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"I was interested in depicting how a public enemy is created"

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François Troukens • Director

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- VENICE 2017: Cineuropa chatted to François Troukens, the co-director of Above the Law, which is being world-premiered at Venice, in the Cinema in the Garden section

François Troukens  • Director
(© La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

François Troukens is a media personality well known to the Belgian public, originally for his past involvement in organised crime (bank robberies, and stretches in and escapes from prison), and later for his testimonies, his ranting and raving, and his role as the host of a legal TV show in Belgium. Above the Law [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: François Troukens
film profile
]
, his first film co-directed with DoP Jean-François Hensgens, recounts the quest for truth undertaken by an old-school gangster who is embroiled in a case far bigger than him, and who must contend with hidden forces that see him as the perfect fall guy. Produced by Versus Production, the film is being world-premiered at Venice, in the Cinema in the Garden section.

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Cineuropa: Who is Frank Valken?
François Troukens:
 He’s an old-school armed robber, played by Olivier Gourmet, with a code of honour. I was really taken with Lino Ventura in Happy New Year by Claude Lelouch, who has this great authoritativeness and who uses the codes of yob rule without being a criminal per se. He doesn’t use violence if it’s not necessary. He’s only interested in money. Yet in the film, people push him to become a killer so that he can prove his innocence and settle scores, whereas he was only dreaming of one last big job so as to be able to disappear off to the other side of the world with his family.

How much of you is there in the character of Frank Valken? 
Lots of things and, at the same time, nothing. Obviously, ever since the writing stage, I drew inspiration from the things around me; I wrote part of the screenplay in prison. I wanted to depict this feeling of oppression, and the shift that Valken senses among all of these young people who play football and listen to rap music. And at the same time, I wanted to portray how hard it is to leave a certain milieu. It’s not as simple as just slamming the door and saying, “That’s it for me,” especially when you’re on the run, which I was for almost eight years. How do you live like that with a family? There’s only one way, to keep on moving, but the further you go, the deeper you sink. It’s a very realistic film, sometimes even verging on documentary. At the same time, I wanted to distance myself from the character, both physically and in terms of his personality. I wrote a character that is quite unlike me. Admittedly, I do come from a background of old-school organised crime, but that’s as far as it goes. 

Is the moral hierarchy between gangsters, the police and the law not as straightforward as it appears?
I really didn’t want to make a film about good and evil; I didn’t want to stigmatise the police and the justice system, and above all I didn’t want to champion gangsterism. Valken is a character in search of the truth in order to save his own skin. He faces up to honest cops who are looking for the same thing, the truth, in the justice system. I wanted the viewer to play the role of a jury member to a certain extent, to also realise that an inquiry can be manipulated. I drew my inspiration from a similar, true story. Right from the moment you confess to being at the crime scene to commit a robbery there, why would you not have committed the crime as well? It’s difficult to prove you had nothing to do with it. While certain characters seek the truth, others seek to steer the inquiry. What I was also interested in was depicting how a public enemy is created – how we can exploit the media and manipulate things when it comes to the prosecution and the police. 

Did you set out to make a mainstream film?
It’s important to make films for the people, not only for film buffs. I draw a lot of inspiration from Melville and Michael Mann, who make blockbusters out of a true story, and who can simultaneously condemn certain things. You need to provide entertainment for the audience, something showy to draw people into the cinema. For me, cinema is primarily about the spectacle.

How would you position the film?
I have the feeling that it’s not something that has ever been done before either in the USA or in France. It’s not an American film, a Danish film or a French film; it’s a Belgian film. It’s authentic and is a way of narrating things from within. It’s a 100% Belgian movie, with a 100% Belgian cast – which we also managed to force on the French co-producers! – where Brussels and Charleroi are filmed as if they were real movie sets, with their rich and unique locations.

(Translated from French)

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