Xavier Beauvois is a stern filmmaker, and highly outspoken when it comes to politics. Both an actor, and now a director by trade, his film Of Gods and Men has been one of the highlights of the New York Film Festival, a truly moving picture that approaches an extremely difficult subject with grace, civility, and care. Below, along with his co-screenwriter Etienne Comar, Mr. Beauvois discusses his idea process and his politics in making such a film.
When I saw the film I was first surprised that in the 1990s there were communities of French religious living in Algeria. I thought that would have ended much sooner. Could you talk a little bit about the continuity of those communities, and was this one in particular a very unique community, or one of the last ones left?
Beauvois: There are still a lot of these types of communities for example in Morocco. The last survivor, Jean-Pierre, is at the monetary there. Also for example there is one in the Sinai, which the location is a mosque, but it is an old one. There are many such communities, but there are many where they are no religious. For example, doctors, entomologists, and others work in Afghanistan, who are there to help the people and who are martyrs as well, because they end of getting killed.
Could you talk about how you put together the screenplay? Especially with the daily life of the monks—what they did on a day-to-day basis. Were there records? Did you talk to people?
Comar: There were actually quite a lot of things written about this. For example, many of the brothers in the film kept journals that they wrote in every day, including Christian, who you see writing in the film. Also, because in 2006 was the ten year anniversary, there was a lot of things published articles just describing what they’re lives were like. So there was a good amount of information about this. Also, once we started shooting, there was a lot of work that we had to do. So we visited other monasteries to see what their life is like so we could have a practical picture.
Beauvois: Also I did take a few liberties. For example, where the actual monastery was located there were a lot of fruit and vegetable gardens and orchids, and where we shot just wasn’t the case. So what we did was transpose the idea of the gardens and the fruit into honey. So honey became the replacement for it.
There’s an extraordinary sequence with Swan Lake playing, and you have the cutting between all the faces. Could you talk about how you conceived of that sequence?
Beauvois: In the first version of the script, my idea was to have a long scene together where they were perhaps doing the dishes and singing. But then I thought, this might not be very interesting because they’ve been singing throughout the film and also because these are non-professional singers it might not be that interesting. Then I hit on the idea of listening to music instead, and I was listening to a lot of music through my headphones, and I came upon this excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and I suddenly had this idea in my head. I suddenly saw the whole scene and started to cry and then I couldn’t show anyone I was crying, but this was my idea that it was the music. In French, there is a play on words; the word for director where part of the word is also the word for the Last Supper. So I had this idea where Christian as Jesus with the disciples around him. It was a challenge but it just came so vividly to mind.
There’s a bit of dialogue early in the film about girls who are unveiled on the bus. This film is set in the mid-90s in Algeria, but it has a very contemporary feel with the questions of veiling in France. Was that an accurate depiction of what was going on in Algeria at that moment?
Beauvois: Actually no the whole question of girls wearing headscarves had already begun around that time, but this of course is something that is really big right now. In France, they are trying to make people as afraid as possible, so the issue now has become the burka, which covers the head entirely, and it sort of has these phantoms in cinema. The actual number of women—who wear the burka—are probably 0.00001%, maybe 500 women in all of France. And yet this very small percentage of women has really come to monopolize the French press. Perhaps 50% of the French press is devoted to this issue, and what it really is, is an attempt by the Sarkozy government to divert people’s attention from what the real problems are, which are problems surrounding poverty, about people not having enough for their retirement, about suicides over economic troubles, so its really a way of diverting their attention, since it affects such a small number of people.
Comar: In 1993 through 1996 there were many, many killings, about 170 Algerians, Imams, intellectuals, people in the street, religious, so all the stories are larger than what is going on in this film.
Beauvois: You’ve had countries like France where girls are fighting to wear headscarves and insisting they be able to do it, where you have other countries where people are fighting not to wear them, or all traditional Islamic wear for women. And in both cases these women can be Algerian but they could be women in Algerian, or Algerian women in France, and its almost surreal, because of this episode…Just to imagine if one day, President Obama declared that people who get dressed up like Batman and try and scare children should be banned. Then you’d get an idea what this would be like.
Going back to the use of Swan Lake, which happens to be not a religious piece, but specifically a secular piece…
Beauvois: Actually music for me is very important I listen to it all the time, for example Sergio Leone and a lot of composers who’s music is used in films. But for myself in using it for my own films, I find it more problematic. For example in my previous film The Young Lieutenant, there was no music at all. What I don’t like about using music in films is I don’t want to cue the viewer when to laugh, when to cry, not to emphasize it by having music. So in this film, there really isn’t any music other than this Tchaikovsky episode, other than the religious music, which is part of their daily lives in the monastery. I think that its significant that the last music that you hear is secular music, and it was important to me because this movie is about men and gods, and perhaps this was the closet they could come to be gods, but they were also just men…I think when you think about it during great moments in life, like great moments of sadness, you are out in the street, there’s no soundtrack behind you. Same thing for kids. They’re on top of the world, and they’re screaming, and there’s no music behind them either.
The scene where the monks links arms when the helicopter is overhead is quite powerful. Was it something you got from the journals or was it something invented?
Comar: It was something completely invented by Xavier but at this time, in the monastery, there were many army operations in the area, because this area was very dangerous, and there was a lot of terrorist threats. So the helicopter was coming some time and very close to the monastery, and some jeeps and some tanks. So we expressed the idea of what was happening there in the scene. But it wasn’t something that they wrote, or was told, it was simply invented.
Beauvois: I always have a very hard time answering where these ideas come from because once you start developing a story and becoming part of a story and filming a story there are a lot of things happening where its not just the story itself. It’s the feelings that are connected with it, the odors that are connected with it. All of these things serve to bring ideas into my head. Sometimes the ideas are symbolic of whatever I’m thinking about and showing. Or some of them are to summarize the things that I have. But it’s a very bizarre thing to tell you exactly where these ideas come from. But one thing I wanted to tell you about having the helicopter over the monastery is that there are many theories about how the monks were actually killed in the end, and one of them is that it was a mistake by the Algerian army, and they were killed by a helicopter attack on the terrorists. So I thought it was good to have this helicopter over them, with the machine guns, and they’re a constant presence over them. So I wanted to hint at that to be present, but I’m not particularly promoting any one theory about what happened, but also I like the idea of trying to show that by linking arms and singing, by song, it’s the contrast by the machines of war that are represented by the machine guns on the helicopter.
One of the great challenges to make a film like this is to create a community of men who are true believers, who believe in something, and that belief fills them and really guides their life. How do you create that belief that is really fundamental to the film?
Beauvois: Actually, if you think about it before you have belief, before you have faith, you have freedom, you have equality, you have brotherhood. Liberté, égalité, fraternité is the motto in France, and what we have here are men who are free men. They are free men who see themselves as being equal to each other, but also brothers as religious brothers, but also with the Muslim people. So these are basically humans. Unfortunately, what we now have in France is a situation where people are a little less free and a little less equal and a little less fraternal. And I think that the important message is that this is really a question of intelligence. These are really people who speak with each other, they question each other, they’re interested in each other and they approach if from that angle rather than one of proselytizing one faith over another. Frankly, I could never really make the film if it was about proselytizing with these missionaries; that was not the case with these men….Actually, an incident happened to us yesterday. We were walking around the city and we saw a Jewish family—the father was wearing a yamaka and was with his wife and child—and they crossed paths with an Arab family—the woman was wearing a veil—and they knew each other and were saying, “Oh hi how are you?” We really stopped and looked at this because this is the message of what my film is, but its not something you would see in France.
What do you see as the message of your film? About hope, about religion, and about reconciliation?
Beauvois: Well first of all, this is a film, and I would hope that it could make some sort of impact, but first of all, it was made as a film, and what happens after, once its on the screen, and we can fantasize what we want. I don’t know what this would correspond to, but we had one million tickets sold in 15 days in France, which is an enormous success. And I think why its had this success in France is people have a need for this kind of reconciliation. I think people have had enough of ego building, and bling bling, and Sarkozy-ism that’s been prevalent up to now. And perhaps its this desire to return to things that are more simple, and I don’t want to be pretentious, but perhaps I hope that my film will encourage people to talk to each other and perhaps have an atmosphere that is less fearful. Schindler’s List was a film that really changed things because a lot of people didn’t know what was had happened during that time and I hope this film can do something similar.
Comar: There’s also something that I’ve been surprised by since we started the project together is the fact that in 1996 when this drama appears, this question between Muslims and Christians was not really spoken even in France. There wasn’t a lot of press about this crime, and how they died etc. But during the anniversary in 2006, it was ten years after that, and we were in the post-2000 years, which is a very different world, and there were a lot of stuff about the fact that what they were saying in 1996 makes it feel like now. They were saying things out of peace, a lot of Ghandi, and Martin Luther King. So this message was quite relevant in the film.