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March 2005
In My Country: An Interview with Juliette Binoche


In My Country: An Interview with Juliette Binoche

By Julian Roman

French actress Juliette Binoche delivers an exceptional performance as Anna Malan, a journalist covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The TRC was established by Bishop Desmond Tutu after the fall of apartheid to heal the wounds between blacks and whites. The TRC was based on the very African principle of Ubuntu, which is basically telling the truth and being absolved of your crimes. This concept is alien to Western ideology, but facilitated the transition of power in South Africa without any bloodshed. It's a remarkable feat and the primary storyline of the film.


Juliette was very emotional during the interview. Her eyes became quite misty and it was evident how personally she took this role. She spoke frankly about her feelings of accepting responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by her race. It's unusual to hear that from anyone, so her words definitely had meaning. Juliette is an amazing actress. She won an Oscar for her role in "The English Patient" and is certain to receive more accolades for her work here.


Did you get to meet Antjie Krog, the writer your character is based on, before you started working on the film?

Juliette Binoche: Yes I did. She was generous enough to take me on a trip for a week and showed me the townships and some different places in the mountains. She's proud of her own country and she wanted to share that, so I would feel the country not from an outside point of view but the landscape and the beauty of it; and also the trauma that happened during the Apartheid.


How did you prepare to play a South African?

Juliette Binoche: First of all the film was postponed 4 years, so I had a year of preparation; which is good because the subject is so big. You don't get too much of it in one month. It takes time. When I started working on the movie, I didn't feel that my character was responsible for what happened during the Apartheid. And at the end of the preparation, I felt like she was responsible and she needed to be responsible. For me, not feeling responsible was a huge arch that I had to go through myself. Being French and being aware that Algeria and France had some problems and I had to go investigate that. I went to Algeria and met people there and apologized. I needed to do that because I felt sorry.


Tell us about your reconciliation activity in Algeria?

Juliette Binoche: I feel in my life that sometimes you want to do something and it happens. I had this friend who was doing a documentary about French perpetrators that were working in the French military during the Algerian war. I went to see this documentary and it was very overwhelming because you can hear the perpetrators and I was just enraged of course. There were some journalists there and I did an interview. A well known director said, "We're going to Algeria next week for the 40th birthday of the freedom of Algeria. Do you want to come?" So we went on this trip. I stayed 3 days. It wasn't comfortable because of the bombing and all that is still very present there. I wanted to put myself in the confrontation of it because when a subject is so contemporary, you have to put it on yourself in order to make it be authentic and involved. For me, I felt as a French woman, I have to face my past demons.


Did you research a lot of films about Apartheid?

Juliette Binoche: I watched a lot of tapes, which was unbearable. There were moments that I couldn't take it anymore. I heard a lot of hearings. And not seeing the faces but hearing the voices, even though it was in different languages you could hear in the voices the human beings and that was overwhelming. And the perpetrators of course, it's like a big question mark, how can a human being go that far? Then you have to go and do some research because it doesn't mean that because you're from this country your evil. Where does it come from? We all have both sides. We're good and we're evil too. It's just a matter of choosing. I had to investigate the history of what it means to be an Afrikaner.


What attracted you to this part?

Juliette Binoche: When I read the script, I didn't know about all this. But I was very touched by the story and the arch. And the need to reconcile with oneself, the unknown. We live with a revengeful way of thinking and being. The concept of Ubuntu was suddenly, wow, it's a tradition that's so deep and it becomes necessary for me to make the movie. So I felt like, why am I an actress? Well it's to say something. I'm privileged enough to be able to choose and go for the subject that I feel is necessary for our way of being. And as a white person I feel responsible in saying what I need to say. I am sorry and we need to live on another scale.


Did you feel a lot of responsibility with this film more than any of your other films?

Juliette Binoche: I think this one particularly. Because when you go and you see in South Africa, you feel like this has to be heard. People have to know about it because it's important.


Has this film has changed you?

Juliette Binoche: It's hard to know how you change. But I know that it really touched me. Suddenly being an actress meant something. It meant a lot to me. I felt like I understand why I do this job. I knew before but there it was more meaningful.


How do you personally feel about giving amnesty to these war criminals?

Juliette Binoche: Well the sad thing is sometimes the perpetrators, I think, would say the truth and they knew they were covered. Most of them didn't feel sorry. And that was the pain of it. That was very painful to see; perpetrators saying they were asked to do that and it was nobody's fault. It was horrible to watch. Do you feel that comparing Apartheid to genocide is valid?

Juliette Binoche: There was a man who was asked to find chemicals in order to kill black people. And he was paid by the politics in order to find a way to create a chemical genocide. He was trying it out on dogs. People came from different countries to work with him and understand what he was doing. So I think underneath there was an idea of genocide. And this man actually was a doctor. During the TRC, he went back to the hospital to work as a doctor. He had trials and trails, but they couldn't put him in jail because there was no proof. It was unbelievable.


What was it like working with director John Boorman?

Juliette Binoche: This project was very close to John's heart. That's one of the reasons why I wanted to make this movie because it was so important to him. He wanted to make this movie for a long time. This one was difficult to find producers to put money in the project. With John, when we started shooting the first week, he would take one take and one angle and I was like, "Oh my god!" I did all this preparation and I can't explore what I have in me! This is not happening! I said to my assistant I give up. He does what he wants and it'll be a shitty movie. I was so disappointed. My assistant said to me that I had to talk to John. You have to take the time and explain that it can't be like this. You have to have more space. So I had dinner with him and I said, "John, I feel miserable on the movie at the moment. You don't allow me to do another take. Just the one angle thing and its horrible." He said, "To me it's your film. I want you to be happy. So we start on Monday and you'll have a second take if you need to." We started like that, but during the whole shoot he was not asking me for another take; so I would ask for it. (Laughs) It feels horrible because you feel like the director wants to pull something out of you and investigate you.


Did your concept of being a journalist change as you took on this role?

Juliette Binoche: Actually I was playing Antjie Krog, who is a poet. You feel responsible for people's consciousness. Because we cant guess if we don't go there and take some time to understand and know. When I read the script it was like knowing 20 percent of it. And when you enter the subject it becomes huge. But the journalist has the responsibility of the link between event and people.


Has South Africa changed in 10 years?

Juliette Binoche: Of course it changed, but not enough. You see townships of millions living in shacks and horrible conditions. And there's no school yet and not enough money.


What's the message you want audiences to come away with from this movie?

Juliette Binoche: You have to have faith. You have to face what's uncomfortable in order to grow and become better.


After doing a movie with such high emotions, how do you come away from it and relax at the end of the day?

Juliette Binoche: I'll tell you in the townships they sing, they dance, they are alive. That's the way they survive the horror. I had my daughter and my sister's daughter and we were dancing and singing because you need to live. You can't stay in the horror. You need to understand the situation, face it, and have the courage to go through it. But you have to live and celebrate life. It was painful enough and you don't want to add more.




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