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As the famous Thomas Wolfe novel claims, you can’t go home again, and that may especially be the case when your home has been transformed beyond recognition.
In the penetrating documentary Return to Forbach (Retour a Forbach), filmmaker Regis Sauder (Etre la) returns to his native town in the east of France, and what he finds is a place severely impacted by decades of unemployment and social blight, as well as rising trends in nationalism and religious communitarianism. It’s a troubling portrait of a contemporary Gaul wracked by fear and memories of better times, showcasing many of the issues that will be reflected in next month’s presidential elections. After premiering at the Cinema du Reel fest in Paris, the film could peak interest among Francophiles curious about the state of their beloved nation. Local release is slated for mid-April.
Far from the bucolic images of rural France seen in many a movie or in-flight magazine, Forbach presents something closer to the worlds of Bruno Dumont or the Dardenne brothers. The titular city, which sits on the border with Germany and was annexed by the Nazis during World War II (one interviewee recalls how the main street was renamed “Adolf-Hitler-Strasse”), benefited from a post-war economic boom that saw mining and other industries profit for a decade or so. But when nuclear power began to replace fossil fuels in France in the 1960s, workers started to lose their jobs and local businesses suffered as a result. Since then, Forbach has never really recovered.
Sauder returns to his hometown, which he left 30 years prior, in order to sell the house he grew up in — a house that’s been broken into a few times, although there was nothing of value ever worth taking. He uses the trip as a starting point to explore the deep cultural and social fissures affecting the city, interviewing folks from all walks of life and capturing the heart of what has essentially become a ghost town. Most of the stores in Forbach’s center are now shuttered, people scrape by on low wages if they can find employment at all (“Work is a rare commodity,” someone remarks) and the long “heritage” of the place has been “devalued” over time.
The result is two-fold: a rise in xenophobia and nationalism on one hand, with the far-right Front National claiming over 36% of the vote in the 2015 legislative elections, making Forbach and the surrounding Lorraine region one of its principal bastions; and on the other hand a steady increase in the town’s Muslim population — Sauder winds up selling his parent’s home to a Moroccan family — with many women now donning headscarves and the local mosque replacing the church as the center of community worship. And in between these two divided fronts, there’s a young generation that feels “forsaken” by its government despite the fact that President Holland finished his 2012 campaign tour in Forbach, promising the crowd a “better life” than their parents.
The city’s gaping fracture is particularly evident in all the flags that Sauder films hanging out of everyone’s windows, in a trend that began after the terrorist attacks of 2015. Often in the same buildings, and sometimes directly next door to one another, one can see rows of French flags sitting beside flags bearing the star and crescent of Islam. The site is far from harmonious in a United Nations-way and much more representative of two cultures who feel mutually threatened in a place where there’s no stable, common ground to accommodate the needs of either.
If the image of Forbach presented by Sauder is bleak to say the least, it’s not without a certain degree of warmth and humor in the various subjects he encounters. Most of them are filled with either nostalgia or grievances, although the occasional site of people coming together to celebrate a soccer victory or help newly arrived refugees shows that a community spirit is still possible. The film’s heaviness is further ebbed by an energetic soundtrack from local metal thrash band Deficiency, while sharp editing by Florent Mangeot keeps a fast pace to cover so much ground.
Production companies: Docks 66, Ana Films, Vosges Television
Director: Regis Sauder
Producers: Aleksandra Cheuvreux, Violaine Harchin
Director of photography: Regis Sauder
Editor: Florent Mangeot
Sales: Docks 66
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