Across the Sea director: Childhood immigrant experience inspires my Cannes comeback

Said Hamich Benlarbi left Morocco for France aged 11 and he's harnessing the emotion of being in exile for his second film to be screened at the festival

As he returns to Cannes, Said Hamich Benlarbi praises Moroccan cinema for 'getting quite important' at international film festivals. Photo: Gabriel Renault
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Arriving at the Cannes Film Festival with his dense, captivating second feature Across the Sea, filmmaker Said Hamich Benlarbi is enjoying a moment of huge satisfaction.

"This is my second feature film and there are very few second features in Cannes," says the French-Moroccan director, who also writes and produces. “A lot of first films, a lot of films that are made by very well-known people, very renowned people, but it’s not that common to have a second film presented.”

Indeed, the journey of crafting a follow-up is often more torturous than making that splashy debut. Presented as a Special Screening in Critics’ Week – the sidebar that, two years ago, screened the Oscar-nominated Aftersun with Paul Mescal – Benlarbi seems elated with the reaction to the film at the screenings on Friday.

“It was very emotional to see how people 'felt' the film very strongly," he adds. "A lot of people were crying.” It’s no surprise there was such an outpouring of emotion as Across the Sea is an ambitious and emotive drama about the immigrant experience.

Set over a decade, it follows Nour (Ayoub Gretaa), a small-time dealer who moves to Marseille, illegally. “I myself was in exile,” says Benlarbi, when he explains what led him to create the character. “I left Morocco when I was 11. I left my friends and my mother to go and live with my father in France.

"So I know this feeling and I wanted to speak about it, to tell a story about it, and I chose to do it in a rather melodramatic way, telling 10 years of the life of a Moroccan immigrant.”

Initially, he didn’t set out to make a film spanning such a lengthy period, but it felt increasingly right. “To me, exile is really about time," he adds. "It’s not only about the moment when you leave your country, or lose your roots, it’s the whole spanning of time.”

It’s why he divides the film into chapters, taking on a “novel-like approach” as well as taking inspiration from Gustav Flaubert’s novel A Sentimental Education, one of his favourite books, he says. The movie melodramas of Douglas Sirk, as well as Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, were also hugely important to him.

Seated in a beachside bar, with the glittering Mediterranean Sea aptly just behind him, Benlarbi was raised in southern France, in the titular city that inspired his 2017 debut Return to Bollene. This time it was the nearby Marseille that drew his attention.

“Marseille is obviously very special for me, but it's also a very special city in France because it’s where a lot of immigrants go, people from Italy, people from Gabor, people from Maghreb," he says. "It is a very mixed city. It is a real melting pot. And it is also for a lot of people who are immigrants, it’s really the heart. Or as we say in French 'the lungs'. And it was important for me to be able to portray how vivid the city is.”

While Return to Bollene deals with a man who returns to France after several years living in Abu Dhabi, his second film is perhaps a deeper exploration of identity. The story spins on Nour befriending a French police officer named Serge (Gregoire Colin) and his wife Noemie (Anna Mouglalis), two people who show him a different way to exist, changing his perspective on life and “enabling” him to move away from the status of a migrant.

Does making the film allow Benlarbi to feel closer to his own roots? Having regularly returned to work in Morocco, he is all too aware of the common feelings towards those who left the country.

“A lot of people, when speaking about exile, would say: 'You’re neither French nor Moroccan,’” he notes. “I’m lucky enough, thanks to what I’ve done professionally but also thanks to the work I've been doing on myself, to nowadays feel entirely French and entirely Moroccan.”

Away from his films, Benlarbi also works as a producer for other Moroccan directors. Last year, he produced Kamal Lazraq’s excellent crime-soaked father-son drama Hounds, which was awarded the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize after it had its premiere at Cannes, and also Deserts by Faouzi Bensaidi, which featured in the festival’s Director’s Fortnight strand.

With fellow Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s Everybody Loves Touda also in Cannes this year, does Benlarbi feel like it’s a special time in Moroccan cinema?

He nods, looking enthused by the question. “For some years now, Moroccan cinema is getting quite important at major festivals,” he says. “We had Sofia Alaoui [with last year's film Animalia] in Sundance and Yasmine Benkiran [with the 2022 film Queens] in Venice. So we’ve had the support of public authorities given to the industry of cinema. We just have to hope that this will continue and this will be a stable support to enable the industry to really develop.”

No question, he’s been instrumental in that.

Updated: May 23, 2024, 10:44 AM