What was it about Rachid’s screenplay that convinced you to do the film?
The theme of the film doesn’t just concern Africa, but the whole of society. That is, it is about the crisis of communication and the problem of identity. This is particularly relevant to Africa. I believe that every African has a duty towards Africa, since every African carries Africa within him. But Africa is terribly misunderstood – by others and by itself: the word ‘Africa’, itself is such a superficial term, given the diversity of nations and peoples. African is 3 million metres squared – that’s the size of Europe, the States, China and Argentina all together! We can’t talk of it as if it were a single entity, there’s more to it than that. One of the interesting things about Rachid’s film is that he shows an older African travelling abroad to find out what Africans abroad are like, what motivates them. Many films show African-Americans going back to the old continent to discover their roots, but this film shows the reverse of that.
This, for me, is the first time I’ve seen that on film. But while I am African, and always will be, what matters most to me is humanity. In any story, if the human being is not at its heart then it doesn’t interest me. London River is about the problems that life poses for mankind. It has to do with the attacks of 7/7, and it also talks of Islam, but these subjects are not at its heart. Rather, it wants to show the difficulties people have in accepting one another, the fear they feel. It is a film about how we react to things, and this is what interests me. It teaches us that when you meet the other, don’t be scared to look them in the eye; for if you are brave enough to do so, you will finish by seeing yourself more clearly
You first worked with Rachid on ‘LITTLE SENEGAL’. Were you pleased to be reuniting with him for ‘LONDON RIVER’?
There’s an African proverb: “Take me back to yesterday” – which supposes, of course, that yesterday was something good. My first experience of working with Rachid was exactly that. We have so much in common, in terms of history and of humanity. And such openness, such respect for others, as Rachid has is rarely seen. When we were working on ‘LITTLE SENEGAL’ he would ask me to read the script and offer my thoughts and criticisms: this is very rare in a director. But more extraordinary still is that subsequently he’d adapt the script taking my thoughts into account. Such consideration creates a very positive tone from the outset. So when, after ‘LITTLE SENEGAL’, Rachid told me he wanted to work with me again, in my deepest soul I wanted nothing more. It took time – 8 years – but of course when he proposed ‘LONDON RIVER’ to me I said yes straight away. And the instant we started shooting in London, I realised that I had never before felt such harmony on a shoot; there were no clashes or disagreements at all. We had our little difficulties – the weather was bad, some of the local residents were unhappy about the filming – but the whole team, from the runners to the producers, worked together so well… it was a real love story. And shooting in France, too, I had the same feeling. This is the Rachid’s great gift, that he is able to create a great complicity on set. I’ve rarely seen such complicity! You might say that it was like being part of a family. And because of this, the film came almost of its own accord. It delivered itself – but thanks to him.
Like your characters, you and Brenda come from very different backgrounds. How did you find working together?
After I’d said yes to doing the film, Rachid showed me this film that Brenda had been in, ‘SECRETS AND LIES’, and we both agreed immediately that she should play the part of the English woman. However, we couldn’t find a time when both Brenda and I were free to film. I had no English, and she had very little French, but we had met, and we knew that we would work well together. So Rachid kept waiting. He knows what he wants -how to choose his stories, who he needs for the part – and he knows how to wait for it. It’s always a labour of love for Rachid. He’s very gentle, but also very determined.
Finally we found the right moment, and once we started shooting, thanks to Rachid the differences in background – not just between me and Brenda, but between all the crew – mattered little. Irrespective of race, nationality, and so forth we were all together in the adventure for the time of making the film. And in this atmosphere, it felt like Brenda and I had known each other for years. We were like partners. In Africa, we say that “what makes a beautiful bouquet is the variety of colours”. It’s in difference that one finds harmony.
You bring your background as a musician and a griot, to the part for the parting song you console Jane’s mother with…
Throughout the filming, Rachid had allowed us to improvise – he was constantly asking for our suggestions – so the work opened itself up to us. This scene, where the two characters say goodbye to one another – had to be a very powerful one. In the screenplay it was written that my character tells Brenda’s to be brave, and wishes her well before we part. Then we had the idea of a song, but the problem was that in such an atmosphere, singing might be somehow diminutive, banal; that it wouldn’t bring anything to the scene. In the end, we just decided to let the moment arrive, and the song that you see and hear in the film was what came to me. It is a very, very, very, old song, which my mother, (who was one of the great Malian chanteuses) used to sing to me as an infant,
and which she continued to sing to me until the day she died.
The words translate as something like: It means, no one knows where we’ll end up. I might die in the forest; I might die in the City. Take Pascal Terry, the French motorcyclist killed during this year’s Paris-Dakar series. The organisers moved the race to Argentina because it was deemed too dangerous to retain the original route, but he died all the same. It’s the same with the character of my son in the film, and so this is the song that came to me, the song that I sang. I didn’t want to play at singing – I needed to feel it. It couldn’t be an intellectual thing. If I make a film, it’s not to be rich – evidently! – but because I love it. Rachid understands that.
Interview with Brenda Blethyn
Could you tell me how you came to be involved in the project? What was it about the screenplay that first attracted you it?
Actually, when Rachid asked to meet in London and I didn’t know who he was! But I met him anyway and he was really quite inspiring: everything about him – his attitude, his demeanour, these things. And of course it helped that he liked my work! Then I saw ‘DAYS OF GLORY’, and I thought it was wonderful. But I wasn’t sure that the dates were going to fit – and if I remember rightly at this point he didn’t even have the script ready, just the story. The other thing was at the time the incident was still really very fresh in the memory. It still is, but then it was even more so. But then the film isn’t about that incident, it just takes place then, that’s when their paths cross. And I found my character’s ignorance of the Muslim faith interesting – I think many people are ignorant of others’ faiths. Although it’s not about that either though really. I just thought, two people, completely different cultures, completely different faiths, coming together and finding a meeting ground, it’s an interesting story. And I knew it would be a good film with Rachid directing. So Rachid said he’d wait for me, which took nearly a year in end. Then of course there was the fact of working in French, which was a new challenge for me….
How did you find performing in another language?
I didn’t speak very much French before I agreed to do the film – a little bit, but not enough. Prior to shooting I was working up in Manchester, so I went to a French school to get some tuition. Sadly like anything else, it fades if you don’t keep it up, but I did learn enough to improvise during the shoot. What I’d have to do was anticipate what might come up, so that if a scene went into that area I would be able to improvise. And of course, I was surrounded by French people all speaking French. All the crew were speaking French, all the instructions were in French…
That must have been difficult…
We got by. Sometimes it was hard, but people helped me. Occasionally we had to scrabble around to find translators. In any case, it didn’t have to be perfect French – after all, she’s an English speaker, talking French. The character lives in Guernsey, where many people are bilingual. I don’t think she was born there, but has lived there for many years.
In many ways, your character finds herself in a foreign country – one that is as alien to her, if not more so, than it is to Ali’s father.
It’s foreign to both of them really. They’ve both come from working with land, nature. It’s a sleepy place, Guernsey: trying to find someone in the middle of the bustle of London, when you come from order, must be a nightmare. Also she’s very reserved. In the alley, for example, when she meets the butcher, she’s thrown – that’s not the sort of person she’d interact with. And its only when he explains that he’s the landlord that she lets down her guard. He’s got a role then. She says to her brother on the phone, “Its crawling with Muslims.” I was a little wary about that phrase, which was an adlib, but that’s the way she thought. Suddenly she’s been embroiled into this strange world. Being an outsider in that community must be as close as white people come to the experience of exclusion that many black people have – just look how helpful the police were as soon as she mentioned that there was a black muslim with a picture of her daughter!
She’s certainly very insular; is she a racist?
Not racist, but certainly ignorant. She’s conservative. Then again, in Sotigui’s culture, too, there are prejudices. There, I think, the women are still to some extent second class citizens – for example it’s frowned upon for a woman to smoke in front of a man in that culture. When my character lights that cigarette in front of him – and she doesn’t even smoke! – you can see that’s something he’s uncomfortable with. But I suppose you could say that it takes something of these proportions to make people think about these things. If it hadn’t been for those terrible events she’d still be at home, feeding her donkeys – she wouldn’t even have thought about other ways of life, hers was ok thank you. She was perfectly happy with the prejudice she didn’t know she had! Then this happens, and she starts to question everything. Where is she – where is her daughter? I think really until the perpetrators are caught, she still must think that she’s been kidnapped or something, maybe held for ransom. And at the same time she’d even think that that’s absurd to think that, that her daughter’s probably just too scared to call her, because she knows the sort of reaction that she’d get if she were to call up and say “Mum, I’ve met this guy, he’s black, we’re getting married at the mosque…” The silly thing is, when it comes to it, she’s actually pretty ok with it. She reaches the point where she can leave a message for her daughter about buying a new hat for the wedding. In the end it’s ok, because nothing’s as bad as her child being lost. Nothing’s so bad that she can’t call her mum, they’ll deal with it.
Like your characters, you and Sotigui come from very different backgrounds. How did you find working together?
It was a hugely pleasant experience! Being with Sotigui was like being in the presence of royalty. The majesty of the man is… well, how lucky was I to be working with him? He’s just wonderful, and I just hope a little of what he had rubbed off on me. He has true inner strength. We’d have long long conversations, both of us struggling to be understood, and by hook or by crook we got there. With a bit of pigeon English, a bit of pigeon Malian, and a bit of pigeon French on my part – we’d sit for ages chatting. The whole family was great really. Everyone. Working in the East End of London, the weather was terrible, it rained everyday, but everyone that contributed was wonderful. And then we went off to France to shoot all the interiors and the Guernsey scenes and it was even better! Sometimes you get a project that ticks all the boxes: above all the people you meet, who you admire and you want to go on that journey with. And it was a journey I’m glad I took, because I learnt something along the way.
Gugler, Josef (2003), African Film: Re-Imagining a Continent, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press