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BERLINALE 2018 Competition

Cédric Kahn • Director

"The film is all about the rebuilding of social bonds"


- BERLIN 2018: French filmmaker Cédric Kahn talks to us about his new film The Prayer, presented in competition at the 68th Berlin Film Festival

Cédric Kahn  • Director
(© Gerhard Kassner / Berlinale)

Fourteen years after Red Lights, Cédric Kahn has returned to compete in the Berlin Film Festival with his 10th feature film, The Prayer [+see also:
film review
interview: Cédric Kahn
film profile
, an intense film blessed with the presence of breakout talent Anthony Bajon in the role of a young man trying to beat his addiction from within an isolated mountain community, led by former drug addicts who cure themselves through prayer.

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Cineuropa: What drew you to this subject, where the worlds of drug addiction and religious experience come together?
Cédric Kahn: I don’t think I would have made a film about one or other of these subjects. It’s the union of the two that inspires me: the journey of these young people towards faith. At first glance, we assume that drugs and faith are two very different things, but there is actually a lot of crossover. I’d been interested in this story for a very long time. I’d heard about all the different attempts made by religious groups to help drug addicts, and I ended up going to meet these youngsters and it was their personal stories that gave me the idea that there might be a film to be made.

Why did you choose to base the film around one character but to reveal nothing about his life before joining this community?
Precisely because multiple individual stories were central to my vision of the film, which was that one character could also be all the others within the community, that he could embody the stories of all the others. With my co-writers, we realised quite quickly that the less we knew about him, the more anonymous he would be and so the easier it would be for him to represent all of the addicts. Because what’s fascinating is how similar the stories of drug addicts actually are. So, it’s also as if, before even looking at one another or knowing one another, they were already all part of the same story a long time before The Prayer.

There are a lot of ellipses in the film as the storyline covers a period of almost eighteen months. How did you put together the script?
The writing came off the back of some fairly important decisions, such as not knowing anything about the main character, the film starting with Thomas’ arrival in the mountains and then staying with him until his departure, and, as you say, moving forward in time via key moments, over chunks of time, each lasting a day or two, and then jumping forward in time by a few months. It was the different stages of his healing and his recovery, and the way in which he gradually opens himself up to religion that interested me.

What were your intentions in your portrayal of faith and its irrational side?
There’s a real sense of progression between these scenes of sensation, where the focus is more on feelings or internal shifts: at the beginning, Thomas is closed off to the idea of praying; but then we see him becoming more open to communal practices like singing hymns, praying as a group, reading texts together; next, he’s described as a good member of the community, but not entirely sincere, and this is important because, for this community, theirs is also the path of sincerity and truth; and then we see Thomas finding religion, or God. It was essential that these scenes rang true with the character to lend a certain amount of rationality to the film for non-believing or agnostic viewers like myself. But cinema is also a brilliant tool for filming the invisible: we can tell the audience a story, but we can also make the audience feel, and it provided us with great scope for allowing the audience to feel the prayers and to experience the power of song and the feeling of peace that this can produce. The same goes for those times where the main character looks within himself to find his own faith.

What about the choice of a relatively unknown actor for the main role?
That was one of a few decisions made at the very outset of the project. Not only should the main actor not be known, but his companions shouldn’t be too recognisable either. For me, the lead had to be credible, and I also wanted people of different nationalities and social backgrounds in the film. The idea was to be able to tell ourselves a story about every type of face.

Does the microcosm of your film reflect the power of addictions and religion in the wider world today?
It’s true that it could be seen to represent the times we live in, where many people are turning to religion and where drug addiction is one of the many ills of society that huge numbers of people suffer from. But we could also argue that problems of addiction and the need to believe are actually eternal conditions. We can make the connection with modern life and with society’s issues, but I think it goes beyond all of that. It even goes beyond religion, because the film is all about the rebuilding of social bonds, about being able to look each other in the eye and understand one another in our mutual suffering. That is what humanity is all about.

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(Translated from French)

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