Interview: Mathieu Kassovitz, ‘Rebellion’

Having burst onto the scene with the incendiary banlieue drama La Haine back in 1995, it’s fair to say that French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz has never truly matched the raw, innovation of his sophomore project. That is until now, with the UK release of his intense real-life thriller Rebellion (L’ordre et la morale, 2011), in which Kassovitz also takes on the lead role of GIGN operative Capitaine Philippe Legorjus. Recently, we were fortunate enough to sit down and discuss the movie with Kassovitz, who gave us a candid insight into the politics behind a film such as this, the controversy it has caused both at home and abroad, and also tells us exactly how he feels about the current state of France’s national cinema.

Stefan Pape: Can you tell me about the inception of Rebellion and why it was so important for you to tell this story?

Mathieu Kassovitz: My father gave me a book in 1989 that was an investigation made by a journalist in the human rights league that was a different account of Legorjus’ story. When I was 18, the narrative that we heard was the official story. Then, two days later because of the elections, we forgot about everything. All we heard was that 19 guys killed some people and took hostages, they got shot and good riddance – that’s what we heard. So my father gave me that book and I discovered a different aspect to the story.

SP: You based Rebellion on this report, but did you also read Philippe Legorjus’ book? And if so, how much did his own point of view influence the movie?

MK: I read 20 books. I had to take his point of view. I met with him and I know him, and we spent a lot of years together trying to figure out who he was because these guys are professionals. They don’t let their emotions take over because of the decisions they have to make the and the responsibilities they take when they do their job, so it took me years to get through his skin and understand what he felt. But it was not really about him – I don’t care about what he thinks. I just need to use him as eyes for the audience to feel what he felt.

SP: How close do you believe Rebellion to be to the reality of the events?

MK: Very close. We did 10 years of work to get all the information from all the sides and because nobody had told this story and nobody knew these guys, and for it take 10 years for them to all say yes and to give us the keys to their culture, if we had betrayed them with this movie they would be in trouble because that’s the first time they have a say about who they are and allow the rest of the world to understand who they are, so for them to give us the key, it’s a great responsibility to put this movie out because the movie becomes that memory. There are a couple of documentaries, a couple of books – but this movie can become that centre stone that they build on and talk about it.

SP: Did you get the chance to show Rebellion to the Kanaks that you were working with?

MK: Of course, we had a special screening for them. We worked so closely together over the 10 years that they knew exactly what they were going to get. What they were proud of – and what I promised them – is that they will be shown as they are, and this movie really shows what they are, with their flaws and that different reality and approach to nature and life that they have, which is very interesting, and it’s why the machine wants to get rid of them, because it gives people another way of looking at life where you don’t have to obey the same rules, you can think for yourself sometimes. 

SP: When you first saw the news reports and read Legorjus’ book, were you already forming a movie in your head?

MK: I was surprised that nobody had done it already, because what is in the movie is in the book, it’s crazy. The characters, the conflict, the psychology, the Shakespearean story, it’s ‘To be or not to be’, that’s what it is. It was all there. But that is what true stories are, you cannot make up reality, reality is so amazing that if you find something like that you just have to stick to it. Then you have to make it interesting and it’s a challenge because it becomes way more interesting to look for the truth than to romanticise it, or dramatise it. 

SP: “Why do people act like they act?” That seems to be what comes out of Rebellion.

MK: That’s what you should get when you come out of the theatre. You have to take position in your life and make decisions, if you’re a journalist and you’re working for Rupert Murdoch and you’re stealing information from telephones from victims of the war and things like that, at some point you need to look at yourself in the mirror and think, are you part of the machine? Or out? We all have to question that – you as a journalist, me as a director – can I betray my artistic values for money? Am I giving the right message, or should I not care? 

SP: Does Rebellion signal a shift in your filmmaking style back to La Haine’s social commentary?

MK: The difference is that movies like that are very difficult to come by, you don’t find a story like that. They fall on your lap and actually the story finds you. So you don’t cross paths with stories like that all the time and you don’t get that kind of inspiration all the time – so when you don’t have it, go to Hollywood. That’s why La Haine was so powerful and successful everywhere in the world and why it still is today, I have people everyday coming to me and saying “This movie changed my life” every fucking day – it’s crazy. 

SP: Is it correct that you now live in Los Angeles?

MK: I moved to Hollywood a year ago. For me, this movie is the end of what I had to do in France and freedom that I had as a filmmaker and artist and activist. France is the perfect ground to express yourself, and I expressed myself with a lot of movies. I did four personal movies and I made them very personal, and I’ve done that – it’s a full circle and this one is very close to La Haine, it’s the same kind of structure and I can’t push more like this. 

SP: Finally, what are your views on the current state of French filmmaking?

MK: French cinema is not where it should be. We invented the technology, we perfected it and we reinvented it, but right now we’re stalling. We don’t set the bar high enough and Hollywood is making far better movies than we do, and it shouldn’t be like that. Why should I waste my time when Darren Aronofsky is working in America? All these amazing new directors are there – they aren’t in France. We’re becoming an international reserve of people who have to obey the same rules and buy the same things. We were the feisty little village that nobody liked and right now there is nothing to hate about us, and I’m very sad about it. You guys might even like us in a few years – it’s terrible. 

Mathieu Kassovitz’s Rebellion is released in UK cinemas on 19 April. Follow the link to read our review. 

Stefan Pape