Interview of Hicham Alaouie, DOP of Le chant des Hommes

This post is also available in: Français (French)

Hichame Alouie is a belgian director of photography and a SBC member, already twice awarded at the Magritte for the quality of his images for Last winter (2011) by John Shank and Horses of God (2012) by Nabil Ayouch (which also received the best photography award at the Tanger Film Festival). He is also known for his work on Vandal (2013) by Hélier Cisterne, Miles from Anywhere (2010) by Pierre Duculot, Young Girls in Black (2009) by Jean-Paul Civeyrac and Private Lessons (2007) by Joachim Lafosse.

I interviewed him for the release of his last film, Le chant des hommes, a drama about illegal immigrants’ desperate quest directed by Bénédicte Liénard and Mary Jimenez, while he is currently shooting Le Bureau des Légendes, a tv serie directed by Eric Rochant and produced by Canal +.

Synopsis : They are Moktar, Najat, Joseph, Gernaz, Duraid, Hayder, Kader, Esma… They fled Syria, Irak, Iran, the Congo, Morocco, Niger… Together, they decided to occupy a church. They will risk their lives to try and obtain legal documents. The countdown starts, along with the battle of wills. Inside, Kader has taken the lead but comes and goes in secret. Esma takes on the task of organising community life. Exhaustion sets in, tensions flare. But the bonds that are created get stronger. Between treasons and friendships, the group will be sorely tested.

Principal cast : Maryam Zaree, Assaâd Bouab, Sam Louwyck and Ahmet Rifat Sungar

Language : French, Arabic, English

During time : 95’

Production companies : Tarantula, JBA Production

 

Could you present yourself and your work in a few words ?

HA : I moved up through the ranks the usual way: I went to the INSAS film school about 20 years ago, followed by being an assistant, doing short films as a dop and so on.

The film is about a very hard subject. Could you tell me what you think of it ?

HA : The two directors have a history doing documentaries. I think they did a radio piece at one point about the occupation of the Béguinage church. They wanted to make a film about the hunger strike of illegal refugees, the tensions and the group dynamics this can cause, the different characters and their manipulations towards each other. Most of the actors are professionals and semi-professionals, but most of them had been through similar situations, so they could feed of this which gave the film a realistic feel.

They’ve spent a lot of time getting the film financed, about five years, because it is such a difficult subject matter in Belgium. As a result the present situation is rather different than what the film talks about, but I think that it still is a rich and important story.

How did you came to work on this project ?

HA : It was the first time I’ve worked with them. Originally I was not supposed to do the film. I knew Mary somewhat, but I had never worked with her. But I had a good relationship with the production company Tarantula. So I suppose this helped. I came onto the film quite late, about two months before the first day of shooting.

For how long and how went the preparation ?

HA : It was quite short. We did not really do any shot listing, but we talked a lot about the method: they wanted the camera to be able to move a lot, but not by using too much handled in order not create too much of documentary feel. They wanted the look to be more clean. So I proposed to work with the JIX, a kin of extensible and retractable arm handled by the cameraman, which allows to shoot in every direction and to move up or down with a small amplitude. It produces a more fluide camera than on shoulder et more mobile than on stand or grip. Nevertheless it a strange tool, not very easy to use and not adapted for each situation.

Most of the film was shot in Luxembourg. We scouted a lot to find the right church. Most of my prep time went into finding a way to shoot there both for day and night, without having to control the sun. All the nights for example had to be shot during the day, so I’ve spent a lot of time getting the location ready for this.

Also I’ve spent some time watching Bénédicte and Marie rehearse with the actors.

Can you tell me about your artistic approach of the project ?

HA : Bénédicte and Marie had a clear idea about how the film should look, they wanted a bleach bypass look which mean almost nothing on a digital format, because it was made during the development of the film. So we shot some tests on location with the actors, which I then took to my color grader, for this movie, Michael Cinquin at Charbon. Out of this we came up with a LUT that we then loaded into the camera trough looks, so we could have an idea on set what we were getting and so that during editing Mary and Bénédicte would already got an idea of the image rendering. The look was very contrasty, with whites mildly clipping and crushed blacks. We desaturated some colours like the skin tones and some mid tones, in order to create a pastel look, but keeping the saturation of the more pure colours like red, green and blue. Afterwards in the final grade we changed this quite a bit, but this gave a starting point for the shoot and the editing.

Any special difficulties that had to be solved for this shoot?

HA : One of the bigger problems I had to prepare for was the difference in skin tones, we had dark skins, arabs, whites..all possible variations were present. And I knew it would be a challenge to light them all together in the same frame, without being able to light for any specific skin tone.

For how long did you shoot ?

HA : We shot for seven weeks, six in the church and one week for exteriors and other locations.

I suppose it wasn’t easy to to find knew axis while shooting on a close set like that ?

HA : Yes, but it was not the goal of the film. What was important was to be with the characters. It was a film shot in close ups. There is very few wide shots in it.

How did the collaboration with Mark Ridemont the art director go ?

HA : Mark did not alter the church a lot. It was an interesting location for its size, we wanted the church to feel crowded, but at the same time we did not have the resources to fill it with two hundred extras every day. Also the church had been lived in, without being rundown.

But on the other hand he had to rearrange it quite a lot. Bénédicte and Marie had a clear idea about what they wanted as they had seen a real church being inhabited by refugees. The goal was to make it into believable space where people live, the men separated from the women, showing the makeshift conditions, the sanitations…

The hardest thing for him was to get to the set in its original condition again every weekend in time for mass.

What kind of camera did you use ? Where did you rent it ? Who was your focus puller ?

HA : I used the Arri Alexa and cooke S4 lenses rented from Eye-lite. My assistant was Juan Sepulchre.

And for the lighting ?

HA : We needed to be able to control the light coming through the large stained windows. They were northerly orientated, so they would not cause much problems for us. Depending on the scene we put up two or three 18k’s on cherry pickers. On the side where the sun hit the building, there were some smaller windows closer to the ground, so we build a tent around them using scaffolding and blacked out the windows while leaving room to put up light source (Arenas) through every stained window.

The key grip, Pascal Charlier, had to find quick solutions, without damaging the church and not too expansive to do the sas on the large stained windows for the interior fake nights.

In the beginning I used a helium balloon in the central aisle. Bénédicte and Marie wanted the light to evolve throughout the piece to become more contrasty. So I used the balloon to more or less compensate this. And mostly I was interested in using it for the nights, they wanted these to be softly lit, almost flat. As we shot the film in chronological order (we had the unique situation to have the actors with us every day ) I had the balloon returned halfway through the shoot as we had done most of the night scenes and I could then afford a third 18k to augment the contrast. The stained windows did not transmit a lot of light, they were way up high and so the lights had to be at a distance. Using the ballon it was fine, but without it, it was more difficult to augment the contrast. But in the end we got more or less what we wanted it to be.

I suppose this kind of equipment is not cheap and requires a lot of electricians ?

HA : Right, I had to negotiate this with the production as it represented a big portion of the budget. But I also made some concessions. I had to do with cherry pickers without the movable arm, which are less expensive. But once one wants to change a light it is a hassle, you have to lower the scissors lift, move the light, lift it again etc. But once it is up there, there is not a lot one can do other than manipulate the fill light a bit,etc. The installation took some time, but we quickly found the right angles that worked for us. I was quite pleased with the freedom it gave us and I was happy with the result.

Who was you gaffer on this project ?

HA : Philippe Lussanier like Pascal Charlier, the key grip, he is from Luxembourg.

For what I could read on the press kit, Bénédicte Liénard and Mary Jimenez didn’t want to be in the subjectivity of one specific character. How did you manage it ?

HA : It was a bit difficult, first there were two principal actors Maryam Zaree and Assaâd Bouab and then there were a lot of supporting actors, and background extras…I used a JIX a lot. It gave us a moving camera that captured the faces in close up. I could move into a crowd and go from one character to the next without having to move them.

How did you work with all these actors ? Did they improvise a lot ?

HA : No, they did a week of rehearsals in Brussels, in a space where they recreated the interior layout of the church a bit. So the improvisations had taken place at that time. On set everything was more less already established.

How did you work with other departments ? For instance with the make-up artist Fabienne Adam or the costume designer Magdalena Labuz ?

HA : With Magdalena we worked a lot in prep to make this beach bypass look. We tested a lot of colours and textures. We used a lot of browns, oranges and some red…

Fabienne had the difficult task to make the actors look believable for the part. Assaâd for example had very white teeth for a refugee, so they had to altered it using make up. But mostly we had to create the physical evolution during the hunger strike. All the actors were put on a tight regime. They had their own craft service. At the same time as the light was evolving into more and more contrast, Fabienne had to make the actors look more and more lean by using make up: deepening and accentuating their wrinkles, etc.

For Maryam, as she was already very thin at the beginning of the shoot, it was the opposite work: at the beginning making her look a bit heavier, by putting little cottons in her cheeks, or using loose clothing, etc.

How did you handle the post production of the film?

HA : I did the grading at Charbon. It was not an easy task. It took us about two weeks to complete. There was a lot to do, but it was really interesting. We had a hard time finding the right approach: we did not want it to look like an effect, but at the same time we wanted it to be bold. One’s eye quickly gets used to desaturation. So one morning after a session we realised that without a doubt we had taken it to far. It came down to working right on the edge.

The collaboration with Michael Cinquin went really smoothly. I was happy with our prep work, his assistance during the shoot and the final grade. It is important, as with digital the look of a film can shift during the grading. And if one prepares, and the directors edit with the LUT, there are no surprises when they come to watch the grade. It was the first time I did a digital film that looks this bold.

What do you think of the results ?

HA : I think the film is successful, quite right to the subject matter and very beautiful. It is a film on a very hard topic, which comes a little late, which is shot in close-ups which can be a bit stuffy , and which can divert a certain type of spectator. But I hope it will find its public, because it has something essential to tell us about the group dynamics, about the characters that drive it, about diversity …

 

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Crew :

Focus puller : Juan Sepulchre

Gaffer : Philippe Lussanier

Key grip : Pascal Charlier

Color grader : Michael Cinquin

 

Technical Material :

Camera : Eye-Lite

Postproduction Lab : Charbon Studio