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Karim Sayad • Director of My English Cousin

"There’s clearly something personal about my films"


- Swiss and Algerian filmmaker Karim Sayad talks to us about his latest work My English Cousin, which is screening in Toronto's TIFF Docs section

Karim Sayad  • Director of My English Cousin

We sat down with Karim Sayad, whose film premiered in the TIFF Docs section of Toronto International Film Festival. He spoke with sincerity about My English Cousin [+see also:
film review
interview: Karim Sayad
film profile
, a work which helped bring him closer to his family and to his own personal history.

Cineuropa: How did the idea for your film come about? How did you and your cousin work together to create the intimate and natural atmosphere that pervades each and every scene of the film?
Karim Sayad: The film came about as a result of everything that’s going on at the moment, migration issues. There are two rather caricatural depictions of migrants circulating in the press and in certain films right now: they’re either baddies who want to invade our lands, or they’re poor people whom we should help.

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Twenty years ago, my brother arrived in England. I used to visit him in London; he was undocumented, a so-called “economic” migrant. Three years ago, when he told me he wanted to return to Algeria to get married, I realised that I’d finally found a dramatic storyline for my film: I could tell the story of an exiled man who wants to come home.

My aim was to offer a different, more complex portrait of a migrant. More than that, in terms of film direction - and contrary to what I’d done in my previous films - I wanted to dig deep into the private lives of characters coming from the same social background. I wanted to explore intimacy for a change, and to film people at home; to feel closer to them. In my mind, family was the only way for me to film such levels of intimacy. So I decided to speak to my cousin, who I’m very close to, and he let me film his mid-life crisis.

In your second film, you examine the notion of "masculinity" once again. In your opinion, is it easy for a man to satisfy modern-day society’s demands, where ever-increasing importance is placed on performance?
This is a really interesting question. My English Cousin is my third film, but I often come back to the same characters; namely Algerian men living in working class areas. I’ve created some kind of trilogy without actually intending to. If I think about it, this is probably a bit of a conscious choice.

What I was actually looking to do was to explore my "negative" side, my "opposite". I was born in Switzerland, and when I was in Algeria with my cousins, I would ask myself: what would I do if I’d been born here? The act of making a film was a way of thinking about all this and acknowledging my privileges. Undoubtedly, I imagine the theme of masculinity does come into it - into this encounter, into this need to take a good look at myself, and at these people who are born on the other side of the sea.

In Algeria, men feel a real sense of pressure from their families; they have to appear strong. Where I live, I’ve often had to contend with the stereotypical image of a young Arab: a bit of a thug, an arsehole when it comes to girls, really misogynist… My films allow me to drill down into this subject, and to show that it’s not in their nature to be arseholes, it’s the socio-economic and political conditions they’re living in that trap them within this narrative. I think there’s often a crossover between gender issues and colonial issues: the view we in the West have of Arab men or women. Films allows us to talk and to debate these issues.

Until now, you’ve always shot films set in Algeria or films focusing on the Algerian people. Is this also a way for you to tell your own personal story?
I wouldn’t have made films if it weren’t for Algeria, and I would never have made films if I’d been born over there. There’s clearly something personal about my films. And, evidently, there’s a personal and social universe in Algeria that fascinates me.

With My English Cousin, I saw through some kind of undertaking which I didn’t even mean to embark upon. This latest film is also a bit of an achievement because I had the courage, the strength and the experience required to take a good look at my family; to make a stand on who I am. Whenever I talk with my cousin, we develop a greater understanding of the bonds that tie us together. I don’t appear very often in the film, but the viewer understands that I wasn’t born in Algeria. I’ve often been asked: why is it that even though you weren’t born in Algeria, you still talk about that country?

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(Translated from French)

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