Hafsia Herzi • Director of Good Mother
“In this place where I grew up, great poverty reigns”
- CANNES 2021: The French director discusses her second feature, a neorealist immersion into a Marseille family, unveiled in Un Certain Regard
Revealed in Critics’ Week 2019 with her first feature as director You Deserve a Lover [+see also:
interview: Hafsia Herzi
film profile], Hafsia Herzi (well known as an actress, notably in the works of Abdellatif Kechiche) is back with Good Mother [+see also:
interview: Hafsia Herzi
film profile], her second feature behind the camera which had its world premiere at the 74th Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard.
Cineuropa: Where does the main character of Nora, the Good Mother, come from? Is it from your life? From a blend of several people? Is it the incarnation of a mythical maternal figure?
Hafsia Herzi: It’s fiction, but it does start from my own mother, who was a maid in a high school and who also took care of elderly people. I grew up alone with her and I always had a lot of admiration for her, who would leave very early in the morning and come back late at night, she had two jobs at once. When I got the desire to direct films, I told myself I would write about a brave mother one day. I of course romanticised all that, but I did grow up in the north quarters of Marseille, exactly where I shot the film, and it really is a world I’m familiar with. I was also inspired by my friends’ mothers, who were in the same situation as my mom, and were everyday characters of my youth that I used to call the ghosts of society. I found that they were not represented in cinema and I wanted to talk about maternal love, a mother’s sacrifice, how we can forget ourselves for our children and this loneliness as well.
This everyday courage is contrasted because the mother both loves and suffers her children.
Even if it’s difficult because she’s got a lot to handle, they are still her children and whatever happens, she will never leave, even if she threatens to sometimes. Her children know this perfectly well and that’s why they keep behaving the same way. When we’re teenagers or younger, we don’t think about what our mother or father may feel.
How did you put together this rather large family?
I really like Italian films, so I wanted to draw the portrait of a mother while talking about the poverty that exists in certain neighbourhoods in France, I wanted a big family. I also love having a lot of faces to film. It was very difficult during the writing process because each had to have their own personality, but I really wanted this mother to have a lot of people around her and for the apartment to be a bit of a friendly hostel through which everyone passes: friends, neighbours. I was inspired by people I knew, by what I was able to observe everyday. I wanted a son that was touching but a bit lazy, a grandson whose father is in jail, a daughter, a step-daughter, etc.
Poverty is very present throughout, but you never insist on it: it’s just part of the everyday.
I didn’t want to push it. The images speak for themselves. In this place where I grew up, great poverty reigns: it’s completely abandoned. I didn’t want to show something too sad, I wanted to show that there is love even if it’s difficult, that there are bills that are hard to pay, that money is lacking… It’s their everyday, it’s their life. They certainly don’t live in a big seaside villa, but they are nevertheless happy.
You also tackle the topic of generational gap, in particular when it comes to moral values that are much more flexible amongst young people, up to the limit that leads to prostitution.
In the dialogue, I wanted the girls to explain that this isn’t prostitution in their eyes because they are not aware. What matters is the urgency to make money. On the other side, there is this mother who earns a living honestly. Nowadays, easy money is increasingly more present and I wanted to tell a modern story, but still by injecting a bit of humour. I didn’t want to show anything head-on, but it is a reality. I wanted to show characters as I know them: the young people remain polite, they aren’t villains, simply poor abandoned kids who are unlucky to be there.
It’s also a film about a city.
Yes, Marseille with its Good Mother (the nickname of the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica). This statue on the bell tower of a mother with her child in her arms watches over the city. I wanted to show maternal love in all its facets.
You film in a very close, very physical manner.
I love bodies, the grain of skins, their shine, faces. I don’t like filming characters from afar, except for moments of solitude. I like to be close to feel the emotion. For me, that’s cinema. Maybe I will evolve in that regard in the future, but this approach seemed inseparable from the realism that I wanted to capture. In life, we aren’t always made up, well groomed and primed.
(Translated from French)
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