Thomas Bidegain is a multiple award-winning screenwriter, perhaps best known for his collaborative work with director Jacques Audiard on films such as A Prophet and Rust and Bone. He had two films at Cannes this year: another collaboration with Audiard, Dheepan, which just picked up the prestigious Palme d'Or Award and rave reviews at the festival, and his own directorial debut, Les Cowboys. I saw the latter at a lunchtime screening in Cannes and there wasn't a single seat left in the theatre. When the credits rolled, the place erupted with cheers, which doesn't happen at every screening you go to.
The film tells the tale of Kelly, a young girl who, we've learned, has left home and run away with her boyfriend, an Arab guy. Her parents discover material in her bedroom suggesting a conversion to Islam, and the film becomes a search for their daughter. The first chunk of the film is set during the 1990s, and her furious cowboy father is all screaming lungs and raging vengeance as he tries to find her. We then move on a generation as her more considerate and understanding brother continues to search for her. John C Reilly stars as an American headhunter who they enlist to help find Kelly.
In the Q&A after the film, Bidegain said that he had essentially created a modern day Western – the film, as the title suggests, is set in a Cowboy community in France – only the traditional role of Indians is replaced with Muslims.
Was Bidegain questioning whether, like the Indians, Muslims are unfairly portrayed as savages and brutes? Was this a film that highlighted racism by employing its tactics within the narrative construct for illustrative purposes? Or simply a movie with racist overtones? It's a deeply engrossing and occasionally brilliant film, but I found it problematic in that it seemed to veer too far into the territory of Islamophobia without enough criticism. I arranged an interview with Bidegain to delve deeper into his controversial debut.
We meet in the blazing midday sun at Cannes and he walks in wearing a suit, a great deal of which he has sweated through getting here on time. Before we start, Bidegain positions the ashtray and his black coffee on the table and lights up the first cigarette of many during our interview.
First, I ask the director about his primary motivations for the film; where did he get the idea? "It was several things," he says, in a thick French accent. "I read about a gang that was in France – the first jihadist group in Roubaix in the north of France. These people converted to Islam, went through Bosnia and came back with guns to spread terror in France for ten days. That's how I learnt about the first jihad, back during the Yugoslavian war."
Bidegain wanted to re-contextualise the jihad narrative against the backdrop of the Western after a friend showed him a book about people who dress up like cowboys in the French countryside. "There was a lot of dancing, horse-riding, things like that," he tells me. "I thought that would be a good setting, because you already had the hats on the people, so then you have a Western."
Bidegain says his method of writing and directing is to inject enough personality to give it weight, but to hide it well enough as to not expose yourself: "If you put things that are very personal in the film, what is important is how you cover it. Film is a machine for revealing yourself. Every time you tell a story you reveal something about yourself, even if you're talking about something happening on Mars or a monster film in Japan. If you do it right – if you really care about what you do – then something will come out of you into that story."
This is how the Western influences came into play. As a child growing up watching Westerns, Bidegain felt more of an affinity for the Indians over the cowboys. "I'm Basque and my big brother, when we were kids, always said to me, 'Look at the Indians and think that they're Basque,' and that's the idea: that you can represent one minority with another," he tells me. "To me, that's something that's interesting."
WATCH: Our Interview with the director of 'Mad Max: Fury Road'
As for personal affiliations with his films, in the instance of Les Cowboys, Bidegain says that having a son the same age of the disappearing daughter was a kind of narrative catalyst. "I had a son that was the age of Kelly when I was writing. You know, one year you're sat watching movies together and then, a year after – bam!" Bidegain clicks his fingers. "Just like that, we don't know anything, we don't know who his friends are, he doesn't want to see films with you, he doesn't want to hang out with you. The only thing you know is whether he has good grades at school. I think that's what the film is about – you can put the Western or the jihad thing away, and it's just, 'What do you do when your kid grows up?'"
So is conversion something to fear? "There are many different ways you can say 'fuck you' to your parents. I think Kelly – in my generation – would have gone to London and taken drugs in some squats, or 20 years before she would have gone to San Francisco and fucked everybody," says Bidegain. "There are always ways [to misbehave], and one way is to change your religion and move to Pakistan – that will do it. The fact is, we don't ever actually know what Kelly did; we don't find out where she's been."
HAVE A LOOK AT THIS, THEN: Photos of the Pisstaker Chancers Trying to Blag Their Way Into Cannes Film Festival
And what of the filmmaking process? Parts of the film were shot in Rajasthan, acting as Pakistan (it is these scenes in which a particularly strong John C Reilly is most on screen). Bidegain describes the experience as strange. "It was very weird, because we shot there in January, and people told us to be very careful because we were near the frontier of Pakistan, an unstable part of the world, and as we were prepping the shoot there the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened at home…. the violence was actually taking place back in France. It was very intense for us; we were all listening to the radio on our phones, and I talked to the crew at that moment and everybody was really shaken. The only thing we could do was represent those people with truth – then you'll understand a little more and there will be less hatred. It's wishful thinking, but that's the only thing we can do as filmmakers – show that world."
The message is still a little murky, as far as I'm concerned, but Bidegain stands his ground: "I think the message that it gives, although I don't know if there is any really, is something about acceptance or reconciliation. The father figure thinks he's a cowboy, and the Arabs are Indians and he will chase them. Later on, his son has opened up to the world. So there's a message of tolerance."
Ultimately, says Bidegain, this is the story of small people who have been thrown into the turmoil of the world and their destiny will change. "Basically, Kelly leaves and it changes the destiny of her family and the community. If you want to see a film about jihad then you will be disappointed, but if you want to see a film about a guy looking for his daughter then you'll get your money's worth."