French film festival opener tackles instutional racism and violence

Brian Martin, associate professor of French and comparative literature, co-organized the series of films that will play over the next four weeks at Images Cinema.

un-prophete-affiche courtesy of
courtesy of

The French film festival, titled “Without Distinction: Race and Ethnicity in New French Film,” will explore ethnic tensions, racial injustices and their corresponding roles in shaping contemporary France.

Showcased in the films are the intense ethnic conflicts in contemporary France that have significantly shaped how Western Europe looks at the challenges of diversity. These problematic issues have been created and intensified by a diverse racial, cultural and ethnic landscape in conjunction with a government led by a man who encourages the negative representation of young black men (or écume, “scum,” as he calls them) in prison.

Regardless of what you may or may not have heard about these conflicts, it is likely that Un Prophète (A Prophet), the first film in the series and a 2008 piece directed by Jacques Audiard, will bring you a close and intensely personal view into this world of racial tension. The film tells the story of the unjustly punished criminal, a sort of motif in post-revolutionary France. From those guillotined during the war to the characters depicted in Les Miserables, Un Prophète follows the same sort of French post-war “cultural production.” The film is set in the French prison system and makes no attempt to romanticize or glorify the prisoner’s daily struggle for survival. Martin warned of the imminent violence as the film begins: “Close your eyes when you hear ‘razor blade.’”

Un Prophète begins by introducing Malik, a 19-year-old French-Arab sentenced to six years in jail; the film maintains ambiguity when it comes to the issue of Malik’s guilt. The young man enters prison with no apparent advantages: He has no friends outside, no money and no valuable items. However, he has the unique capacity to be accepted by several ethnic groups within the jail who are otherwise completely distrusting of one another. By a chance encounter with another Arab, Malik is forced into the service of a Corsican crime boss and is soon left with blood on his hands and a guilt-ridden delirium.

As the film proceeds, themes of masculinity, sexuality and corruption are developed, and the audience feels as if they know Malik very personally. The character also seems to represent greater ethnic conflicts that make up the jail’s dynamics. Just as he plays into the prison’s hierarchical social system, he is also its antithesis; we are told that Malik did not live with his parents and had no friends and was therefore more or less exempt from the French society. This background plays into his rejection of the society’s prevalent racism, his ability to be the in-between man for several ethnic groups and his ultimate fate.

Audiard creates a riveting social dynamic in his on-screen prison that is ultimately representative of France in its entirety, in which ethnic groups are clearly defined and highly resentful of other minorities. Despite the graphic violence, corruption and cronyism portrayed in the film, it is surprisingly a feel-good story. The director makes his message clear: Corruption and racism, despite being powerful and ingrained into society, are no match for eventual respect and equality, even if these qualities are underrepresented.

This is a powerful story about overcoming ethnic and racial tensions that does not approach the subject in a typical fashion. It is personal, powerful and incredibly refreshing (not to mention well-acted and well-directed) and makes a strong statement about facing the challenges of diversity. It is unlikely that anyone in the theater Monday night left indifferent to the serious themes portrayed; this year’s festival is sure to be an important part of sparking discussions on diversity at the College. If these next three films are as gripping and engaging as Un Prophète, no student should miss these next few Monday nights at Images.

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