French Director Robin Campillo Talks ‘Eastern Boys,’ Family and the Immigration Climate in France
How do we define family? Traditionally, we gravitate toward people who are related to us by blood. And yet, as we branch out into the world, we may find kindred spirits in others that we encounter on our life’s journey. The ties that bind us together are often strongest when we have to work to maintain them. As we grow and change as individuals, our relationships with other people regularly take on different forms, influencing who we were, who we are, and who we’ve yet to become.
Moroccan-born director Robin Campillo’s latest film, Eastern Boys, explores the meaning of family while commenting on the plight of immigration in modern day France. Despite a language barrier and a gap in socioeconomic status, older Frenchman Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) and his younger Chechen lover, Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), form a friendship born out of loneliness, fear and excitement. Though it might be considered an unorthodox relationship by some, the duo combats their own issues along with outside forces that try to tear them apart. Eastern Boys is a stunning film about love, acceptance and the people we choose to be a part of our family circle.
GALO recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Campillo to discuss Eastern Boys, relationships and the climate surrounding immigration in France.
GALO: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, I truly enjoyed Eastern Boys. It’s a phenomenal film.
Robin Campillo: Oh, merci. Thank you so much.
GALO: What struck me most about Eastern Boys were the different portrayals of family and community. The gang exists as a family unit, especially for people like the little boys and Marek. And then, of course, Daniel and Marek (aka Rouslan) form their own family. Was the idea for the film born out of a fascination with what family means, be it traditional or non-traditional?
RC: In France, we rarely talk about communities. It’s like a dirty word, so we don’t talk about it. I think in the 1990s there was a community of AIDS activists, which was open to all types of people. Because AIDS had been wreaking havoc on so many different people since the early 1980s, this group became a community that accepted gay people who were rejected by their own family. So when I joined a group like this, which was very inspired by American groups, I thought it was like a new family. That’s a bit far from the film, but I think that’s where it started. I have a feeling that’s why I created the group at the beginning of the film. I imagined that the leader of the group, Boss, was like Peter Pan. He’s a father to the group, but he also uses them.
A guy who is a friend of a friend inspired the film. He’s a French guy who traveled for three months and came back with a son. The young man was 35 years old and the French guy was 60 years old — and he adopted him. From what I understand, they were lovers 10 years before.
GALO: That’s incredible.
RC: The first time I heard about them, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s weird.’ But I didn’t choose this subject to be provocative. I chose the subject to try to understand the bonds between people. I was interested in how bonds are built between people and how these bonds can go through metamorphosis.
GALO: Yes, relationships go through changes — any relationship, whether it’s with your lover, family or friends, goes through periods of change.
RC: Exactly, and perhaps especially with our lovers [chuckles]. It can be a little tricky; sometimes you can be more like companions or friends. The sensual factor is not always there. A thing that the French philosopher Michel Foucault said also inspired me. At the end of the 1970s, there were no partnerships or marriages between gays. At the time, most gay men of Foucault’s age had younger lovers. And a lot of times, it was not just a question of age but also of socioeconomic difference. The older guy might have been a little wealthy, while the younger one was not. So Foucault suggested that gay men could adopt their lovers — that way, they could have inheritance.
GALO: Also, if one of them got sick, for instance, there was nothing the other one could do for their partner in terms of medical decisions because there were no laws in place for their protection.
RC: Exactly, and so I thought maybe that made sense, since there were no official partnerships for gays. But then at the same time, I thought maybe he was also thinking the way a father would. It’s something that struck me, because it’s a kind of familial relationship that you can’t exactly explain.
GALO: Well, the gang’s structure reminded me very much of the communities depicted in the American film Paris Is Burning (1990), and yet the two films are about LGBTQ youth in different places and moments in time. In your opinion, how does Eastern Boys differentiate itself from other LGBTQ feature films like Poland’s Floating Skyscrapers (2013) or Paris is Burning (1990)?
RC: Well, I haven’t seen a huge number of LGBTQ films, especially the American ones. I saw Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange (2014).
GALO: Yes, I know that film well.
RC: I would say it’s very strange because my character Daniel is around 50 years old. He had a lover for many years, and I think maybe they purchased that large apartment together. He’s out of the closet, his friends and family accept him, but I think he reached a point in his life when he’s a bit bored with how things are. So he takes a risk by going to open spaces to try and connect with people he’s extremely attracted to, which feels a little dangerous to him. He puts himself at risk to reinvent his entire life. So, for me, it’s kind of a post-gay film. It’s a film after recognition, after marriage, after all of those things. I wanted to take the cards and mix them [up]. I wanted to find another way of thinking. Maybe it’s also good for me, I want the thrill of living [at] another time.
GALO: There is very little dialogue at the beginning of the film, which I really appreciated. It really gives the audience the opportunity to assess the dynamic of the gang without being told what it is. You were able to really establish a particular sense of space using very wide shots and filming in beautifully lit places. Were there certain films that inspired the look and feel of Eastern Boys?
RC: I was hanging around the train station and I was observing all of these people — not just the guys from Eastern Europe — and you realize you don’t know why they are there. I thought it would be very interesting to start the film without knowing exactly what people were doing or understanding the topic. I was inspired by a German film, People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag, 1930).
GALO: Oh, I don’t think I’ve seen that one.
RC: It’s very famous; you can see it on the Internet. It’s interesting because the director filmed the city as if it were a character. I also wanted to show the gang as if it were a character, as if it was one body.
GALO: Boss (Daniil Vorobyov) obviously had psychopathic tendencies. I was disturbed most by his violent nature, first when he attacks Marek in Daniel’s apartment and then when he hits the hotel worker. However, his ruthlessness is what helps him retain control over the gang. And yet, at the film’s conclusion, I’m left feeling sorry for him. Why did you choose to humanize such a villainous character? Did you feel it was pertinent to show that Boss was psychologically broken or wounded in some way?
RC: I think so, but I also think it was a very risky thing to do in Europe right now, [politically speaking]. The extreme right is very strong in France right now, and I wanted to show a foreigner. However, they think immigrants are at fault for everything. I think left-wing people like myself are always arguing that immigrants are nice people, but in actuality, sometimes they are not. Men like Boss come from very difficult situations. They come from wars; they come from violence; they come from loneliness and no families. I think, of course, Boss has some mental issues; he’s very hurt, very crazy and very dangerous. His dream is to belong to nowhere and he pulls all of these other guys into his dream. That’s why I said he reminds me of Peter Pan, he wants to escape time and aging. What is strange is that when I was thinking of this film, I had some ideas of a character that was very attractive and very dangerous at the same time, which is where Boss came from. You can’t tell if he’s actually dangerous or if he’s just charming.
GALO: That’s why he steals everyone’s papers — he doesn’t want any documentation that grounds them in space and time.
RC: Yes, [and] that’s why he’s so mean to Daniel when he talks about his physical appearance. He tells him, “you eat too much and you don’t exercise.” For Boss, to be sedentary, [it] means that he’s growing old — that’s why he’s so offended by it. It’s something that he wants to escape absolutely, so I think he traps all of these young guys. He wouldn’t hurt Daniel, though, because by blackmailing him to neutralize him, he cannot show any violence against his host. However, he is very violent against his own group because he sees himself as their father, which means he has a right to beat them. But at the end of the film, when he’s in the hotel, he does something that he’s never done before. He hits someone who isn’t in his group, and that was never supposed to happen.