Interview with Robin Campillo

by Simon on March 1, 2015 · 0 comments

It may be a French film, but it will definitely strike a chord here in Australia, given our complex love-hate relationship with immigration and migrants. And whilst Eastern Boys may sound like a film about migrants from Asia, for the French it refers to the young men from Eastern Europe – Ukraine, Russia and Moldavia – who come to Paris looking for a better future. It’s the second movie of writer-director Robin Campillo, who is thoughtful, relaxed and sitting opposite me in a room overlooking the Musee de Louvre. Outside is the cool of the European winter, but inside we’re sweltering with an overactive heating system.  I’m gulping water. Campillo, himself a migrant from Morocco, doesn’t mind the heat. “I never stayed one year in the same place until I was twelve”, he reveals. “I was born in Morocco and lived in Algeria and in the East of France. My father was in the Airforce and we moved a lot when I was young. So I feel like a migrant myself. And whenever I came back I didn’t like France – it seemed cold and it felt like we were poor.”

Eastern Boys ScreenwizeWriting about strangers and outsiders has become something of a preoccupation for Campillo. He first movie, The Returned tells of a group of dead people – the ultimate outsiders – who return to their village to restart their lives, only to find things have changed. He also wrote and edited the superb 2008 film The Class, about a teacher dealing with a classroom of mixed-race migrant adolescents in a tough Parisian neighbourhood. Before that he developed the screenplay Heading South, a film starring Charlotte Rampling as a female tourist changed by a trip to poverty stricken Haiti. The more intimate Eastern Boys also deals with outsiders: a compelling tale of desire and fear, it centres on the complicated relationship between a young immigrant boy from an Eastern European gang and an older, Parisian man.

Campillo developed the film partly from a real incident that happened to a friend.  “Of course the story comes from a few sources,” he says, ‘but someone I know adopted his former boyfriend who was a Polish migrant. When I heard about this, I was shocked by the idea. But I was also intrigued as a filmmaker. The challenge was how to make this story real on the screen and believable to audiences.”

In Eastern Boys, middle-aged Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) catches the eye of a handsome young man at the Gard du Nord railway station in Paris. There’s an instant physical attraction, and the young man (named Marek and played by Kirill Emelyanov) turns up later at Daniel’s apartment for paid sex. But Daniel rapidly finds he’s been duped, and realizes that Marek is one of a number of young men working for a charismatic gang leader named Boss (Daniil Vorobyov). In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Boss and the rest of the gang invade Daniel’s home and have a party, dancing and taunting Daniel – who is lost somewhere between fear and fascination – while they steal from him. It’s the character of Boss that drives the drama and energy of the scene – indeed of the whole film – and Campillo leans forward excitedly as he talks about him. “He is threatening, charismatic, attractive and I was always fascinated the idea of this character,” he says, “I worked on the character for a long time, for many years actually, but then Boss evolved because of Daniil’s involvement as the actor playing him. In the beginning he was a hooligan but he became more like Peter Pan. I love this character, this small dictator. He can act like a snake and mesmerize people, including both Marek and Daniel. And I think actually he is a kind of radical migrant.”

CampilloWhen I ask Campillo to explain what he means, we have a passionate discussion about the nature of national identity and the politics of culture. “In France, cultural identity is so strong, so locked down and fixed,” says Campillo, “and as a migrant in France you can’t change yourself very easily, or find a new job or move around.  Migrants are often forced to become a character that they don’t want to be. So for me there’s a kind of moral issue to being a migrant. You should be able to drift and to become something apart from yourself. As with the children in The Class, we all need to interrogate the legitimacy of the character we come to play. This is what Boss does and why he’s such an exciting character: he’s giving you the chance of becoming a stranger to yourself. For him to settle down is like dying.”

In the film, Boss and his gang live in a hotel that’s been set up by French authorities for refugees and those waiting for residency. It’s a strange no-man’s land, chocked full of families from all over the world. But it’s also the only place in the film where the energy of life bubbles over. There are women and babies and a warmth and security that’s never apparent elsewhere in the film, either on the streets where Marek hangs out or the austere designer apartment where Daniel lives. Campillo smiles knowingly as we speak. “Yes, of course, but it’s a place between two worlds, a place for migrants ” he says, “and it’s also a place where you are not supposed to be.”

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