Friday, March 23, 2012

FREE MEN: A look at this new French thriller plus an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with director Ismael Ferroukhi

The Fight For Freedom:

A look at the French thriller FREE MEN

plus an EXCLUSIVE interview

with director ISMAEL FERROUKHI

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     The world of movie-making is a marvelous and magical thing. Not only do films tell stories born from imagination, they are also able to reach back into history’s hidden past and bring true, little known facts to life. It’s been common practice for ages, yet nowadays, the big budgets for from major studios mandate that whatever story is being told has to be larger than life. So, the explosions have to be bigger, the lead actress has to be prettier, the death scenes have to be gorier and the hero has to live to see another day.
     Thankfully, independent films don’t live by the same rules. Without a big budget, an indie film has to rely on the story, the direction and the acting. When these three things come together, they not only make for a great film, they also touch viewers in a way that most major productions can’t. Such is the case for Free Men, a fascinating film that is based on facts but uses both real and fictional characters to tell its story.
     Free Men is a French independent film (with English subtitles) directed and co-written by Ismael Ferroukhi (Le Grand Voyage). Ferroukhi’s vision of a Nazi-occupied Paris circa 1942 is in stark contrast to the romantic city that is depicted in other period dramas and thrillers. Though mostly implied, the Nazi regime’s presence stifles the atmosphere of the city, leaving a cold chill where there was once warmth and joy.
     The film centers around Younes (Tahar Rahim), an unemployed Algerian worker who makes his money on the black market selling cigarettes and similar items. When he is arrested by French police, they offer him a deal to avoid serving time in jail: spy on the Paris Mosque, who they suspect is aiding Muslim resistance agents and giving false identification certificates to North African Jews. Obviously under orders by the Nazi regime, the police seem desperate to uncover what they suspect is going on at the mosque. In order to keep himself out of jail, Younes agrees. Once he begins to see the reality of the situation, his journey to becoming a full-fledged freedom fighter begins.
     As Younes, Rahim is riveting. His transformation from an uneducated peddler to a knowing participant in Paris’ fight to free themselves of the Nazis is the core of the film. The Hollywood Reporter said that ‘the French-Nigerian actor has an undeniable screen presence that recalls a young Robert De Niro’ and who am I to disagree? Rahim has the potential to become a major player in the movie industry and Free Men is the proof in the pudding.
     While Younes is a fictional character, he is based on a number of real people. The film’s other central characters, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale) and Salim Halali (Mahmoud Shalaby), are individuals who actually played significant parts in this little known slice of history. Lonsdale (best known in the U.S. for his role as Hugo Drax, James Bond’s arch nemesis in Moonraker) is excellent as Ghabrit. His subtle performance reveals a depth that goes beyond any word spoken. He is low key, yet crafty, and a pleasure to watch. Shalaby’s performance as the cabaret singer Halali is captivating. There is a sadness behind his eyes that hides many secrets, a few of which are revealed during the film. There is an emotional scene at a cemetery between Halali and the Nazis that is as haunting as it is harrowing.
     Though the Nazis are the obvious antagonists of the film, Ferroukhi does not always depict them as the vicious monsters that we are used to seeing on the screen. While there is no doubt they are evil, Ferroukhi slowly reveals a human side to Major Von Ratibor (Christopher Buchholz). While visiting the mosque later in the film, he hesitates and then stops to give money to the beggar he had walked past numerous times before. Moments later, he has a temper tantrum when Ghabrit informs him that a medal promised to him has not arrived and he must travel to a U.S. occupied city to receive it. By showing that Ratibor possesses sympathy, selfishness and fear, it strips away the armor and puts his character on the same playing field as the other characters.
     Free Men is a film that relies not only on the emotions of the characters but the emotions of the viewers. As Younes discovers more about the people he is sent to spy on, the audience discovers alongside him, following him on a passionate journey that ultimately leads to freedom and redemption.
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with director Ismael Ferroukhi while on a quick jaunt in New York to promote the film…

SPAZ: The film, Free Men, has been receiving unanimous praise and has been screened at many film festivals worldwide. How do you feel about the reaction so far?
ISMAEL FERROUKHI: The reaction has been great. It feels like the movie has helped many people… and many people actually told me that they needed that. People were happy to discover historical facts that they didn’t know until the movie was made.

SPAZ: The story behind the Muslims aiding the Jews in Paris during WWII has not been well-documented in history books. What inspired you to make the film?
ISMAEL: The first time I came to discover that story was with an article in a French magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur. Then came the research with historians and especially with Benjamin Stora. It allowed me to discover a whole world that I didn’t know about and it gave me the will to make a movie out of that story.

SPAZ: How long did it take to put together Free Men? And was it a difficult to get others behind the film when dealing with the subject matter?
ISMAEL: It was very difficult. It took quite a while because there was, first, the research part and then the writing part. It took at least three years of work before we started shooting. Some people supported us, but there were also some people that weren’t especially inclined to help us.

SPAZ: While the film uses two real historic figures, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit and Salim Halali, as main characters, how difficult was it to create a story involving them but based around the fictional character of Younes?
ISMAEL: First of all, the character of Younes is not really fictional. It brings together, in one character, three individual stories. The balance between fiction and historical facts.

SPAZ: The three main stars of the film, Tahar Rahim, Michael Lonsdale and Mahmoud Shalaby, give fantastic performances that are understated yet powerful. Did you have to rein them in at times or did the actors intuitively understand their characters and where you wanted to take them?
ISMAEL: Not really. The actors are professionals and they really connected with the characters they portrayed. Tahar Rahim is a hard worker and has a powerful instinct. All in all, it was a pleasure to work with these actors.

SPAZ: Was it your goal to engage the viewer and take them on the same emotional journey that Younes takes in the film?
ISMAEL: No, I don’t want to do politics or to give a lesson. History speaks for itself and there are a lot of lessons that people can take from that.

SPAZ: Much has been covered in recent news about relations between the Muslims and the Jews over the years. Do you hope to shed new light on those relations with this film?
ISMAEL: I just wanted to state facts. The image that people have of tensions between Jews and Muslims mainly comes from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. History shows that there has been peaceful and friendly relationship between Jews and Muslims. For instance, the Sultan from Morocco refused to hand over to Nazis 300.000 Jews and still today people from Morocco are very proud of that.

SPAZ: What’s next for Ismael Ferroukhi?
ISMAEL: Working on writing at the moment.

Thanks to Ismael Ferroukhi

Special thanks to Claire Weingarten, Courtney Jones, Lauren Watt and Susan Senk.

Coming to DVD October, 2012!

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