Meeting with Rabah Naït Oufella, hero of Laurent Cantet’s new drama, Arthur Rambo. At 29, the actor landed his first lead role on the big screen.
Led by Rabah Naït Oufella, Arthur Rambo follows Karim D., a committed young writer with announced success. Years ago, he posted hate messages on Twitter under the handle Arthur Rambo. His life changes when these posts are unearthed from social networks.
For his first main role in the cinema, Rabah Naït Oufella finds Laurent Cantet, the filmmaker who revealed him in 2008 in the Palme d’Or Between the walls. Since then, the 29-year-old actor has made his way to the heart of French cinema.
Alternating auteur films (Nocturama, Grave, Bande de filles), comedies (Les Affamés, L’Ascension, Patients) or action feature films (Braqueurs), Rabah Naït Oufella has established himself in many different works, making a name for themselves in the industry.
With Arthur Rambo, he acquires a new status, that of headliner. Meeting with this enthusiastic and talented young actor, who risks dynamiting French cinema.
AlloCiné: This is the first time that you have the main role in a feature film. When you read the script, did you have any fears given the subject of the film?
Rabah Nait Oufella : I had started the cinema with Laurent Cantet in 2008 in Between the walls. It was an choral film with lots of students from one class and it went very well. We had workshops, there was no pressure, it was like really being in school. We didn’t know that the film was going to go around the world, and so much the better, I think.
There was zero pressure, it felt like we were in a school workshop rather than on a movie set. We did not know that the work was going to go around the world. And so much the better, I think. Then, I shot in other films, much shorter scores than in Arthur Rambo and I think that allowed me to learn a little already on the ground.
I was never in a hurry to have these first roles in question because I tell myself that a first role is symbolic.
So, in terms of pressure, things are much better because I worked with Laurent Cantet and we toured the world with his film. I tell myself it’s normal. Then, for years, I participated in lots of different films from each other. It was important to me to have a fairly broad spectrum. Proposals for leading roles, I already had some before Arthur Rambo.
I declined because it didn’t appeal to me. There are also films that are not made for funding issues. And I was never in a hurry to have these first roles in question because I tell myself that a first role is symbolic. It’s a bit like a first time in love and I think you have to take your time and enjoy it.
And so, suddenly, it’s great that this first time is again with Laurent Cantet. The story is very beautiful. So that made me happy. And secondly, we could have seen it as a pressure, but I’m in all plans. And I took it more as a challenge. I said to myself that I’ve been doing this for almost fifteen years, that I may have the weapons for it. And now you have to work. And then I was super well surrounded, so that’s fine. It was a lot of challenge, not really pressure.
How did you approach this difficult role of Karim D.?
We manage this with a lot of preparation. We rehearsed three quarters of the scenes several times before shooting. Secondly, we worked a lot with Laurent Cantet because this role is very different from Between the walls. It has nothing to do with his previous films. It’s a fast-paced film.
It’s not totally in the habits of Laurent Cantet, who usually takes more time to leave the scenes a little contemplative or to let the characters live a little. While there, we are really in a race. It’s a film that had to look like social networks, on their speed. So this is something new for me, at least in our experience.
In what state of mind were you at the idea of reuniting with Laurent Cantet?
It was a source of pride to find myself face to face with the man who opened the door to cinema for me. He gave me the weapons to move forward during these years, knowing that everything is a bit thanks to him anyway. I am proud to say to Laurent Cantet: “Look what I did with what you gave me.” This is something that made me very happy.
It was a source of pride to find myself face to face with the man who opened the door to cinema for me.
Social networks are at the center of the film. What is your relationship to them? What is your take on that?
I come from a generation, that of 29, 30 years old. We are a bit the last survivors because we grew up without social networks. When we were little we had a ball. And so, we experienced a little life without networks and life with networks. While the youngest no, the poor. Networks can be great communication tools.
But we still use them daily and we don’t question them that often. And they can be incredibly awesome and they can be incredibly dangerous. It would be good to measure its dangerousness and complexity. Me, as a user, I don’t know if I’m afraid of it, but all I know is that I want to keep my feet on the ground.
The dopamine created by these networks, sometimes without realizing it, forces us to spend three quarters of our time on it without really realizing it. So, it’s a bit like a certain addiction that I’m trying to fight against. I’m not saying you have to. I say that’s my view of things, anyway, and I stick to it.
Social networks can be incredibly brilliant and they can be incredibly dangerous.
And Arthur Rambo precisely, there is a kind of duality between his character on the networks and his real life as a writer, how did you approach this ambiguous character? Do we necessarily have to try to understand it by meeting the person who inspired Arthur, Mehdi Meklat? [Le film est librement inspiré de cette affaire]
I had asked myself the question and I also asked Laurent Cantet, namely did I have to meet Mehdi Meklat to understand the character and model him. The answer was no because we are not making a film about Mehdi Meklat. In reality, we are making a film about this mechanism which is Twitter, where social networks in general, in which it is necessary, in order to have followers and access this light, either to be either very funny, or very strong, very intelligent or provocative .
Which can also be a secret passage to this quest for followers, a faster way, in any case, to access it. And the film really questions this side by going through the sad famous story of Mehdi Meklat. So understand it, I don’t think I needed it. In any case, questioning him, yes. And then the character himself questions himself.
We can see that in the answers he gives to the people he meets during his fall are different. At first, it’s total denial, for him it’s humor, freedom of expression. Then he thinks, maybe I should apologize.
Then, the tweets he may have written come back to him a little in the face. There is even talk of his own family members who made him a bit of a guru and who could have really taken all the atrocities he wrote down to the first degree. The character himself questions himself. I think that the film does not in any case give elements of an answer. The film itself raises questions.
Would you have preferred there to be a bias on the fate of your character? That he be condemned by justice for example?
I learned a little about this Mehdi Meklat affair. I read several papers on what happened to him, what happened, what he could write. That was before the movie. There were several theses, antitheses, the affair was seen under the prism of politics for example, or analyzed in a sociological way. It has also been analyzed by media that can be oriented in one direction or the other.
And then, everyone does a bit of their own analysis which is partial and biased. And with all that, we can get a bit of an idea of the character, but not completely. Understanding this character is something very complex. I think a film could be another pencil stroke to this general drawing which is the Meklat case.
In any case, I don’t think that we can really define a complete opinion on a story that everyone sees a little in their own way. I think it’s a bit of an unanswered question, it’s a bit of a mystery this story. And depending on how we look at this story, we can have several different answers.
Understanding this character is something very complex.
Is all the censorship operated nowadays by social networks something that annoys you?
I am against any form of censorship, I think it is not a solution. The functioning of social networks is a bit of nonsense. I think it’s really random and this criticism can also be made vis-à-vis the media as well as vis-à-vis politics today, for example, freedom of expression.
We know very well that it is not the same for all citizens. There are columnists who can afford to tell atrocities all day long on TV shows, on public service channels and on Twitter and who are now campaigning for the presidency. So censorship is not a solution, it seems to me.
I am against any form of censorship, I think it is not a solution.
And freedom of expression depends on who you speak for. It’s part of the game. It’s like democracy, for example. It is clear that all the countries which discover democracy vote for a tyrant. It happens very often. Democracy is learned over time too. I think that in France, at the level of freedom of expression, it is a project that is not yet fully established.
Freedom of expression means a lot of things, does it mean do we have the right to say everything, do we have the right to shock, to be insulting? I think there is a very fine line between humour, for example, and insults. In any case, some people have more right to hurt than others. That’s the only thing we’re sure of.
Did you know that your character’s shocking tweets were going to be superimposed on the screen? It is an original bias.
I knew it was going to be presented in the form of boxes, but I didn’t know exactly how it was going to be done. When discovering the film, I found that it was a very interesting bias. My reading of the film was somewhat balanced between a certain form of empathy and rejection.
And it shifts a bit every five minutes during the movie. And I think those tweets helped a little bit with the balance of those two feelings that you can find while watching this movie. Maybe if tweets were less shocking after all, why make a fuss about them?
I think there is a very fine line between humour, for example, and insults.
You have a striking scene in the film where the character of Karim’s little brother, Farid, throws all his anger at him. Here you are in silence, listening. How do you manage to play silences well too, when you’re an actor?
I cannot speak for all the actors. In my name, it was one of the most complicated scenes because when the emotion has to go through pure acting, we don’t have a crutch, which is the text.
To help us, on the other hand, the crutch I had during this scene was clearly Bilel Chegrani, the actor who plays the role of the little brother. He gave us an incredible performance that managed to move me and it helped me a lot in the game.
A project in sight after Arthur Rambo?
I’m preparing for a Canal+ series.
THE ARTHUR RAMBO TRAILER