Interview with Boubkar Benzabat

We publish below an interview with Boubkar Benzabat, director of Bless me father, the short film that won the 2020 Audience Award

What does independent cinema mean to you? What sort of definition would you give of it?

For me, the meaning of independent cinema has evolved a lot throughout history. Originally, it meant not being dependent on the studios, which meant being able to create original stories, with atypical topics, without having to depend on the choices of businessmen running the studios, without having to concern the success of the film among the mainstream audience. But nowadays, I feel that even "independent" cinema is formatted: with Sundance and other institutions creating a label of "independent" cinema, it became a cinema that talks about the same topics all the time, with the same esthetical choices.  So it became a genre in itself, which is totally dependent on a certain economy and on certain expected artistic aspects.

Today, I feel that independent cinema is not any more about the budget of the film, or about being dependent on the studios or not. It is about an author being able to create a vision, to create a non-formatted story that doesn't apply automatically the Mckee rules, and whose identity is not the same as the protagonist: no need to be a woman to make films about women, to be gay to make films taking place in the gay community, to be heterosexual to make films about heterosexual couple relationships, or to be a white man to make films about white men... I feel that we live in a period where we ask for authors and directors to be legitimate to talk about certain topics, but I believe that work and investigation creates better treatments of topics than just having an identity that is identical to the one of the protagonist. Eclecticism is the key to diversity in cinema, and is the solution of a real independent cinema at a time where all the movies look the same. Christopher Nolan, for example, is still an independent director, who makes movies with hundreds of millions of dollars, inside studios, but in his own personal way. His movies are in general very very shitty (because the scripts are bad and because he doesn't know how to film correctly a scene, except INTERSTELLAR, I don't know why or how he managed to make this good film), but his approach is the one of an independent director, not the one of a yes man.

What was the production process of the short film “Bless me father" participating in  our festival?

I usually work as a director of photography. But I love literature and music. I don't necessarily like to work as a director, but I love to have the opportunity to work with text and music. So I adore to adapt novels or short stories written by novelists, to turn them into images, and to apply music to them. I love that process. I also like to talk about subjects where I can express my sensibility. I read a short story written by Vincent Mondiot, who is a wonderful novelist, extremely talented. I loved the simplicity and the tenderness of his story. So I adapted his text, and I wanted to try to create a film in a very independent way: I wanted not to be dependent on subventions and to put all the money myself, and I wanted to work with a very small crew. It allowed me to make this 11 minute film with 1 day and a half of shooting. That was the experience I wanted to try; can I make a film without almost no one, in a short time, and still not make the audience feel that there was not a big crew and a real long shooting behind ?

People often brag about how cheap their movie was. Mine was cheap, if we consider the total budget, but it still cost a few thousands euros, which could be considered a lot considering the small crew we were, but I believe it is important to pay people, even a little, and to offer them great food and a good place to stay. So basically, that's where the money went: food, accommodation, and salaries. I didn't rent anything, I used the equipment I had.

Bragging about making a cheap film is bragging about not paying people, and offering them shitty food and shitty working conditions. Some directors think they are talented because they made their movie with a few hundred euros or dollars, but this is not talent, this is disrespect towards people working with them.

I then distributed the film myself, it went to a hundred festivals, and I am very happy and honoured if some people liked it, I am sorry if others did not. But I did my best in that film. Hope I can do much better next time.

After the short film "Bless me father"  what projects have you realised? What do you have in the pipeline right now?

After the experience of shooting "Bless me father", it proved to me that I could produce a film in a very atypical and efficient way, thanks to my experience as a director of photography. I created my own production company then. I want to produce films. Not necessarily my films: I want to produce films of other directors, help them make their visions concrete. I want to buy the rights of the books I love and transform them into films.

As a director of photography, after so many years of intense work, I realised that directors and producers were most of them very shitty, technically, artistically and humanly. Luckily, there were exceptions and I had the chance sometimes to work with great people, but it is rare.

I thought, as a producer, I could manage to surround myself with only great human beings, good directors so we can move on together and make art. I still attract a lot of stupid assholes as directors, unfortunately. So it is hard to work with many of them. Either I will just make movies myself in the end, or I will manage to produce the few talented directors I know, who are also good people (it goes together in general).

I have some short films and some feature films in development right now. We'll see...

In your opinion, what is the state of health of cinema in your country, and what opportunities are offered to emerging filmmakers?

In my country, France, I think the state of health of cinema is still good economically speaking, because this has always been and will always be a country of cinema. I mean that every year, there are still a lot (too much ?) movies being filmed. Now, if you look at the box-office, it seems catastrophic, but it is not because of covid or because of Netflix: it is because we made shitty movies for a long time, and before, people kept the bad habit of going regularly to the cinema to watch these shits. But after covid, people lost this habit: they can now watch shit at home or on their cell phone. So why would they pay more than 10 euros to watch a shit on a big screen ? The problem is about the quality of films we are doing, which do not attract the audience any more. Our racist comedies, our blockbusters without scripts and emotions, and our boring "independent" cinema are not necessary any more in the lives of people who prefer to scroll on instagram, tik tok, or whatever.

What was the distribution path of your work?

I didn't have much money for the distribution, so I decided to send my films to festivals which had a subscription under 20 euros, so I could send the movie to more festivals than if I aimed for expensive ones. Some festivals ask for 50, or even 500 euros for a subscription! I think it is too much. I think it is a robbery. I didn't send my movie to big festivals, because I knew it wouldn't have any chance there, because I didn't have any subvention from an institution like the cinematographic centre in France, and I know how big festivals and institutions are connected. Also, the quality of my film was maybe not good enough compared to movies which had better budgets than mine. But I was quite happy with the distribution of my film. I am happy that it went to so many festivals, that it won dozens of prizes, and that a lot of people write to me or contact me to tell me that they loved it. If my film met its audience, then the mission is accomplished. And I am so grateful to the work of festivals and teams behind them, cause it is quite hard (especially at the time when I was distributing my film, during covid) to keep people motivated to go to cinemas to watch short films. People doing festivals and working on them are even more passionate and motivated than the ones doing films. I will never be able to thank them enough.

In your view, will there still be room for theatrical (in movie theatres) distribution of films in the near future, or will streaming remain the only form of distribution of works? 

Cinema is like a religion: you can pray at home, or you can go to the church/mosque/synagogue. The theatre is the temple of this religion. There will always be people going to watch movies on big screens, because sharing emotions with other people is a unique experience (except when they hit your chair behind you, this is so annoying. I never understand these people who go to cinemas, and they spend their time kicking on the seat in front of them. Don't they know it annoys the one in front of them ?). Anyway, we need to make less shitty films, and we need to distribute less films in cinema so they can have a long term life, cause now movies stay only one week and then they disappear. After that, theatrical movies need more time before being broadcast on DVDs or on streaming. I believe it is a mistake to have reduced the time between the release of a movie in the theatre and its release on streaming and DVDs. Streaming and cinemas should coexist in parallel. But streaming will not make theatres disappear: photography has not killed painting, cinema has not killed stage performances, television has not killed cinema and streaming will also not kill cinema. We just need to accept that there are movies for streaming, and others for cinema. It's been so many years that we see on big screens horrible films that didn't deserve to be projected in a theatre: it is good that they go  now directly on streaming. But we should now try as much as possible to keep for cinema only the best artistic and technical propositions. Going to the cinema must be an event, not a routine or a habit like turning on your television.

If we look at the great season of neo-realism and that of italian cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, there are several examples of directors without any specific technical training; do you think that today - as then - it is still possible to do without film schools or at least a specific training course?

The only things you need to be a good director is to trust your team, to have a good experience of life and emotions and to focus on your actors. The problem now is that directors only talk about cameras and lenses and shot lists, but they know shit about life, and they never talk to the actors because they are afraid of them and they don't even know what to ask them. The only school a director should go to is a theatre school, cause I believe that stage acting is a great way to learn how to direct actors and create with them.

Also, directors should be leaders to their team, so they should be nice and respectful. This cannot be taught in school, it can only be taught by parents when they give you a decent education.

How important are affirmations and awards from short film festivals? Can they act as a launching pad towards feature film production?

NowadaysI don't believe that the short film industry is a launching pad towards feature film production. It was before, but it is not the case any more. Before, you made a short film to prove that you could work then on a longer format. But now, there are too many short films, too many people doing films with their cell phones. The best thing to do now is to make a feature film with a very small budget, even if it takes you years of filming, and then, you can maybe prove that you can make another feature film with a real budget. But it's not guaranteed, there is no space now: too many people want to be directors, because they think it is cool, but they know nothing about the work it really requires.

Which three film directors have most influenced you? 

I rediscovered John Hughes recently. I think his movies like "Home alone", are a good example of a film that really respects the audience, that are well made and that have a strong commercial potential. I really admire that ability of doing something commercial but enjoyable for the audience. This is something the Hollywood industry doesn't know how to do any more.

I will always be influenced by Theo Angelopoulos, because he is a master of cinema, and simply a master of life. His movies are beyond cinema, they are so powerful, cinema is for him just a tool to reach the deepest human emotions and to share them with the audience. He is a magician, and he has a sense of choreography that is impressive. He always knows where exactly to put the camera, and how to make it move.

I love Joseph L. Mankiewicz for the quality of every script and for the eclecticism of his movies, he made movies in so many genres!

.... and three films you just can't help but watch? 

"Ulysses' Gaze" by Theo Angelopoulos. A masterpiece. Overwhelming. I discover something every time I see it. It is amazing how he managed to use the environment (the Balkans during the war) and integrate it in his scenes. It is impressive how he manages to use every form of art to create this film that contains so many original narrative processes. And the music by Eleni Karaïndrou is absolutely incredible.

I can watch any movie with Fred Astaire any time. I love musicals. But I love even more Fred Astaire, what he incarnates. Fred Astaire IS cinema. Because cinema is movement, music is movement, and Fred Astaire is also movement. It seems that cinema was invented only to be able to capture dance, and Fred Astaire proves that. Most of all, when you realise all the songs that Fred Astaire sang in his films before they became jazz standards, you realise that Fred Astaire is also jazz itself. He brought to world culture much more than anyone before or after him. His elegance, his class, the quality of his choreographies, the way he uses space and rhythm is a demonstration of pure talent. He is a master. And most of all, he has this ability to make his partners on screen perform in the best possible way, like Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth or Cyd Charisse: if actors can be selfish, dancers have to make each other rise.

I can watch any Ernst Lubitsch's movie any time, especially "To be or not to be". Lubitsch is a genius, extremely modern. He uses comedy to express all the palette of human emotions and to talk about so many subjects. His movies are actually so dark and cynical, and yet they look bright and light. His dialogues are extremely well written, there is always a strong critic of human beings and societies behind, and also a lot of sexual tension expressed in an era where censorship and puritanism were very strong.

How much can the value of the subject and script compensate for the lack of technical and financial resources?

Script is everything. You can't make a good film without a good script. And technical and financial resources will never save a bad script. When in France, with the Nouvelle Vague, we created the idea of "cinema d'auteur", with a director who writes his own script and becomes God because he writes and directs, we destroyed cinema. Scriptwriter is a job in itself, and a very important one, if not the most important. Little by little, thanks to the TV series, I feel like we are finally regiving to the scriptwriters the values they have. But before, we used to put the director on pedestals and ignore the work of the scriptwriter, when actually, the good script is what makes masterpieces.

In your view, what is the role of cinema today?  What is the contribution you would like to make to this art?

I used to dream of making movies that would be part of History, that would mark generations, and that would be talked about in a hundred years. But I gave up on the idea. Because, if before we made movies for them to last (strangely, it was the time of film stocks, when films existed on a physical support), now we make movies to fill in the empty spots in cinema theatres and television and streaming. We make movies faster, we consume them faster and then we throw them away, they don't exist any more. They are not lasting any more. How many masterpieces were made in the past 5 years? Almost none.

So now, I think that the main role of movies is just to entertain people, and to make them forget that they are mortal and that they are going to die some day. To make them forget their miseries, their sicknesses, or anything that makes them suffer or that is a problem in their life. If a movie can make you forget your problems for 90 minutes (sorry, I mean for 180 minutes, cause now, it seems that it is impossible for directors to make movies under 2 hours of length), then it is already a great accomplishment.

Also, movies are becoming shittier and shittier, but audiences also become less interested and less intelligent, since they prefer to watch Tik Tok than a good movie in cinema. So it is hard to find the motivation now to spend months, if not years of work, to create a film that they will not even understand. Because it is also a reality that the public, just like the whole of humanity, is more and more stupid. Why bother making a great film for people who are not capable any more to enjoy it ? We live in a world where the Cannes Film Festival has been sponsored by Tik Tok... It says it all.

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