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At the age of 16, French director Rachid Djaidani finished his degree in masonry and began laying bricks for a living. It was the early ’90s, and the teen of Algerian and Sudanese descent encountered a good deal of suspicion and mistrust from his co-workers.
“I was the little French guy with Arab or Maghreb background, but once they actually met me, we found that there were things that we could talk about, even on a political level, and realize that we had things in common,” says Djaidani.
It was that experience that spawned his latest film, Tour de France, in which Gerard Depardieu plays a cranky racist forced to examine his views when he spends time with a young Arab wannabe rapper (played by real-life French hip-hop star Sadek).
The film, which makes its world premiere on Sunday in the Directors’ Fortnight section, marks Djaidani’s follow-up to his feature helming debut, Hold Back, which won the critics’ prize in the same section at Cannes in 2012. With its themes of culture clashes and mutually held biases, there’s no Cannes film better poised to hit the zeitgeist this year. After all, France and Europe continue to grapple with terror attacks largely perpetrated by disaffected youth of North African descent.
Djaidani hopes his film will thwart the terrorists’ goal of dividing his country along religious lines. “Today, despite the mistrust, we all remain French people, and when a terrorist attacks, when a terrorist massacres people, it’s everyone who’s targeted. The terrorist doesn’t make a distinction,” he says.
Despite the subject matter, Tour de France is not a traditional “message movie.” Djaidani chose to explore bigotry through the comedic lens because he believes that laughter is ultimately what unites everyone, regardless of race or religion. In fact, Depardieu and Sadek wind up in bed together before the film’s end (think Planes, Trains & Automobiles’ pillow-cuddling scene). “There’s nothing sexual about it, but it’s very humorous,” Djaidani says of the scene.
Ironically, the 42-year-old director struggled to get Tour de France made — and not because of racism. Instead, it was a different kind of bigotry that stymied the project. Financiers couldn’t connect with a narrative about working-class people. Djaidani says it’s a cinematic bias that exists throughout the world and explains why the idea of employment or unemployment in film is scarcely addressed.
“That vision where everybody just magically has money is an illusion,” he says. “In cinema, whether it’s American or French, everybody seems to live in a nice neighborhood. There are no problems with your income.”
In the face of repeated rejection, producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint continued pushing. “No matter what happened, despite the fact that some French institutions turned this down for funding, she kept fighting, she kept believing in the project,” says Djaidani.
Depardieu, who like Djaidani is the son of a laborer, also championed the project and its working-class storyline. Having the French legend in his corner was akin to landing a knock-out punch. Says Djaidani: “He is the Muhammad Ali of the cinema.”
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