Speaking of the Other Europe: Interview with Justine Lenter

By Forest Purnell '13

On Sunday, April 21st I had a chance to sit down in North Bennington’s Powers Café with Justine Lenter ’13 to get an inside look a film project she has been working on for almost a year. The 40-minute feature, titled T’Charek, was a collaboration between Lenter, co-directors & producers from Paris and a cast of actors from France and Algeria. Its world premier is set to take place on May 18th at 7PM in Tishman Auditorium. The project is Lenter’s advanced work in Film and French.

Forest Purnell: First of all just what is the film.

Justine Lenter: The film is called T’charek, which is the name of an Algerian pastry. You can find it anywhere, but in Algeria is the shape of the moon. And in French it's called cornes de gazelle, which are the horns of a type of cow. And we called it this because it's a metaphor throughout the whole film. I came up with the idea because one day in Paris there was a big issue with people talking about halal food and how bad it was and how the government wanted to stop it. So you would see people criticizing it, even though no one was forcing them to buy it. And then you would see these people going to kebabs and eating the food there, and that's halal. And I was like, this is strange, you're saying how horrible it is, and then you're eating it!

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What's interesting about food, it's one of the only things—people can criticize culture, people can criticize religion, people can criticize politics but they'll still eat each other’s foods. So then I came up with the idea of a young girl named Lucy—who just entered college, who is 18 years old who is from a background of comfortable, high-class bourgeois lifestyle in the 16th arrondissement, with her rich friends; you know, not worried about anything else except her Prada purse and so on. One day she has to work with this girl, who people point her out as being like a girl form the "Bronx" area of Paris with Arabic features. She has to do a project with her and everyone tells her to watch out that she won't hurt you or steal your purse, etc… One day, she bumps into a man drinking coffee and she literally bumps into his cup, which falls down and breaks. The man is so calm, so nice, invites her to drink a coffee and not pay for it. And he just takes life lightly. And he leaves a box of cookies when he leaves. She doesn't know what to do, so she takes the box of cookies thinking oh maybe I can come back and give it to him later on. And throughout the day she bumps into the Arabic girl who treats her differently, she bumps into her mother and learns she has a past living in Algeria before the war. She comes back to see the guy if he's in the café and by chance he's there and she asks what these cookies are and he opens up her eyes to a whole different perspective of the philosophy of food and how it can change people and how food makes people happy and connect. Because she's 18 she's trying to get her voice, her own opinion, because she doesn't have one she's very naive. And of course she's going to be affected by everyone else. But because of her curiosity, with these cookies she starts to have her own opinion in life.

I won't tell the end of course. But it's basically about a young girl trying to find her voice.

FP: So usually a film like this will involve lots of collaboration. Who did you work with?

JL: So I have worked with this young director who was finishing up her Masters at the Sorbonne in Paris, and I asked her if I could work with her because I had already done several short films with her and we just work very well. We collaborated in co-writing and co-directing it together, and we did that for four months while I was in America and she was in France. I also had some connections with some people who we knew—actors. And basically I got in touch with the acting schools, two really famous acting schools in Paris, to find young people. We needed people who looked 18 years old. So my actors all come from acting schools. I also have several actors who come from Algeria.

Everyone plays their own culture, and they brought in something, a viewpoint of their own culture. I let people add in things, with accents and some words. We created a whole team. I had two assistants, two sound recorders, my co-director of course who I wrote the script with, and we also had a producer. And all of them have work in companies and so on in Paris. The filming took six weeks. We did it during field work term in Paris during last winter.

FP: How much background research did you need to do?

JL: It took me three months. I contacted professors from Middlebury College, who were professors in France and Algeria. When writing the script I contacted all of them to make sure that all my characters were respecting the religious and political viewpoint, that they were not being one-sided and they were not making mistakes in saying certain things. I knew very well that I didn't know how to write like someone who is a 30 year old Algerian man or the accents and so on. So I worked with a team of actors who were from Algeria who I met two years ago because I did a sketch with them in French, in a Francophone festival at Middlebury College. I had a lot of people who helped me, and surprisingly there were a lot of people who wanted to participate because they also thought this situation had to be brought to American attention. Not many Americans seem to be aware of this issue. Or if they are, they see it in a very light kind of way. Because basically, they don't know…

I’ll give you an example—in France right now there's a big racial issue with people whose backgrounds or descendants or grandparents or even have Arabic traits. Imagine you have this boy whose great great grandparents were from Algeria. The boy was born in France, speaks perfect French, got his P.H.D., wants to be a professor, but because of his last name he will not be looked at or be even given a chance—even if he has the qualifications. And this happens every day. And all of France, and especially the art world, talks about these issues in music, movies and books. It has become the most popular theme.

It's because it's our generation, our age, that's questioning this, because we grew up with them and we're like, well we don't see anything wrong with them. But it's because of our parents, our grandparents, who are controlling the political and the education system still. They don't want people to have an equal chance somehow. I came up with this idea for the film because when I studied abroad with an American program in Paris, a lot of the Americans looked at them and didn't understand what was going on. When you see things going on with terrorism, Iraq, people mix up all of these countries and they think that North Africa is like the Middle East when there's actually a really big different.

FP: The classic film series last term screened Battle of Algiers and La Haine. Do want about your work in relationship to those?

JL: Those movies present a one-sided view, that's the only difference I see. They present a one-sided view, and they want to—La Haine represents the outskirts of Paris. And Battle of Algiers is like how did they do it to become an independent country. They are both movies you have to know to understand the situation. But I focused more on movies that represent the situation but in a positive manner. Because if you're presenting a violent or kind of forceful, one-sided thing, not everyone will appreciate it. For example, Battle of Algiers was forbidden in France for years. That's just because it was one-sided; it’s not fair because people should be allowed to know the truth. I looked at 50 movies in total to prepare for this film. I saw 30 movies from Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, and other North African countries. How the stories from Algeria connect to France or vice versa, how actors from both sides work together, how it's accepted in Algeria and how it's accepted in France. I realized that the only story that is accepted universally is when you have a relationship between in a younger person and a mentor, not a love story, not a war, no "political" things, but an individual person growing into his or her own ideas.

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FP: I've heard a lot of frustration at Bennington about students having to conduct major projects outside the structure and support of the institution. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about that. Is this your senior project?

JL: It is. It's funny; I was supposed to write a really long French thesis on [Serge] Gainsbourg, but when I presented it to the French professors they said they actually expected something more creative out of me. When I asked if I could do a movie, they said I needed the approval of the film professor, and I had never taken a film course. This was of course in my senior year, first term. So I changed all of my courses and took mostly film courses.

Because of my personal work I had done outside of school related to film, it was possible for me to take 4000-levels right from the start. I'm not going to say it was easy. But when you want something so badly, you'll do all you have to. You'll do your best. And I know what I did is absurd, a lot of people said it was absurd. When I showed the scenario, a lot of people were not for it... I told my Plan meeting it would be twenty minutes. (It's not twenty minutes; this film is forty minutes.) And they still thought at that time I was doing too much. They said most people do 5-10 minutes maximum. But I said no one's stopping me. You know, now, look, I put together the scenario in three months, and now I filmed it. I'm not gonna lie, I don't sleep much. I'm probably going to pay for it in two months, but my purpose is to present this to the community at Bennington. And you don't want to present something half-way.

Malia Guyer-Stevens