’Let My People Go!’ :: A Gay Jewish Fairy Tale
Using a vintage color scheme, "Let My People Go!" tells the story Ruben (Nicolas Maury), a French man who goes to Finland to earn a degree in comparative sauna cultures (somebody tell me: is there seriously this specialty?). Once there, he falls in love with a man and remakes his life, taking a job as a mailman. When a mix-up at work leaves him with a huge bunch of cash, his boyfriend Teemu panics and throws him out, sending Ruben back to Paris and his Jewish family. Jokes are milked from Ruben’s awkward interactions with his family members, but with Carmen Maura (best-known for her work with Pedro Almodóvar) playing the Jewish matriarch, it becomes a treat to see how she may help or hinder Ruben and Teemu get back together.
First time director Mikael Buch is French, grew up in Spain and now calls Paris home. For this debut, he sets the characters in an attractive visual palette with bold production design, that gives the feel of a surreal modern fairy tale. Despite its title, the film is light and feels nimble. Jewish and gay stereotypes are played to prime effect. Variety’s Alissa Simon calls this an absurdist comedy that "offers an unholy alliance of camp and farce that both celebrates and mocks gay and Jewish stereotypes. For viewers with a tolerance for this kind of humor, pic reps entertaining festival fodder with natural appeal to two strong niche audiences."
EDGE spoke with director Mikael Buch about the film’s make-believe world, the downbeat nature of many gay films and his somewhat conflicted identity as a filmmaker.
A distinct look
EDGE: "Let My People Go!" is a comedy that deals with how an extraordinary event can wreak havoc in an otherwise ideal life. You have chosen a very distinct look and feel for the movie.
Mikael Buch: The film that I wanted to do is a ’feel good’ movie, the kind of movie you would want to see when you are a little bit blue. You want to feel that the world is a better place. Like all comedies, it talks about our problems but makes it larger than life and like a fairy tale. It may begin in reality but it takes you to another world. The film talks about intimate issues but in an entertaining and hopeful way.
EDGE: What is your approach in making this film?
Mikael Buch: When I make a film, I always try to have fun as a filmmaker, but also to make it fun for the movie goer. The most important thing for me is to make a film that I would like to go and see myself. When we first wrote this film, I wanted to include as many things that give me pleasure in cinema as I could.
Fairy tale treatment
EDGE: This feels like a very personal film to you.
Mikael Buch: It is complicated. It is not an autobiographical film, but I think the identity issues are very personal to me, like the Jewish identity and the gay identity, and also the fact of moving away from the family to find yourself. These are the things which are very personal to me. That was the starting point. After that, it is all about imagination and it becomes a fairy tale.
EDGE: Why this fairy tale treatment?
Mikael Buch: I believe cinema should be larger than life. It should be faster, more colorful. Alfred Hitchcock said before he did not want to do ’slices of life,’ he wanted to do ’slices of cake’ to that extent. I believe cinema should be more like that, more cake than life, tastier, more hopeful, more colorful. That is why the film looks like that. It is like looking at reality through colored glass. That is a better and more lucid way to look at the world.
EDGE: What are the underlying themes you want to explore in the film?
Mikael Buch: The film is about how to re-invent yourself without denying the part of your identity that you did not chose to be. The character Ruben at the beginning of film has left his family and he is trying to re-invent himself and invent a kind of perfect world that correspond to how he wants to live and what he wants to be. In a way, he is initially denying another part of identity he wanted to run away from. Coming back to France, he meets his family again and he meets that part of his identity and he begins to reconcile that part of him with himself. So it is about how you can manage to come to terms different parts of your identity that seem contradictory.
EDGE: Apparently, you must identify with the story.
Mikael Buch: I think that story may be me a few years ago but now, I think I do not ask myself those questions anymore. When I made the film, I was thinking maybe this film can help a young teenager who would be like myself, who would be asking the same questions I was asking myself when I was say, seventeen years old.
EDGE: This world that you have invented is quite some distance away from reality. How did you come up with it?
Mikael Buch: To me, in the movie, Finland is kind of like a cinematic world. Ruben has with Finland the same relationship I have with cinema all my life. When I was a child, I was a lonely child and films are a way for me to run away from reality. I was happy whenever I saw a film. That was my world. I felt like I belonged more in the films than in reality. Ruben feels the same about Finland, like it is an old country that only could exist in cinema.
Gay and Jewish
EDGE: How does homosexuality play out in a typical Jewish family?
Mikael Buch: I do not want to generalize too much because every story is different but in my case, I grow up in a traditional family, not religious but more traditional.
When I was a teenager, I felt like I had to move away from my family and this part of myself, to live my homosexuality, but once I overcame that, I understood that both parts are as important to me and I was maybe denying myself a little bit in the process.
In the U.S., it might be a little easier because you have more role models, people you can see. When I first saw "Torch Song Trilogy" by Harvey Fierstein, a film about a gay Jewish guy who is also a transvestite, it helped me. I saw this guy in the movie re-inventing his identity to what he wants it to be. That is what I set out to do, to help someone who may be asking these questions.
Making the comedy work
EDGE: How did you make farcical scenes work?
Mikael Buch: When you are doing farcical scenes, the most important things are the actors. As long as you have good actors and they know how to play their roles, you just have to give them the freedom to be as wile and extreme that they want to be. I had the luck to work with really great European actors, including Spanish actress Carmen Maura, who is often seen in Pedro Almodóvar’s films. These are really great actors who have a lot of experience and are not afraid of comedy. It is like what they say about the DNA that actors have or not have. For comedy, either they have it or they do not, so I tried to choose actors who have this comedy DNA, so I just need to sit and enjoy the show.
EDGE: Was it difficult to film the farcical sex scenes?
Mikael Buch: It was not, because the actors were really comfortable with that. I think sex scenes can be really difficult if the actors are not comfortable with their bodies and with the crew and the trust with the director. I had a really good team and good actors who trusted me.
The European reception
EDGE: How was this film received in Europe?
Mikael Buch: It was good. I had the luck of making my first film quite young. I was 29 when the film was released in Paris. The film has had good press and attention to it. In Finland, it was screened at the Helsinki Film Festival and it was great. It was one of the best screenings that I have had. It is funny because when we started writing the film, I had never been to Finland, neither had my co-writer. In the beginning, I was anxious about that, but my co-writer told me that was great because we were not writing about the real Finland. We were writing about Finland as the character as how Ruben would have wanted it to be, like an ideal Finland. We did not read Wikipedia and writing about that. We invented this ideal Disney-like country that Ruben would like to live in. When we went there, I was really surprised because I found places and sceneries that matched my imagination. So the reality actually matched my imagination. When the film was finished and we showed it in Finland, the people love it because to them, France is the country of love and in the film it is kind of the reverse. Finland is the country of love, and France is the country with the tradition and family. They were quite amused about that.
EDGE: What is the state of gay cinema in Europe?
Mikael Buch: My impression is that there has been a lot of films that are very sociological films and films about how painful and how difficult it is to be gay. I think my generation does not relate to this way of showing homosexuality all the time and I wanted to do a film that is more joyful about a character that is gay, that you can see from the first image of the film, but being gay is not a problem for him. There are many films that still talk about homosexuality as if it was a problem for the character. That was important to me to show gay characters that everyone can relate to, and being gay is not a problem for him, but accepting another part of himself is. He is happy with his partner and his gay life. It is more his family that he has to make peace with.
A French director?
EDGE: Do you consider yourself part of French cinema now?
Mikael Buch: It is complicated for me because my father is from Argentina, my mother is from Morocco. I spent much of my life in Taipei. I do not feel particularly French although there are many filmmakers that I love. France is a great country to make films because they show great support to filmmaker, especially young filmmakers. As a movie-goer, I have seen movies from a lot of countries, especially American films, I would love to make films in a lot of countries and keep traveling.
EDGE: Do you think it is more difficult to get a gay themed film made?
Mikael Buch: I do not think so. Most people do not have a problem with gay films as long as they do not treat homosexuality as an issue, as long as they dramatize. For this film, yes, it is a gay film, but so what? We are having fun, we do not have to be so serious and gloomy about it every time we talk about sexuality. It is not about homosexuality, it is about sexuality in general. In Europe, every time you see someone having sex in a film, it is like they are going to commit suicide in the scene after that. Even from very open minded directors, there seems like a kind of sadness in sex scenes. I think sexuality should be joyful in life and in films also. In my film, the sex scene can be farcical, it was important to say, okay, sex is also fun.
EDGE: What do you hope the audience to get out of this fairy tale?
Mikael Buch: I hope they have a good time because that is the most important thing, that they laugh. Maybe they will feel even better about themselves, more free to re-invent themselves as they want to be. For me, films have to liberate minds, not to tell them how to live but to give them the courage to find their own solutions. I hope my film can help in that way.
EDGE: Your next project is also a comedy?
Mikael Buch: Yes, but I like a lot of different kinds of films so I hope I will be able to do different kinds of films. Comedy has always been the genre that I relate to but I would love to do a spy film or any kind of film.
"Let My People Go!" is currently on the LGBT film festival circuit. The film will also travel to film festivals in France and Taipei among others in the following months and will be released by Zeitgeist Films in New York and Los Angeles in early 2013.
Watch the trailer to Let My People Go: