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Interview with David Oelhoffen, director of Far From Men
Larry Rich, covering the Tribeca Film Festival IN New York for SIGNIS, interviewed David Oelhoffen, the director of Far From Men. Here is the transcript of it.
Larry Rich: The film is based on a story by Albert Camus, “The Guest,” but it certainly expands on that. Camus is obviously trying to say something about our human condition. What were you trying to do—if that’s not too abstract?
David Oelhoffen: No, it’s not abstract— because the beginning of my work was to try to understand the meaning of a short text written 60 years ago. It was not abstract question for me. Really, it is connected to current wars, and problems and issues, the confrontation between the Western world and the Arab world. Unfortunately [the same story] could take place now in a lot of places in the world connected to today’s wars. What I tried to do was to tell the story of two men trying to achieve a kind of brotherhood, a humanist approach in the midst of the chaos, in the middle of the chaotic world, and [ask] how well does a humanist approach work?. It is seen as more and more difficult and less and less efficient in the long run by some. So basically I’m trying to show how difficult it is to achieve brotherhood, how fragile it is, how important it is, and I think it’s very connected to today’s world.
LR: The two main characters, Daru and Mohammed, are caught in the middle of the two sides of a conflict. One of the things I found really interesting is that in Camus’s story Mohammed doesn’t even have a name. In your film he is a much more three-dimensional character. What were you trying to do there?
DO: In the short story, Camus is very focused on Daru’s dilemma. I wanted to build a story about brotherhood, so I needed to do two big correctives. On the one hand I had to build a background for Mohammed. On the other hand, I changed the character of Daru as was well. In the short story he’s a Frenchman, an Algerian-born pied noir*. [In Camus’s story] he has no identity problem—his identity is very clear. Instead, I wanted him to be like Mohammed, an outsider. He’s a pariah. So it’s the story of two pariahs who are [complete] opposites at the beginning of the story, but in the end they both have the same problem. They have one thing in common: there is no option for them to find shelter in their own communities. They have to find their own strength, their own values, not their communities’ values. They find they have the same solution for their problems. It’s what most interested me, these two outsiders who have to help each other to survive...
LR: That relationship develops very realistically during the film. It doesn’t happen immediately—it’s part of their journey. One of the things you’ve referred to is that it’s a Western, or at least a Western motif. Would you talk a little bit about that— why you decided to take that approach?
DO: In the short story by Camus there are elements of the Western: a prisoner to be escorted to the nearest town—very Western…
LR: 3:10 to Yuma…
DO: Yes. An isolated school, big landscape, hostile nature, all of these elements are in the short story. For me the short story by Camus talks about the law, the contradictions of the law, the struggle between two systems of laws—the tribal laws vs. the colonizers’ laws, which is a main theme of many Westerns. So I thought it was consistent not to be afraid of those elements, but I did not try to imitate American Western. Of course not all Westerns are very interesting. There is the standard Western which promotes the myth of the conquest of the West, but there are Westerns that try to show the contradictions of that myth, like Little Big Man or Anthony Mann’s Westerns. That kind of Western always interested me a lot. What I tried to do with Far From Men is not [exactly] the same myth because Far From Men is part of European history. We are not talking about the myth of the conquest of the West, but another myth, about French or European Universalism. They are not bringing civilization to the natives like in the American Western with weapons, but with the schoolteacher—another kind of weapon. I think the film shows the contradictions of that myth, how it has been perverted and turned against the native populations. The film begins at a time when this very unfair world is collapsing. Daru thinks he’s a good guy, but he’s part of a very unfair system. What I tried to do is show the contradiction of the European myth of universalism, of Europe bringing civilization to Africa—how perverted that is.
LR: I worked for a long time in Latin America and there was the myth of the civilizing influence of the Spanish and Portuguese. Although Daru at one point keeps repeating to his friend Slimane about how he is teaching them to read, and he seems to have some notion that this will give the children some skills But on the other hand he is giving out grain and teaching about the rivers in France.
DO: Yes. Slimane says to him, “Teaching them to read? No teaching them French.”
LR: It’s a very interesting exchange. He means to do well but that’s often the problem, meaning to do well
DO: Now he’s not perfect fellow, Daru. At the beginning of the story he doesn’t seem to realize a lot of things. It’s through the journey with Mohammed that he realizes he is part of the unfair system. He realizes more about himself. He’s almost a ghost—he keeps talking to Mohammed about life, life, life is the most important thing, but he is almost dead. He has no one, no love in his life, he is still in grief [over his long—dead wife], and life is not so generous. He has been isolated for a big part of his life.
LR: Daru’s back-story, that he was in the war and does not want to be part of that kind of violence again.. Is that what you are trying to show?
DO: He has been very damaged by the war. He has a fantasy life for that reason. He tries to build a shelter, isolated from the problems of the world. Of course History with a big H catches up with you no matter where you are. - You can be in South America or you can be in the Atlas Mountains. History is not an abstraction. It is everywhere. I think it’s very naive to think you can build a life disconnected from history. That’s what Daru is basically trying to do: to build the little kingdom where he is the master. It’s a selfish point of view
LR: For both of them there are references to honor. Both of them in the end see themselves as men of honor. What is that honor at the core for each of them?
DO: Honor is when you care for others—it’s the opposite of individualism. Mohammed is a man of honor because he cares very much for his younger brothers
LR: He’s willing to die for them.
DO: .Daru is a man of honor because he cares for his little children and he cares for this guy Mohammed because he does not want to be involved in his death. Honor begins when you care for others I’m not sure if that’s a very good definition
LR: It is. They are very complex characters. It is all about the dawning awareness of the other.
DO: What I like about these two characters is they’re not powerful men. They don’t have the ability to change history, to stop the war. They see things from a victim’s point of view, not from the point of view of the powerful. Their honor is connected to humanist values. They have no power. As outsiders they don’t have the option to find shelter in their own communities. That’s why honor for them is so important. It’s the only thing they may have actually.
LR: Near the very end in that wonderful scene at the crossroads, Daru talks to Mohammed about trust in the Creator. Do they both have some deeper, transcendent understanding of the world? Both come from very different cultures, very different religious backgrounds. They both seem to be observant in some way.
DO: For me they’re not religious men. Religion is not the guide for them. Religion was a big part of the culture, especially back in the ‘50s in Algeria. Daru is a traditional Catholic, and when he talks to Mohammed at the end about trusting God, he’s just trying again to convince Mohammed using Mohammed’s own tradition [to make the right decision]. What he is saying is exactly what Mohammed [prayed in Arabic] earlier at the school. It is Daru’s way of saying to Mohammed, I know you scripture and I know your God, and I was listening to you when you were afraid in my school.
LR: Beyond what we have discussed, are there other things you would like to say about the film?
DO: It was very hard and a long process to produce the movie, but I was happy to work with Reda Kateb and Viggo Mortensen—it was an ideal cast. The music by Nick Cavin and Warren Ellis was an important part of the film. They understood quickly that the center of the film was the relationship of the two characters and they focused the music on the evolution of that relationship. It is about the two characters, not about violence The music is quite harsh at the beginning. Then when the relationship softens, the music becomes more melodic. I liked working with them a lot and they helped me in our conversations before the filming to understand that the most important thing was the evolution of the relationship.