Journey over to the other side

Even when sitting for an interview in a spare office at the French Institute in Athens, just days ahead of the local launch for his latest film, «Exils,» the admired French-based filmmaker Tony Gatlif can’t help but cast his perceptive director’s eye on the surroundings for interpretation and commentary. Opposite him, Gatlif notices the hefty size difference of office chairs either side of a desk – two small ones for guests and the owner’s extra-large version. «There’s a strong, almost forbidding, message there,» said Gatlif. «How can the visitor not feel overpowered?» he wondered aloud, before plunging into a passionate discussion about his work as a film director. It’s not a surprising observation and remark from an individual that has spent much of his life as a troubled and marginalized human being without having chosen his own fate, or, bluntly put, because of heritage, politics and war. Of Algerian and Gypsy descent, Gatlif, who was born in Algiers in 1948 as Michel Dahamani, is nowadays a French citizen. His dual origins have provided the inspiration behind most, if not all, of his films. Gatlif’s second feature film, for example, 1978’s «La Terre au Ventre,» focuses on the Algerian war of independence, an eight-year conflict that scarred the director’s childhood. Gatlif was 6 when the war broke out and forced his family to flee. For 1982’s «Les Princes» Gatlif drew from his new life in France to document a harsh and uncompromising picture of Gypsies settled in a soulless suburb. «Latcho Drom,» a film released just over a decade ago that earned Gatlif a Best Documentary award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, focuses on a more epic depiction of Gypsies in terms of time, geography and movement. Gatlif retraces the Roma people’s long musical and historical journey, beginning with their origins in northwest India almost 1,000 years ago, through Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and France. In contrast to the exodus covered in «Latcho Drom,» Gatlif’s latest film, «Exils,» also fruitful for him at Cannes – he was awarded the Best Director’s prize at last year’s festival – presses the rewind button and heads back to the land of origin. «Exils» tells an eloquent, powerful, nostalgic and at times disturbing story of a young French couple of Algerian descent that embarks on an adventurous back-to-the-roots road-and-sea trip to the land of their ancestors. Along the way, through France, Spain, and then across the Mediterranean to North Africa, the two grow closer together, quarrel, reconcile, and share fears and joy. Once at Europe’s southernmost tip for the ferryboat crossing, the pair suddenly become more apprehensive of their mission to their ancestral roots. Feelings of bewilderment regarding their cultural identity and sense of belonging begin to set in. These anxieties are played out further once the boat reaches the other side of the Mediterranean. Gatlif, who still recalls being thrown out of Parisian bars back in the 1960s as an unwanted foreigner, decades before eventually becoming an award winner at Cannes, asserted, in the interview, that he believed multicultural individuals were favorably positioned in life. «In France today, these cultural blends are a source of great richness. Initially, the French viewed immigration as a positive kind of invasion because of the additional labor it provided. Over time, though, it developed along different lines and it’s truly interesting to meet people of various backgrounds – for their cultural richness and the change they bring,» noted Gatlif, whose wife is of French, Madagascan and Indian descent. «For a start, because I am the combination of three different worlds, I’m in a position to understand the French psyche, the Gypsy way of thinking, and the Arabic soul. If there’s no Arabic heritage in you, for instance, it’s a strange experience trying to understand how an Arab thinks. I feel fortunate and happy at feeling able to understand the minds of three respective races. That’s a huge advantage,» he added. A trademark feature of Gatlif’s 14 films to date, produced over three decades, has been the director’s emphasis on music, an integral part of Gypsy life. «Exils» is no exception, containing plenty of flamenco as the young travelers make their way down through southern Spain. Gatlif, a musician himself, who grew up with music as a family staple, said he composes only for the needs of his films. He said he accepts music as a «collective voice of the people,» an art form that offers outsiders insight into the worlds of others. The director, who has spent an entire career documenting the vibrant music and culture of Gypsy life, almost as a witness of something that is slowly disappearing, admitted feeling excited by a relatively new arrival to this world, the global village’s multicultural individual. «That’s where the modern world is heading toward – cultural blending. This was non-existent 30 or 40 years ago, but is obvious amid today’s younger generation,» noted Gatlif. «It’s a fascinating thing. Think about it, we’re the witnesses of a new phenomenon that did not exist 50 years ago.» «Exils» (French/Arabic/Romany/Spanish with Greek subtitles) is now playing in Athens and Thessaloniki.

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