and how you used to take grass and pretend it was spaghetti. You have to form a bond with them.

AO: How did you explain to them a complex topic such as illegal immigration?

RG: I did not explain it to them.  I made them feel we were in a game and told them how they had to be loyal to one another. I explained that the police was the enemy and wanted to take one of the gang away so they had to stick together.

AO: Why did you decide to set the film in our current times, yet from the nostalgic perspective of old people looking back and remembering their childhood in 2009?

RG: We’re now in 2011. Hopefully, one day in the future we will find our current times really absurd and stupid. This day will one day be judged by historians as really absurd. For instance, 60 years ago it was not common for a woman to be a journalist, but in our current times this idea seems ridiculous.  

AO: Are you interested in illegal immigration for personal reasons?

RG: It is a philosophy of life. I could’ve been born in Chechnya or Mozambique.

AO: You are very involved in politics and were part of the French student movement in 1968. How do you avoid inserting a propagandist tone into your films? Your film Hands Up was very personal and endearing despite its topic (illegal immigration and the expulsion law in France).

RG: As a citizen I express my political opinions in my articles. I stopped making films that include propaganda because they were never any good. People like a film, even before watching it, because of the political message it holds and not because of the film’s quality. The best films make you question the realities surrounding you. They should not offer a solution.

AO: In your youth you were radical, anti-imperialist, and anti-pacifist. However, I have read online that you were in favour of the US invasion of Iraq. How did that change of opinions come about?

RG: I don’t know why you think I’ve changed my opinions, because I haven’t. I am against fascism of any kind and I think Saddam was exactly like Mubarak, Gaddafi and Bashar. Saddam killed around 5000 Kurds in 1988 with chemical weapons. I was for the intervention of France in the situation.

AO: How do you feel about the current revolutions in the Middle East?

RG: It is like a dream come true. Something has changed in Egypt and Tunisia but it is still only the beginning of the road.

AO: Since you are a veteran revolutionary, how effective is the constant presence of protesters in Tahrir Square? Do you think they pose enough pressure?

RG: I fully support the peaceful unarmed nature of the revolution. Using weapons would just be trying to hurry the process for democratic change. Change will happen and people in Tahrir are now thinking out loud. Armed struggle only brings calamity and whoever carries weapons is stating that he is the one who is right.

AO: What films have you watched so far at the Panorama and what did you think of them?

RG: I’ve watched three films: Cuba: An African Odyssey, Grin Without a Cat, and Cinema Komuisto. They all rely on footage and are nostalgic to a time that once existed. I’ve also watched Tahrir 2011.

AO: Since you followed Egypt’s revolution via the news, how different was it when you watched the Tahrir documentary?

RG: I was surprised and impressed by the courage of the youth and the young filmmakers. It is different watching the revolution on the big screen – it has more drama. I also really liked that cops were interviewed in the film. Instead of sympathising, I understood the anger of the protesters.

AO: We conducted an interview with the filmmaker who filmed the section with the police. She said she reconsidered her view of the police after the recent violence in Tahrir.

RG: She should not regret filming this. She didn’t insert her point of view, which was good, and I understand how she wanted to get a human side out of them. And it is not like they said they are repentant and would not kill people again and be good. She captured a moment within the revolution and the revolution is a never-ending story. This part only showed that the police force as an organisation needs to change.

If I were among the youth in Egypt I would be in Tahrir, but I am afraid the revolution is being confiscated. The good thing about being young is that you are idealistic, but you learn with age that change comes gradually. There has been a victory and the situation will never be as before. What saddens me is the lack of coordination between the political parties. Some say they will stay in Tahrir, while others won’t. There isn’t one clear message at the moment because of ideological differences.

Romain Goupil’s film Les Mains En L’Air (Hands Up) will be showing for the last time on Tuesday, 29 November at 10.30 am at Cinema City Stars on Omar Ibn El Khattab St., Nasr City.

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