Two French director/actors, Emmanuelle Bercot and Roschdy Zem, spoke to reporters last week at a press conference in the Institut Francais in Tel Aviv. They are in Israel to present their most recent films at the 13th French Film Festival at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Holon, Herzliya and Sderot cinematheques, and in the culture halls of Savyon and Ashdod. The festival runs through April 7.
Bercot has a film she directed at the festival, Standing Tall (La Tete Haute), starring Catherine Deneuve, and a film she acted in, My King (Mon Roi), directed by Maiwenn and co-starring Vincent Cassel (Black Swan).
Zem’s latest film as a director, Chocolat, is in the festival, and will be opening this week in theaters throughout Israel. His best known role as an actor was in Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory, and he appeared in one film, Radu Mihaileanu’s Live and Become, that was shot in Israel.
But although he joked a bit in Hebrew, Zem claimed he doesn’t really speak the language.
In some ways, their recent movies as directors couldn’t be more different. Standing Tall tells the story of a teenage boy who has grown up in the social welfare system. Deneuve plays a judge who tries to help him.
It’s a contemporary story that examines questions of how much the state can fill in for parents who can’t handle their responsibility.
Chocolat is a period drama based on the story of a Cuban who became a star as a circus clown in late 19th century France and stars Omar Sy, who appeared in Samba, The Intouchables, as well as Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic World. James Thierrée, who happens to be Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, co-stars.
Asked about Sy’s international star status, Zem said, “We haven’t lost him in France, because the best roles for him will always be in France. He can go to Hollywood, lots of French actors go to Hollywood, like Marion Cotillard. But they always return.”
Chocolat is being released around the world, and Zem said he hoped it would be well received both in the French-speaking countries and around the world.
“Success is so random. You never know. Even if it has a star, you never know,” he said. “This is a moment in the life of a film. It’s finished, but it isn’t yet in theaters. It doesn’t belong to you anymore.”
He hadn’t heard of the story on which Chocolat is based until the film’s producers approached him with the idea of adapting it.
“People say Omar Sy is the first black star in France, but this character, who was born a slave and then came to France, he was the first.”
Chocolat is based on accounts of the life of this groundbreaking performer, who found himself both famous and isolated. “Eighty percent of the film is faithful to the story of his life,” he said.
Bercot said she did research into the juvenile welfare system in France to make Standing Tall, which was the opening film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“I tried to avoid the usual cliches with movies about troubled youth.”
One of the biggest challenges in making the film was working with the lead actor, Ron Paradot, a non-professional.
“Ron was an improbable casting choice. We sent scouts to acting schools, to the streets. We found Ron in a professional school, learning carpentry. He had never been in a movie and never thought about it... I am used to working with non-professional actors, but I usually work with people who are close to the character they play. But he wasn’t. He was very far from this character.
He had to do a lot of work as an actor... There was a war between us at times, it was hard for me and hard for him. I didn’t want to bring the part to him. I wanted him to come to the part.”
Asked about what it was like to move from working in front of the camera to behind it, Bercot said, “Acting and directing are two very different things, they demand a totally different energy.” If she were forced to choose, “I would say I am a director. That is my profession... I act just a little... I would be fine without acting.”
Zem said, “It’s nice we don’t have to choose. Each profession complements the other. I write roles I would like someone to give me, but then I don’t play them because I don’t like to direct myself. But there is always a role in my films that I wrote for myself.” In Chocolat, he said, he wrote the lead role for himself, “Even though if I had played it, it would have been a mistake in casting.”
He noted that he did not begin directing and writing because he wasn’t getting roles as an actor. “I have to turn down certain roles because I was directing.”
Bercot, who has never been to Israel before, said she had so far seen only Tel Aviv, which she found to be a “very European city,” and Acre. “I came without fear and without prejudice, and I want to see the human face of the country.”
Zem, who is involved in an Israeli non-profit, said he has been to Israel several times. He echoed Bercot when he said that although he was pessimistic about the political situation here, “I am investing in the personal and the human side of life, to have a dialogue.”