Screen Comment met with Director David Oelhoffen to discuss his newest film: FAR FROM MEN starring Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb. Over a good steaming cup of coffee, he explains how a short story: L’Hôte, written sixty years ago by Albert Camus, needed to be made into a film because of the original text’s potency with today’s world. Two men journey to Tinguit, at the break of the Algerian War, and form a growing bond with each other and with the world around them and their purpose within it. This isn’t a war film nor the historical account of Algeria in 1954. This, is a human story.
It isn’t every day that someone decides to adapt a French short story by Albert Camus. How did this project first come into being?
It really came from me reading this short story which I came across completely accidentally. I didn’t seek out a story on the Algerian war and was just reading L’hote for pleasure but found myself extremely moved by this short story which was written sixty years ago. It had such a connection with today’s world so I started to think of this story and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to make it into a film.
How faithful were you to L’hote? since it’s only twelve pages long and this movie is over two hours long.
I think I was faithful to the spirit of the text, but not to the exact words in the text. It is indeed a very short story which is completely centered on only one character, the main character, Daru. The prisoner, in the original text, has no name and you don’t know anything about his background: he has no history, no background, no family and no name. I wanted the two characters to have the same importance: I wanted them to be equals.
That was one of the main transformations in adapting the text into the film. For example, the text of Camus takes place during the first night at the hotel which is only the first fifteen minutes in the movie. Everything that follows, like the journey through the desert, isn’t in the original text. I only used Camus’s text as a starting point for FAR FROM MEN. However, I feel I am faithful to Camus’ writings on Algeria for part of my research was to read other texts written by the author such as his essays which have recently been translated into English and are part of a collection called: Algerian Chronicles.
In one of his essays entitled Misere de la Kabylie he foresees the end of the French colonial system; people are dying of famine, eating roots, living in desecrated villages which are completely abandoned. Those are the sort of texts I used to create the desert scene.
The Algerian war is really the backdrop for this story which is more humanitarian, existentialist, than it is historical.
The Algerian war really is the background. The story is completely centered on the two main characters and the evolution and dynamic of their relationship. It is not on the war. The goal of the film is not to explain the Algerian war and even less to determine the good guys from the bad guys.
The Algerian war is a controversial subject
Being controversial for me isn’t a problem; it just wasn’t my goal to make a historical film. I wanted to make a universal film. The Algerian War is important because everything I am showing in the film is connected to a historic, geographic and linguistic reality: the people in the film speak the Algerian dialect and they are dressed with clothes that would have been worn in the 1950s; all of which is used to make this story credible.
This authentic and realistic story, for me, doesn’t have for intent to give an account of the Algerian war but rather to show what happens when two individuals find themselves in the middle of sudden chaos. This story I feel could have easily taken place somewhere else; it could have easily been the story of an Israelite and a Palestinian or a Ukranian and a Russian. It is unfortunate that we could come up with so many different examples because the world today is extremely chaotic. For example today the chaos comes from the multiple frictions that exist between the Arabic and Occidental world.
I think that’s what moved me: that connection between this sixty year old text and the world today. One of the ways to showcase that was to have the audience see the world always from the perspective of these two characters: Daru and Mohamed who go through the war but don’t explain the war. I find it very interesting to have this story be told through the eyes of victims of the Algerian war who rarely re the ones who hold the reins to the story.
The reasons for the war matter very little to those who suffer its consequences. In FAR FROM MEN Daru and Mohamed are victims of the war: they never wanted it and find themselves in the midst of it without the power to change any of it which enables me to show the limitations of the humanitarian discourse in a moment of great violence.
The movie however wasn’t shot in Algeria but in Morocco…How did that come to be? Why not shoot it in Algeria?
I would have loved to shoot this movie in Algeria and I did do a lot of sightseeing, as research, in Algeria. It would have technically been possible: I had the authorizations and was well received by the Algerian government. It wasn’t a question of political problems but rather of logistics which would have slowed down considerably the shooting of the film and would have required more capital which I didn’t have.
So for these concrete reasons we decided to shoot the film on the other side of the frontier, in Morocco. It is the same mountain only instead of being on the Algerian side, it is on the Moroccan side.
Speaking of mountains, there is a great influence of the Western genre in FAR FROM MEN. The contrast between civilization and nature, individuality and collectivity is all there. You also cast Viggo Mortensen in the main role who is an actor who has mastered the Western Genre from HIDALGO to his more recent film JAUJA.
Yes even in the original story, the main character’s journey to Tinguit has descriptions that have so many elements of the Western Genre. I immediately thought that the Western Genre was consistent with the film: two systems of laws, the white man versus the native man or here the Algerian man. I didn’t want to make a parody of the Western film. FAR FROM MEN really is a European film: it features the same thoughts and elements that can be found in the Western film but is in no way an imitation of the American western.
Yes and Loin des Hommes is a very non-Hollywood film in that way.
The myth behind the film is different. In an American Western the myth is the Americans’ conquest of the West and usually these film try to sell the audience that myth. The most important Westerns in my opinion are those who also try to show the contradictions of the myth like Arthur Penn’s LITTLE BIG MAN. I tried to do the same with FAR FROM MEN but with a different myth.
Here the myth isn’t the conquest of the west but European universalism. It is no coincidence that the main character Daru is a teacher: he is bringing civilization, freedom and education to his students, but the film also shows that this very myth has been completely perverted by French history as the film begins with the collapse of the French colonial system. You are right that I did choose an actor who was able to bring dimensionality to the film.
When I first started writing the adaptation of Camus’ text, I had Viggo’s face in mind and that helped me write the scenario which was rather distanced from the original text. When I learned he spoke French, I thought “we have to send the script to him, we have to try. Maybe he will like it”. I first associated Viggo with Spanish cinema after seeing him in CAPITAN ALATRISTE in which he speaks perfect Spanish and for the role of Daru I was looking for a non-French actor because I had changed that from the story of Camus, in which the main character is French, so that he would be in equal standing with the other character: Mohamed.
Yes. He is a man of the world, a European Man who doesn’t really belong anywhere, who sets himself apart from civilization in FAR FROM MEN and yet constantly finds himself being dragged back into it.
Yes and Viggo Mortensen brings all of that to the character of Daru. He has a very complex identity; we don’t know if he is American, Canadian or European. He is all of that. He is everywhere, and nowhere. I knew he spoke Spanish which was really important for whoever would be playing Daru since he is descendant of Andalusia. He doesn’t even have a Spanish accent when he speaks French: his accent is undefinable.
Daru and Mohamed are both outcasts: lone figures. Daru wants nothing to do with Mohamed, doesn’t want to take him to Tinguit and yet throughout the journey, he finds common ground with him. The journey to Tinguit is one of a friendship being formed between two men who technically should be against one another and yet who constantly cross the invisible lines that divide them.
Absolutely. It’s a strange and difficult bond. It’s all about the journey: when you have to walk and talk with the same person for so long, you evidently form some kind of bond. You are right that in the beginning Daru wants nothing to do with this prisoner: It bothers him more than anything else. All Daru wants is to take care, and protect, his own little life which is isolated and removed from the world.
Yes and it’s funny because he thinks that by standing aside and being a teacher to young kids he is doing something good. In reality, his passivity is in itself a participation in the war.
What Daru realizes over the course of this journey is that he hasn’t been living life. The very first scene in the movie is a geography lesson in which he teaches the French metropolitan rivers…it’s completely absurd but he doesn’t realize that. This road he takes with Mohamed makes him realize that his role as a teacher, in the beginning, which he saw as pure and legitimate is actually not that pure or legitimate. He is participating in an unjust world and didn’t even realize it. He also becomes aware that, while he is constantly telling Mohamed “choose life, choose life,” he hasn’t been choosing life himself. He’s been a living dead: he made a cross on love, hasn’t really dealt with the death of his wife and hasn’t been in contact with real life. This two-day journey teaches him as much as it does Mohamed. Both these men mutually help each other.
It’s interesting because this film isn’t really a Hollywood film and yet the main character of Daru reminded me of Rick in Michael Curtiz’ CASABLANCA. Daru really is a character who refuses to partake in what is happening around him and doesn’t realize that in so doing he is passively participating in that reality, and in a negative way. He is against violence and yet finds himself being violent at certain moments. He comes to a new understanding of the world; he understands that it is worse to be passive than it is to be involved.
That’s a really good comparison. I think the common ground between both these characters is that they both have been wounded by life and as a result, to protect themselves, they have created a shell around them. We feel that in CASABLANCA; we know Rick is a good man but he created a wall between himself and others and he only little by little lets people in. Daru and Rick are also both in the middle of a war.
I really didn’t think we would get to see which road Mohamed ends up choosing at the end of the film: Tinguit, where he will be executed, or the desert where life awaits. That was really surprising to me.
(Laughs) It was very tempting to stop the film before the choice was made but I wanted to finish the film with Daru’s character. I wanted to show how the journey had transformed him and cutting the film before wouldn’t have allowed me to give a finish to his story. It would have been quite elegant to cut before the choice but it just felt strange for me not to finish Daru’s story. But yes, I was definitely tempted to do it. It was very tempting.
I was constantly thinking: it’s going to end now (pause) It’s going to end now (pause) Ok. now!