Interview: Narimane Mari
Art of the Real selection Bloody Beans screens Saturday and Sunday with director Narimane Mari in person. The below interview was conducted after the film’s award-winning appearance at the CPH:DOX festival last November.
Winner of the award for best film at Denmark’s prestigious CPH:DOX festival for documentary, Narimane Mari’s Bloody Beans (Loubia Hamra) invariably drew a roar of laughter among audiences there at the moment referencing the film’s title. Poor Algerian kids are comparing which beans—their dietary staple—are the worst, the most indigestible. “You fart like a Frenchman,” one accuses the other.
An expressionistic hybrid featuring kids in Algiers, Bloody Beans has its action sequences, but the style is poetic, seems Vigo-influenced, and freely uses symbols in its narration. The 50-year occupation of Algeria by France comes through mainly in the conversations among Algerian kids, or in a pig mask we see someone wearing that brings with it colonialist overtones. Perhaps the most successful sequences have a joyful sense of play as the kids act out the running battles they have seen firsthand, and at one point toy with a French guard on the beach whom they have accosted in their hunt for the food they have heard is stored in the barracks. The film was shot in nine days, in sequence and rarely repeating a take.
After the Franco-Algerian production won the award at CPH:DOX, you could sense a scramble. Was the filmmaker French or Algerian? Was the movie an anti-war or anti-colonial statement, a tone poem, a pastiche of Artaud-inspired images and acting out? And why was the soundtrack by the contemporary European duo Zombie Zombie so stirring and pulsating in this rough setting? Mari, making her feature debut at 45, took the award in olive-drab slacks and top and seemed surprised, even nonplussed, though not breathless. Nor did she play the prima donna the next day, slinging this reporter’s laptop over her shoulder (“You look tired,” she decided. “I’m used to carrying equipment.”).
Rounding up her group for what turned into a rollicking interview, Mari brought along her husband, the model of quietly supportive bemusement, and a festival guide. The following conversation comes out of that interview and an email exchange.
What was your motivation for making the film?
I wanted to focus on the emotional reality of occupation by seeing it fresh—using the point of view of kids. The trigger was the 50th anniversary of Algeria’s freedom. But the way to get to the heart of what happened was how children may have experienced it.
Were you especially driven because you are half Algerian?
No doubt. I grew up there, though after the struggle was over.
How did you find the children?
I asked the kids in the neighborhood where the film was shot, between Bab el Qued and Bologhine (two populous neighborhoods of Algiers): who wanted to play? Much of the film wasn’t scripted yet, so we decided together who was best at which part. I used 20 kids, between [the ages of] eight and 14.
It sounds like improvisation.
Some of it was. Though I let them know the overview, that they would be going on a kind of prowl.
One of the most dramatic things the kids do is to capture a French guard. Is one of the themes of the film to rebel against occupying forces?
The soldier is himself barely more than a child. He is still a kid, like the other kids and he merges with them with desire and pleasure and even agrees to be their prisoner.
So how did the kids know to track him down?
They had heard that there was a cache of great French food in the barracks, delicacies like chocolate, and that’s what they were really after.
Now that you mention it, I can’t recall the exact moment when he joins up with them, or is taken. Is that because of the way shadows, and light, are used?
For that, thanks to Nasser Madjkane, a first-time DP. He is a photographer, and just threw himself into the center of the group of kids. He was really terrific in getting the light on the water, and the sense of the ocean always being there. Another contribution from him were the nighttime scenes. And of course the very effective use of shadows on a wall as they move at night.
In another section of Bloody Beans we watch a woman beaten by a male attacker. But it’s also seen, as you say, through children’s eyes as they peek and wonder what can possibly be happening. I must confess at first I thought it was a rape, but as the kids comfort her, there is some ambiguity. What is going on there?
In part it is an autobiographical reference to an enforced break-up. My mother is French, my father Algerian. They were very much in love, but her family forced her to leave him. I play the woman. I was just on hand, obviously, and so I cast myself. But I also made her Spanish, because she also represents those who are driven out, as many immigrants are forced to leave Algeria.
A ghost appears in a very gothic graveyard scene. Aside from death, what else does this scene signify?
This is Bologhine’s cemetery, a Christian and Jewish cemetery. While there is no iconography in Islam, here it is everywhere: statues, crosses, portraits, representations sometimes frightening but magical at the same time. Even in this alien environment that might seem hostile to them, children reclaim worlds as their own, surpass, and transcend them. Also, it was cheap to shoot there.
Yet much of the film is very energetic, too.
That’s because of the music. A lot of Americans don’t know the group Zombie Zombie, a duo really. Some viewers even thought it was music by Pink Floyd. But Zombie Zombie is very popular in Europe. They use real instruments and never computerized scores. Did you realize that about a third of the film is just music by them? They will tour in the U.S. this upcoming year, so this is one introduction to them.
The score is extremely effective, when the kids are marching up the wall.
Yes. This is what Etienne Jaumet, one of the Zombies, said: “This is a key moment, symbolically and in the film’s action It is the passage to adulthood, the time when they leave childhood . . . climbing the stairs reminded us of a military march, mechanical, where everyone is aligned, in a row. It immediately spoke to us, given the influence of repetitive music on our own music.”
How did you get into filmmaking? Did you formally study film?
I produced some documentary shorts, then the longer Enfants de Don Quichotte [“Children of Don Quixote”]. Before that, I worked in publishing—magazines and books—and helped set up some art galleries. Study filmmaking? [Laughs] I just went out and did it.
In this film you are editor, writer-director, and also producer.
I have my own production company, Allers Retour Films, in Algeria. But I live part of the time in Paris.
You also worked on L’Arpenteur [“The Surveyor”], which won the Jean Vigo Award in 2001. In Bloody Beans the most poetic sequences used waves and fish, and of course the Artaud poem recited by the kids at the end. Any comment on contemplative filmmaking and the documentary mode?
I saw the kids as the little fishes referred to in [Artaud’s] “Petit poème des poissons de la mer.” Documentaries can record emotions, as well as facts.
What are your thoughts on what is known as social-intent documentary? Bloody Beans also uses street theater, mime, and guerilla warfare. Is there an intentional call to action for those still oppressed?
The answer is in the line from the poem, and in the film. It is better to not obey. It’s one way to be free.
Why is Artaud so important to you?
He frees me up. Because he brings up a dream state, which is what poetry is to me, and what I was aiming for in my film. I am not interested so much in the logical explanation of things, but the truth that comes in dreams, with no one-two-three sequence. That’s why I let the kids roam around as if they had no idea what they were going to do next, but somehow miraculously got to the right spot anyway. And maybe that’s why I became a filmmaker. I don’t like restrictions either so I go beyond narrative.
You can call it experimental, or you can see it as imaginative. That’s what I want to do in my films. I think children come closest to that.
Is this perhaps an explanation as to why the movie is both happy and anxiety-producing at the same time? Opposites unite like in dreams?
Perhaps. Another example would be in the way the children move. You wouldn’t call it a dance, yet the rhythm is much more than a ritual. Sometimes it’s like they are one body, but they didn’t think about it.