D. Julien: French Cineaste in Oakland
By Doniphan Blair
Daniel Julien has been all over. Not only did the director/producer grow up in the South of France, with many North Africans in his high school, he went to the Soviet Union, when it was still behind the Iron Curtain, and got into their lauded film program, eventually working on seven very serious student films.
Back in Paris, he did the same with cinema students there and soon entered the profession becoming assistant director on a feature by Ali Ghalem about Algeria. Within a year, he directed “Mohammed,” docu-drama with multiple points of view about about an Algerian murdered by French police. It gained national renown.
After a series of documentaries for French Television, Julien broadened his cinema scope to full throated commercial after moving to the States and running into Alan Hunt, of “Candid Camera” fame, in Monterey. He ended up directing a bunch of episodes and doing various commercial and television projects out of Hollywood.
Married and raising a child, Julien settled in the Oakland hills, the fabled hill top community of Montclair, with its redwood forest just over the hill and crack jungle a mile or so below. It was then that he founded SWIFT, a student exchange program (Student of the World Invitation to Friendship and Travel) which expanded to 16 different countries, including France, Spain, Nepal and China.
SWIFT used to have its office in the deluxe downtown Oakland neighborhood of Preservation Park but now Julien runs it out of his house where his three basement rooms are split between SWIFT and Swift Productions. A trim and eloquent 63, with traces of a French accent, Daniel has decided return to feature production with a bang.
While Julien showed my around and tried to quiet his cute if over eager little dog, we started our discussion there.
Daniel Julien:The project is called “The Secrets of Medea.” Medea is a city in Algeria. It is adapted from a novel. I option the rights for 30 months and we are already half way through—so we have to speed it up.
CineSource: Can I ask how much you paid for it?
This is a bit of a departure, since you haven’t made many features and now you are buying a property and producing. This is your first of that sort of thing?
No. My first film was in 1973, a docudrama. After that, I was hired as the first assistant on a feature. Interestingly enough also about Algeria, kind of a coincidence, a closing of the circle. I did work on feature films, television, commercials. Mostly in France, here and what they used to call the Soviet Union.
My first film in this country was a self-financed parody of ‘Flashdance’ called ‘Torchdance.’ [It was] the story of a young ballerina who wants to become a welder [laughs].
Then I met Allen Funt in Pebble Beach in Monterey, so I did some ‘Candid Camera’ episodes. Then I did a few commercials in Los Angeles. But I was interrupted [by the student exchange]. [Now] I am on to this, a feature film. Basically I realized my first film was 30 years ago, which makes me feel old. [laughs]
And is there a third profession, psychiatry or?
No. Swift took over my life and reduced my filmmaking to minimum for a few years. But in the last four years I have been able to reverse it to where it is 90% film and 10% the student exchange… S.W.I.F.T. and Swift Productions share this three room office.
You have three colleagues?
Yes, I have an office assistance, who also does our web sites, Joanna Andreoni; Tal Skloot, my editor. Other filmmakers collaborate on other projects.
It seems you are starting a full production company and could bring on another project in this space?
Definitely. A filmmaker from Czech [Republic] lives across the street. [laughs] I used to have a smaller studio and we moved here two months ago to expand. Now I have three rooms, which is great. We have done six screening. We are trying to develop things.
So you are in the forward cine movement of Oakland?
Have you been following the developments with the Film Commission?
Yes. I also got to know the Oakland Film Festival last year, I was interviewed. My documentary ‘Miya of Quiet Strength’ was shown.
Well it is a coincidence to some extent since this project started almost two years ago. Growing up in France I had a lot of friends in high school, middle school and college from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, so I got close to those people. I was always interested in those cultures.
My first film, ‘Mohammed,’ is the story of this Algerian worker who was killed in The Versailles police station in 1973. I was just finishing film school. It was a docudrama, using reenactments with actors. There were two different versions: one was [from] the police, one was from his sister, who was in the police station when he was shot. It was a very successful movie because it [addressed issues] happening right then.
The guy was shot with a machine gun right in the police station [because], the policeman said, ‘He threatened me with a chair.’ But the sister could see what happened. The film was shown in political meetings all over Paris and the newspapers went crazy about it.
We took the film all over France, cities where a lot of North African minorities were living. It was a big success, not so much because it was a great film, but because of the subject matter and the political impact. The policeman [involved] had to retire.
So then this director from Algeria, Ali Ghalem, approached me to do a feature film with him, called ‘L’Autre France,’ ‘The Other France.’ It is the story of a young guy coming from Algeria and trying to adjust to French society. After that I didn’t touch subjects about North Africa until I read this beautiful novel called ‘Les Silences de Medea,’ which we translated as ‘The Secrets of Medea.’
I heard the author, Malika Madi, on a radio station while I was in France. I thought it was really interesting, so I tracked her down. She invited me to her house—she lives in Brussels, she is of Algerian background—and we decided to work together. We wrote the screenplay together and I optioned the rights.
It is kind of universal about what happened to a lot of women during times of war. In our story, we also have a Chechnyan woman who is in therapy. It is also very specifically about the situation in Algeria during their civil war of the 90s, a little known period of history. [It is an] educational tool but also focusing on what happened to women, to about 30,000 other women during that period.
Yes, kidnapped and raped. Some were kept by the Islamists in the hills as their wives—quote unquote. Some are still there.
Were you just taken by the story or do you think we have to look for stories dealing with these complexities: Islam, civilizational war, immigration?
People want to learn about these countries, what is going on, what went on in their history. From what a few colleagues have told me, even public television is looking [more] at narrative, the story of one person. It can help people identify.
Narratives are more poetic and can capture the imagination—
And the emotions—
So they are better for playing out future realities?
Yes. I am obviously a big fan of documentaries—I have done about twelve over the years. But I think sometimes with fiction, you can reach more people. If the acting is good, not only do the people get the political and social background, they can also see the story of one individual. It is just another approach and both are valid.
Well they are making a lot of movies in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran is a super power—
Even Iraq! Do you know about the professor Jack Shaheen, he did the documentary about ‘Reel Bad Arabs’ ? He dedicated his life to showing how the Arabs are depicted in the media, which he thinks is worse then any minority, including African American. He gave me some connections in Hollywood to try to get financing for this film.
They need to be told! The official end of the Algerian civil war was in 1999, so it is only 12 years ago. That is the reason we can’t shoot in Algeria—we will shoot in Morocco—because it is a sensitive subject. Interestingly enough, you are the first person I have talked to about this.
I was looking through newsreels, trying to get some footage about that period, to use it in the feature, but I didn’t find a single thing about Algeria in the 90s. There must have been some reporters, some newsreel footage, but I have been unable to find it.
Unbelievable. Ironically, Algeria is famous in film because of the “Battle of Algiers.”
But that was about the French [bloodbath] and this is the Algerians!
So the Algerians have been through the whole al Qaeda experience? The atrocities were horrible but they seem to have come out it?
They had elections, and now they are even having demonstrations—but they have been mellow.
Because anyone who has had a civil war, like America, doesn’t want to stick sticks into their neighbor’s eye?
Yes, they have been through it. [laughs] This film has good timing, because of what is going in the Middle East and North Africa, but it was totally unplanned. I started two years ago.
July 2012 is the 50th anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France, a big thing in Algeria and France and maybe some cities like San Francisco. If we finish the movie and get it shown in festivals, it would be a springboard to some theatrical release. We are really fighting against time here.
How will you fight to be against the propensity to be too political. I just saw ‘Miral’ by Julien Schnabel and he was more reciting the politics than telling the story in dramaturge.
Right, right. This is a very personal story, made from real stories from different women. [The hero] is a school teacher, she gets kidnapped and returns, miraculously. She was unconscious, left for dead. Everyone in her family feels this is weird [but] they say, ‘OK, she is alive and we believe her.’ She was a proponent of staying in Algeria, [even though] a few days earlier, the Islamists came down and killed half the children in her classroom!
Half her children! Now what is their philosophy doing that? The children are learning Western—
Probably. The Islamists would destroy the schools, cut the throats of the teachers, kill some of the kids. Culture is the enemy.
I didn’t find any newsreel but I did find a feature film that was made by an Algerian director. Shot in Algeria in 2002, it is somewhat similar to our story. The school has been destroyed but the film ends with the kids going back to school.
Can you summarize the rest of the story?
The school teacher who was kidnapped—her dad marries her to this older widower who lives in Paris. He has six kids her age—mid-twenties.
What is interesting to see the difference between the young woman who grew up in Algeria, a practicing Islam, and these kids, who are between 20 and 30 but are like Parisians, modern young women. [There’s] the difference of religion and also the difference [of culture]. Two of the kids are Rai singers [Algeria’s progressive pop]. They don’t mix very well with the Muslim.
You said they lost some of their Muslim identity: wouldn’t it be more accurate to say they almost completely Parisian?
Actually not. Most of my cast comes from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia—well one is half-Italian—and are in their mid-twenties. They are caught up completely. Some of them are practicing Muslims but at the same time they don’t go the Mosque that often and they party and drink alcohol—but they don’t tell their parents. My lead actress was just telling me she is practicing [the Islamic holiday of] Ramadan. It is really interesting [laughs].
Today is the day France announced they will prohibit the Nakab; any thoughts on that?
I think there is a big difference between the hijab (just covering the hair] and the burka where you don’t see the face. You have women with the hijab all over France, you don’t even notice it, but the burka [is different]. There is also the fear of terrorism—hiding behind the burka weapons or bombs.
It is a tradition for men to hide under burkas.
I feel the more freedom, the better to express your faith, but I can see the French point of view. They are French citizens. I can understand why it could be a problem in public schools and public places. Personally, it doesn’t bother me but you don’t see so many here.
Of course, American culture is a massive hammer going 24-7 and a little burka couldn’t stand up, while the French are integrating the greatest percentage of Muslims of any country
Yes, after Catholicism, Islam is the second religion: six million out of sixty million as opposed to six out of three hundred million, yeah [laughs].
You go back to France quite a bit?
I try to go at least a couple of times a year. With the cast and crew all in France, I am going next month to do some of the rehearsals with the actors in Paris and location scouting in Morocco.
Do you find any affinity of the Parisians with California or Oakland? The French are famous for their love of Hollywood, Jerry Lewis…
Among people of my generation, there are some who were supporters of the Black Panthers. We didn’t really know [the story] because we were 6,000 miles away. We idealized a little.
We idealized here as well.
Good to know. There are a lot of connections particularly people who are into political movements, activists. The general population I am not sure. There are lot of Americans in Paris, probably a lot of Oaklanders.
How do you think Oakland fits into this [film]?
The fact that Oakland has 53 languages, more even then San Francisco. I always thought there was an open mindedness and diversity. That makes it the perfect place to promote this type of film.
Perhaps Oakland has a good perspective on the world’s problems since it has so many problems itself. We are not in an ivory tower looking down.
That is true. And so many filmmakers live in Oakland, filmmakers doing meaningful films, not so many commercial ventures, although there are a few as well.