Berlin Hidden Gem: Controversial 'This Is Our Land' Charts the Rise of Populism in France

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
'This Is Our Land'

The film from Belgian actor-director Lucas Belvaux has drawn the ire of the National Front for its unflinching look at the rise of Gallic right-wing populism.

This Is Our Land, Lucas Belvaux’s cinematic take on the rise of populism in France, was bound to cause controversy, especially in an election year where Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front could seize power.

But few expected the film to become the center of debate about censorship and freedom of speech before anyone had even seen it.

National Front Vice President Florian Philippot launched a preemptive strike against This Is Our Land, calling it “unacceptable” and accused the filmmakers of trying to swing the election, forcing French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay to step in and defend the film, sight unseen.

By the time This Is Our Land screened at UniFrance’s RendezVous screenings in January — which highlights upcoming French titles ahead of the Berlin festival — spots were so in demand that press and buyers peeked in from the hallway just to get a glimpse.

The film is centered on a small-town nurse (Emilie Dequenne) who is recruited to run for office by the populist Patriotic Block party, which she then remakes in her image. Things soon come violently crashing down around Dequenne’s nurse, but the party rebounds — proving that the roots of nationalism run deep.

It is a thinly veiled version of Le Pen and how she rebranded the National Front to make it appeal to voters beyond the radical fringe. The filmmakers say they carefully modeled the story on how the National Front actually operates and admit they wanted the film to be part of the debate ahead of the presidential elections this spring.

But producer David Frenkel says they were careful about drifting into caricature in their portrayal of the National Front. “We didn’t want to sketch them as monsters,” he says. “We knew it wouldn’t be effective to create them as caricatures. We’re more like a surgeon: We are just opening the body and having the courage to look at what’s going on inside.”

But amid recent political events around the world, the film, with its stark images of a rural France that seems left behind — half-empty laundromats and kebab shops abound — has international resonance.

“When we tried to finance the movie, some people said it’s something that would only find interest in France,” says Frenkel. “But the rise of populism is not specific to France. Look what’s happened in the States, look at Brexit, look at Austria, look at Germany. Unfortunately France is not the only country that has to fight against a far-right party. It’s a global concern.”

This Is Our Land, shot on a 5.3 million euro ($5.7 million) budget, will be released in France Feb. 22. Le Pacte is handling international sales in Berlin.