Desperate teenagers, an endless quest for popularity and awkward love affairs; don’t we know all the stereotypes in high school movies by now? Luckily, French-Tunisian director Ramzi Bem Sliman stirs things up a bit in his debut feature My Revolution by introducing politics in the classroom: how can you combine political activism with life at school? “I wanted to paint a cinematic portrait of a generation of little-seen faces in cinema.”
It’s almost that time of the year again: after Pluk de Nacht Arnhem closes its doors, the Dutch youth has to go back to school again. Another year not just tp study, but also to climb the social ladder. At least, that’s the view on high school life espoused by little opportunist Marwann, the main character in My Revolution. He tries to be one of the cool kids so he can date Sygrid, the girl of his pre-adult dreams.
He gets there only by coincidence, when he makes the cover of left-wing newspaper Libération as a French supporter of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia. Political activism and high school, how do you combine those two realms? Sliman tackles this problem with humor, while raising import issues of our time: “The feeling of solidarity is in danger, there’s a lot of unrest in society.”
What kind of cinematic upbringing did you have?
“I think I learned a lot about cinema by watching certain films my father used to screen a lot of times when we were travelling together. He was a travelling projectionist, screening films at nursing homes and boarding schools. By seeing those films I intuitively learned about what it means to tell stories, what a shot is, how movement works, what an actor does, et cetera. My father screened very popular films: action, swords and sandals epics, kung-fu flicks and comedies. More commercial than auteur films.”
When did the shift happen from only seeing films to also making them?
“Even before I directed my own films I already saw myself as the director of the films I was watching.”
So how did this film come to be?
“I love the cinema of Italian director Ettore Scola. He had the talent to capture Italian society of his time through smaller narratives of individuals and families. France is now going through a complex time. The feeling of solidarity is in danger, there’s a lot of unrest in society. This is something that bothers me, and I tried to deal with these issues on a light manner, like Scola would. I chose to delve into the mind of a young schoolboy to look at these issues. I wanted to make a cinematic portrait of a generation of little-seen faces in cinema.”
The characters live in France but are involved with the protests in Tunisia, giving them a sense of powerlessness. Marwann’s mother especially is frustrated by the fact that she can’t help the Tunisian cause from a distance. Did you see this powerlessness in Paris when the revolution unfolded?
“France didn’t understand what was happening in Tunisia. Our Minister of Foreign Affairs wanted to send police there to establish order in what she called ‘riots’. I think the west was too late, maybe due to a post-colonial reflex.”
The ending of My Revolution brings to mind the films of Truffaut. Can you talk about your inspirations?
Indeed, this film is a homage to The 400 Blows by Truffaut. He’s my bedside filmmaker. I was also very inspired by the way Jacques Audiard deals with imposters in Self Made Hero. La haine was a major reference of course, just like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Woody Allen because of the way they capture their cities. Last but not least the Coen Brothers are an example of how to use music in film.
Hip hop plays a big part in the film. Marwann is practicing his beat boxing skills, without much success. That becomes apparent when he visits an illegal rap concert in Tunisia. What does the hip hop scene signify in My Revolution?
“We shot a scene in Tunisia with rapper Weld El 15. This figure of the rebellion is still banned from performing. Filming the concert was very hard by the way. Weld El 15 was facing a five-year prison sentence if he’d get caught on stage. I didn’t want to get too involved with politics in this film. I rather wanted to show that this was a spontaneous and pacifistic movement that got picked up by the youth all over the country – a youth that decided not to be afraid. It’s this romantic sentiment that I tried to invoke.”