A Look Behind the Mask

Rob Avila speaks with Algerian Actor, Director & Screenwriter Lyès Salem about his award-winning comedy, MASQUERADES

Thoughtful and good-humored, with leading-man looks, actor-filmmaker Lyes Salem was in the Bay Area recently to present Masquerades at the opening night of the Arab Film Festival, where he was greeted by a full house at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco’s beloved movie palace. A few days later, wearing a tourist’s camera around his neck, he arrived at the offices of the Global Film Initiative, distributor of the film in the United States, for a chat about his inspiration as a filmmaker, his life during and beyond Masquerades, and the role of humor in reaching an audience.

Salem grew up in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, until he was 17, leaving for France just as Algeria entered the 1990s and a bloody decade-long period of civil war between the government and various Islamist factions. While studying acting at a Paris conservatory and later working as a stage actor, the upheaval and suffering then being endured by fellow Algerians back home encouraged an artistic search for stories that spoke to his Algerian identity—a search that led him to try his hand at film. The result was two lauded short films (in which he also acted) that broached through humor some of the serious changes and challenges facing Algerians in France and back home. On the strength of those films (one of which, Cousines, garnered France’s prestigious César Award in 2005), he was invited to make his first feature.

The result, Masquerades (2008), is a deft comedy in which Salem stars as Mounir, a well-intentioned but egotistical family man in a small Algerian village, trying desperately to make something of himself in the eyes of the neighbors who show him no respect. In its warm, comical portrait of the power of gossip and the petty corruptions of daily life, as well as the relationship between the sexes, the film resonates with some crucial social and political questions before today’s Algerian public, while registering universal truths about families and communal life in general. Its success at home—both in France and Algeria—was echoed at film festivals around the world. Masquerades became Algeria’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards.

(The following conversation took place in English and French with help from translator Cyril Drame.)

You grew up in the big city. Do you have any childhood memories of life in villages like the one portrayed in the film?

I never lived in a small village, neither in Algeria nor in France. So when I started to work on the script for Masquerades, I had to imagine what it would be like to live in such a village. But the reason I chose to set it in a small village is that I wanted it to be like a fable. I needed a close, small community. To me, it seemed that such a rumor would never catch hold in a big town. So I started off by assuming that in a small village like this everybody knows everything about their neighbors. And I had read novels and other works whose stories took place in small villages. Then, when I arrived in the village, some aspects of village life I had described were verified, and some things were a little off, so I had to correct them, modifying the script while onsite.

The film is shot in a real village. Are there inhabitants of the village in the film?

Yes, all of the small parts are [played by actors] from the village. I wanted to share the experience with the people of the village, to make it some sort of an exchange, not just arrive and make the film and leave without the local people getting anything out of it. So I incorporated local people in both the technical team and the artistic team. We came in with means, so we wanted to share the means.

So the inhabitants of the village had input in the shape of the film?

Of course I didn’t ask too much directly, more indirectly. I was probing village society. It was a little tricky, in that sense. I didn’t want to open the door to discussion too wide because if you open that door too far then they will write the whole script for you. I just tried to test the script out, to see where it was correct and where it was incorrect. At the same time, it was very important for me to make a fiction feature. In Algeria, we lack a spirit of fiction or imagination in our films. There’s too much reality all the time. I wanted to break away from this trend to allow for a work of imagination as well.

Was it the first time you had directed nonprofessionals before the camera?

No, in my short film Cousines I had used almost all nonprofessionals. There are far more professionals in Masquerades. They are actors who work a lot on Algerian television. The style of acting on Algerian television is very regimented, very histrionic, and I wanted to break off from that too.

What’s been the response to the film in Algeria?

I think it’s been well received. Of course, it did very well attracting audiences. But I think too the Algerian audiences recognized themselves in the film. It doesn’t happen very often these days—either because of the quality of the movie or the acting or the script, or because the movies that are made for an occidental or European audience. These movies are usually in French, not in Arabic. This movie is in their own language, and I think they can recognize themselves and their own humor when they watch the film. The comedy worked very well. It was very important for me to start off with a comedy, because to begin with this public needs to laugh. But also I wanted to raise certain questions though humor and without judgment.

Sometimes comedy is the best strategy for getting into taboo subjects.

Yes, exactly. I think that the way the public received the movie, with all the taboo subjects, such as sex before marriage, sex in general, and the hints of corruption around the colonel and the army—people not only understood it as a comedy but also as food for thought. So it sparked some reflection on these things.

Are there other films in Algeria today that try to broach these subjects?

Most of the movies made in Algeria today are criticizing these things. The difference is how they do this. I wanted people to feel that the criticism comes from inside Algeria, not from outside. That’s one way of putting it. There are a lot of movies [that offer critiques of Algerian society], and these are interesting and often right, with the right points being made. Nonetheless, these come from a European point of view, usually, which is what is problematic. I wanted it to come from the inside.

You’ve met a number of audiences around the world now. Do they approach the film differently?

There were two places where the film was going to be regarded with particular scrutiny: in Algeria and in France. France cannot look at an Algerian movie in an objective way; it’s too difficult, but this is normal [given the circumstances/history/relationship]. Afterwards, in other countries, it was very interesting; audiences could just take it as a comedy. I took the film to New York, Dubai, to all the continents. The film was accepted everywhere and seen in a similar way everywhere. For me it was very gratifying to find that there’s something universal in the movie that works for everyone. At a festival in Syria, someone said afterward, “I live in a village, and this story could really happen in my village.” At Tribeca in New York, the whole audience stayed after the screening for the Q&A. They liked it very much, and one guy even told me it was the first time he could identify with an Arab. [laughs]

What did you draw on for the development of Mounir, the character you play in the film?

What interests me a lot when I write is the difference between a role and a character. A role can be inspired by one particular person. The character, on the other hand, doesn’t resemble anyone specifically, but reminds you of a lot of people.

A character has more complexity.

Exactly. Hamlet, or other characters in Shakespeare for example, who are so complex they remind you of many people, many facets of people. That’s what I tried to do with Mounir. There’s a complexity there that you can find in many places in Algerian society—and not only in Algerian society. I’ve been living in Paris for 20 years now, so of course my inspiration comes also from where I live. I have traveled a lot too. Inevitably, there’s a little bit of everything that goes into it.

At what point did you turn to writing? How did you discover yourself as a writer?

For me the writing is the most difficult and most complicated part. It is always very painful, even a comedy like Masquerades. When I’m writing my wife won’t even talk to me. [laughs]

Why the turn to writing then?

I was very happy as an actor. I got very good parts. I played in a lot of Shakespeare and Molière; it was very nice. But finally something was missing. I couldn’t pinpoint my Algerian identity in any of these works. Shakespearean plays are universal, of course, but not specifically Algerian. It was the middle of the 1990s, with the rise in terrorism in Algeria, and the population was really suffering there. I felt I needed to do something, not just rest comfortably in my life in the theater. It made me restless. That was the trigger for me to start writing something. I knew it couldn’t produce that in the theater, but I had never thought about making movies before, that was something very foreign to me. On the other hand, what I wrote was so very close to me that I didn’t want to leave it to another director and be separated in that way from the material. I would want to control it. So I said, OK, I’m going to do it myself. Meanwhile, I had gotten a small camera and captured certain images that I wanted to turn into a story. I knew some people at Canal+ in France. They gave me two days of editing for free. And I think that’s when it really struck me. In French you say, “I got bitten by the beast.” Because I understood that without any more than a set of images, I could come here and in two days I could produce a real story. It was a revelation to me. So I said I’ll do it again, this time with something more written. And that’s how I arrived at my first short film, Jean Farès.

What was that first film about?

It was something I had written when I was working in the theater, and was playing in a one-man show. So I adapted it to make it a short. It’s a simple story about a married couple who have just had their first child. He’s Algerian; she’s French. It’s midnight and they kick him out of the hospital. He’s very happy. He doesn’t want to go home. So he decides to go to a payphone to tell everyone about the birth of his child. (I play the young father in the telephone booth.) He starts by calling his parents in Algeria. He tells them the kid’s name will be Jean François. And there’s the problem. [laughs] So next he calls his wife’s parents, having changed the child’s name to Farès, and there’s a problem again. So it’s a movie about identity and exclusion. In the end, he gets completely disgusted and a little depressed because he’d been so happy coming from the hospital, but after calling both families he realizes, because of the clash of names, it’s not going to be that easy. In the end, he calls up his wife. And she says, “Look, if they’re not happy with Jean François or Farès, we’ll call him Jean Farès.”

What were the themes explored in your second short film, Cousines?

It involves the same character as in Jean Farès, except that now he returns to Algeria after four or five years of living in France. The film measures the gap of those years, everything that happened in Algeria in the ’90s. How society reacted to the terrorism, how the relationships between men and women became more separated, the increasing segregation of the sexes. It’s not as funny a film as Jean Farès, but it’s still humorous in its approach. But that’s the subject of the film.

I understand there were some terrorist bombings nearby during the film shoot for Masquerades?

There were, but it was kind of funny too, because the French people on the set were pretty scared while the Algerian team were much more blasé. For the Algerians, if we didn’t hear it go off close to us, then it was just far away. The Algerians knew full well why the terrorists put off these bombs: It’s just to scare people. If we allow ourselves to be scared all the time then we fall into their trap. It’s of course terrible when someone is actually hurt, but you can’t let the threat scare you because that’s what they want. And, in fact, the French team adjusted very quickly. There were three bombs set off while we were there. After the [report of the] third bomb they didn’t react the way they had to the first one.

What are your expectations for the film?

I made the film a few years ago now. My life with the film began with openings in Algeria and France. It was a big deal for me when the film came out in France and Algeria. It was well received in both countries. Today, I’m happy to accompany the film to San Francisco, and later to come to Los Angeles, because I like and am curious about the United States. Not to work here, or anything like that, but just to see it from the inside. We all wear blue jeans and jackets from Banana Republic, or whatever, but I want to know the society where this all comes from. As for the movie, I’m content to let it find its way. I’m at work on a new project, a very complex film, not a comedy at all. I want to focus on that. I think I will be able to shoot it in about a year.

Will you be acting in it as well?

I don’t know yet, but probably. I’m just developing the script at the moment. When I write, I assume I’m going to play all the characters. That’s how I can write them.

Can you tell us anything about the subject of this new film?

I can’t say too much about it now because it’s very early on in the process, but it will be a film, in a general sense, about identity. The guiding question is what is Algerian identity after 150 years of colonization and 50 years of independence? But the kind of story it will be, whether a crime-thriller or a drama or whatever, it’s confusing at this point, as I warned you [laughs].

Rob Avila is a San Francisco-based writer, and film and stage critic. He is a regular contributor to SF360 and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has worked with the Global Film Initiative on a range of projects and programs, including production of GFI educational resources and the Initiative’s Granting Program.

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