interview: rabah ameur-zaïmeche

First published in Film Comment on September 18, 2019. 

Terminal Sud is a political ghost story: a slice of urgent French minimalism haunted by the specters of Algeria’s past. Following 2015’s Story of Judas, which retold the final days of Jesus of Nazareth from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, Algerian-French filmmaker Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche returns with another bold experiment with history. Opening with the frisking of a busload of travelers at a military checkpoint, Terminal Sud appears to be set against the backdrop of the Algerian civil war, but the film’s modern, French setting and ambiguous dialogue make the context pointedly unspecific. Instead, the atmosphere Ameur-Zaïmeche evokes of repression, surveillance, and torture lend the film a depressing universality: “Everywhere in the world today, we see Brownshirts and hear boots marching on the ground,” the filmmaker said in our interview.

Ameur-Zaïmeche draws us into this neither-here, nor-there world through the eyes of a doctor (Ramzy Bedia) who insists, even amid death threats and murders, on an unflinching, humanist commitment to his job: he treats the wounded, no matter who they are or which side they represent. But as the need for self-preservation starts to collide with the doctor’s allegiance to his profession, the film posits a larger ethical question: is it morally defensible—or even possible—to be neutral in times of violent sectarianism?

Terminal Sud follows the contours of a thriller, with the stakes getting progressively higher, but Ameur-Zaïmeche and DP Irina Lubtchansky  (daughter of the great French cinematographer William Lubtchansky) conjure the film as a kind of quiet, unnerving poetry. The action is rendered in a series of exquisitely composed, fragment-like scenes, dappled with shadow and light and grounded in a thick bed of street sounds (which the director told me are drawn from various cities of the world, enhancing the film’s palimpsestic sense of time and place). Scenes of brutality and terror intertwine with moments of languorous mundanity, painting an affecting portrait of people trying to grind on with their lives even in the most unlivable times.

Film Comment spoke with Ameur-Zaïmeche at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend, where the film screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section after premiering at the Locarno film festival in August.

The most striking thing about Terminal Sud is its abstraction: it’s unclear when and where exactly the film is supposed to be taking place. But there are also specific references to Algerian history and you indicate in the credits that the film was shot in the South of France. It’s an interesting combination of abstraction and specificity.

We shot in France. It’s a French film, completely produced by French organizations like CNC and Arté and with regional funds from Pacard, Languedoc-Roussillon. We were designated by those agencies, who support French cinema, to make this film in France with public monies. I mention this because every film has a time and place connected to it, especially when public funds are involved. But Michel Foucault’s ideas of heterotopia and heterochronie are also inherent in the production of this film—it really captures the power of cinema to respond to the cruelty of our times, one that doesn’t just concern the country I’m from or France, but the world in its entirety. Everywhere in the world today, we see brown shirts and hear boots marching on the ground. This is a world of reactionaries. What should the film industry do at this time? Should we just entertain and divert? Or should we master the art [of cinema] and its power? That’s the question I pose in making this film.

More specifically, why did you want to make an Algerian story set in France? 

I was born in Algeria, but I was two when I left. I grew up in France. I was a student at the time of the events [referenced in the film.] The electorate in Algeria was disenfranchised and I felt powerless to respond to this act of the government. The worst was the confiscation of voting rights, which came like a prairie fire sweeping through many countries in the world [whose effects] we still see today. Even this year, we’ve seen that Moroccan dissidents have been imprisoned for dozens of years and subjected to torture. People in Morocco feel powerless because even though everyone knows about it, no one can do anything about it. Nothing is new on this front. It’s the same in Pakistan, in India, with Kashmir.

It’s interesting that you mention Kashmir—your film actually reminded me of an Indian movie named Haider, which is an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir. In the film, Hamlet’s father is a Kashmiri surgeon, and militants barge into his home one night and force him to operate on their wounded leader, which leads to the Indian army kidnapping and torturing him.

Wow, there’s not much imagination to my film! [Laughs]

It made me think about how doctors are such excellent characters through whom to explore a civil conflict. Their jobs require a kind of unbiased, disciplined humanism, which can be morally complex during times of war.

Doctors are the first to confront physical and mental suffering. They must do so despite physical and emotional hardships, and despite people being broken by their experiences. The doctor has to keep going forward and support the notion of civilization. The hospital [in the film] is a place for asylum, for refuge. It is a safe space, which is at the same time completely run-down and falling apart. It’s a house of cards, essentially. In the end, I pose the question to spectators and citizens, to what extent are we just going to sit here and not do anything about it? At what point should we jump in and start reacting to these situations and trajectories we see play out in the film? The doctor finds himself plunged in a climate of absolute terror every day, but when his own life is in danger, maybe that’s the thing that will move him to action.

What do you mean by “move him to action”?

When he takes the gun out of the glove compartment and shoots [the soldiers], that comes at a point where he’s been tortured and the friends who save him bring him to a place where he communes with horses and sees nature around him. When he decides to take the gun out of the glove compartment, he makes a choice. Is he going to sit down and be tortured again, after being menaced by oppressive forces, or is he going to fight back? What would you do in his place, at that moment?

Are you trying to say that the neutrality of a doctor is impossible in this kind of society? Or is it morally indefensible?

I believe our neutrality is becoming more and more amoral and immoral. How much longer are we going to live with smoke and mirrors around these situations and not face them head-on? Everything around us is to be doubted for its veracity. The film is very dark and obscure in that way, but it is punctuated by rays of light where you can see that there is hope for the world.

And what are those moments?

The flamingos at the end, the horses who surround the doctor in a waltz that heals him from his torpor, those points of connecting with nature.

The film is tough to watch, but also incredibly beautiful to look at in terms of how it’s shot and framed, with delicate use of light and shadow. What was your aesthetic approach to the film? How did you reconcile it with the film’s themes?

We always put the violence off-screen. We never see blood splashing over.

I agree, I don’t mean that it aestheticizes violence, I just mean that every single frame and shot is beautifully composed. I’m wondering how that aesthetic of beauty fits into the politics of the film.

The aesthetic fits the politics because it uses all the suggestive powers of cinema. That’s why I believe in film as a major art form, because we can harness the power in beautiful images to still communicate things that are heavily political. The aesthetic component of the film follows; it’s secondary. We’re not looking to make beautiful or subtle images. That’s how they come to us in the capturing and telling of the story. We simply adapt ourselves to the constraints of the resources in making the film. What we were really working at was capturing small mosaics of images, fragments of reality, that could then be built into the story we had at hand. We used the “brute force” of documentary fragments to transform the film into a fictional, impressionist painting. My process is to work on that line between documentary and fiction, inspired by Éric Rohmer’s shooting process. To work with the real and fit it into the narrative—not to rebuild the narrative towards reforming the real. We are not looking to make a beautiful film, but making the best film that we can in completely aleatory circumstances.

What do you mean when you say you employed a documentary mode? Was that in terms of the actors, the situations, or the locations?

We were in a real, closed-down hospital in the most disaffected neighborhood of Nimes, but with actors. We were building situations inside real locations that we imagined would be true to the situation. We had to improvise the set dressing or production design from one day to the next. It wasn’t complete improvisation, but it was elaborated in minutiae, as each detail was added to make [the settings] look more authentic. The hospital was actually shot in several different locations. For the cemetery, we just dug several graves in a garden the night before shooting. So, each day just gave us enough time to set up the next day.

It’s like anything can be anywhere in your film: a cemetery can be in a garden, and Algeria can be in France.

[Laughs] We were blessed with the warm, golden Mediterranean sun. But it’s still a French-language film, so it could be Algeria from the past, or France in the future. Or another country of any sort.

How did you work with your cinematographer, Irina Lubtchansky, to develop the look of the film?

It’s very simple. We didn’t come to the film with any kind of planning or expertise. We, the director and the cinematographer, are running after the film, finding what suits it best. We imagine ourselves as explorers in the Amazon, looking to see where the next step is. We’re like wildlife documentarians. We discover places, landscapes, faces, and bit by bit, we get close to their hearts.

Another striking aspect of the film is the ambient sound. You often enhance it so that the dialogue is enveloped by the sounds of the city, the trash being collected, of people going about their day. How did you develop the sound design for the film?

Our friend Nikolas Javelle, the sound designer, had already recorded street noises in Cairo and other oriental and Middle Eastern towns. He used congested town backgrounds, which all came from his pre-recorded library of sounds. We were in Marseilles with one sound sample; Beirut, Rabat, and Cairo were all covered as well. So even when nothing is happening, we have the background noises of helicopters and klaxons from these different cities. In Marseilles, for example, there’s a lot of honking of horns.

Why did you choose to fill the film with that kind of amplified ambient sound? What was the effect you intended?

To add to the confusion of time and place, so that the spectator should feel disoriented and anxious about all these sounds of congestion and chaos. We also used Swedish lullabies in the film in two places to open up the universality of the film. We could’ve stayed within the norms of North African folklore or Provencal cultural traditions, but we want to think outside the French-Algerian axis. So in the musical terrain, we opened the door to another dimension of contextualizing the film, and also reinforced the notion of being unstable in our place and time and culture.

There’s one particular scene that I found especially moving. The protagonist and his friend Mo are sitting on the sidewalk as the trash is being cleared off the street, and while they’re talking about what’s happening to the world around them, they burst into peals of laughter over a silly joke. It’s a brief, tender moment of normalcy.

We shot that scene in the poorest, most populous neighborhood of Nimes, just at the end of a market day. It was the first time we had seen that space and the giant street-cleaner that sucks up the trash, all the leftovers of a super-abundant society and all the abandoned vegetables, and the vacuum cleaners would [emit] billows of smoke as they passed through the dust. So, in this hyperrealistc moment, we installed two completely invented characters on the bench, just talking about completely unrelated things. We filmed them really tight, the shot is close on them, and the moment breaks into a real release from their captivity in the space as they tell a joke and laugh. It’s after a threat was made to the doctor, so it’s a liberation for him to laugh. And the joke they made at the end, about the six-kilo telephone, was completely improvised.

I guess it helps that your lead actor is a comedian!

Yes, he’s very well-known as a comedian in France. And of course, his role in this film as a doctor is completely the opposite of his public persona.

As the film goes on, you feel more and more suffocated—and then that last shot, of the glittering ocean, comes as a reprieve, as the doctor finally gets on a boat to escape. Did you always want the film to end on that note of optimism?

We didn’t know if he would escape. It was only while we were making the film that I decided that he would. In the first draft, we ended the film with him in the middle of the desert, alone and abandoned after an accident. Then we discovered the countryside, the Camargue, and we said there’s no other way to end the film but on the open sea. It was a gift of God that the light landed like that on the wide open spaces of the sea, that are sparkling with hope.

Is that why you knew wanted it to end it there, with a gesture of hope?

It’s because we had no choice. The adventure of making the film proposed to us this optimistic scenario. That ending imposed itself on us. A film is like a wild animal. You can’t tame or domesticate it, but must learn to live with it on its own terms.

The image of the sea is especially resonant with today’s refugee and migrant crises.

Of course. We’re in a country here, in Canada, that’s full of immigrants, that’s made up of immigrants. Humanity today is like so many skylarks, circling around.

But that makes me wonder about the hopefulness of the end. The protagonist is on the boat and he’s smiling in relief, but I’m thinking: what happens next? In today’s world, the ocean has its own bureaucracy. People who set out into the sea to find freedom are denied it more often than not.

We can never know what will happen next; death can happen at any moment, but we must accept this aspect of unknowability in our daily life. Even if we are predestined to a certain life, we can make something other of it. We can go somewhere else, take another course. That’s what the doctor decided to do.

You mentioned Rohmer as inspiration for the film. Were there any other films or filmmakers that have inspired you?

I’m at heart an anthropologist, as a filmmaker, and my first influence was Jean Rouch. When I was a kid, I watched Ciné-club in France, which had a well-curated selection of films from all cultures. But they also showed F.W. Murnau, John Ford, and Jean Renoir.

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