Hands in the Air (Les mains en l’air), written and directed by Romain Goupil, was first shown at Cannes in 2010, but is only now tentatively finding its way onto screens beyond France. Goupil is, I would say, relatively little known outside of his French homeland and my guess is that quite a few potential viewers will click their way to his IMDb bio to learn a bit more about him. There we can read that he ‘is the most eloquent representative of the spirit of the revolution of May 1968’ and that ‘he has managed to remain faithful to his ideals’. This is a statement that needs, at least, some qualification.
Goupil, born into a family of film workers in 1951, was expelled from secondary school because of his political activities. He was organised in the Trotskyite left during the 1970s. At the same time he worked as an assistant director to Chantal Akerman, Roman Polanski and Jean-Luc Godard. His first feature-length film, the documentary Half a Life (Mourir à 30 ans, 1982), looked back on the activist life of Goupil from his teens up until the suicide, in 1978, of Michel Recanati, a former comrade who had become accused of promoting violence, notably during a protest in 1973 against a meeting of the neo-fascist Ordre nouveau movement (predecessors of today’s Front National).
But after 9/11, Goupil, in fact, took up positions close to the French right, at least on certain issues. He allegedly became a member of the neo-conservative – pro-Bush, pro-Zionist and viciously islamophobic – think tank, Cercle de l’Oratoire. He could be seen on television enthusiastically defending the illegal invasion of Iraq and scoffing at those who, like the UN inspectors, had realised that Saddam’s elusive weapons of mass destruction were nothing but a fictive fig leaf poorly covering naked aggression. Recently he went on record supporting military intervention in Libya.
However, Goupil, who at least sometimes still self-identifies as a man of the left, is also a staunch defender of the rights of ‘illegal’ immigrants. For him this is a fight that typifies his idea of what being on the left means; that we have ‘one world in common, where we live together and protect the weak’. He contrasts this vision to its opposite, the ‘stupid’ ideology of the right. When ‘Sarkozy says: “Let the best person win” this really means: “Let the poorest one die”’.
And it seems to be this latter Goupil, the man of the left, who has made Hands in the Air. The film, which ironically stars Sarkozy’s sister-in-law, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, paints a grim picture of the immigration policy of the president, committed to setting ever-increasing quotas for expulsions with little concern for human realities. This policy has led to a climate of fear, with a series of deadly accidents taking place when people desperately try to escape the immigration police. According to the press release, Goupil was inspired to write the script when he was told of how a friend’s son, adopted from Vietnam, had come home from school one day and asked when he would have to leave France. He had seen so many of his classmates of non-French origins disappear.
The film centres on a small band of friends, school kids of various ages, some French citizens, others not. When one of them, a Chechen girl named Milena, is about to be expulsed, they decide to go into hiding together. With parents and the police searching for them, their story quickly becomes headline news. Other children, all over Europe, follow their example. Yet others demonstrate in their support carrying signs saying ‘We’re all Milena’. This historical reference to Spartacus is later matched by pictures of the children coming out of hiding with their hands in the air (thus the title), juxtaposed with images of police officers in black uniforms, inevitably making us think of Jewish children being rounded up during the occupation.
But for all that, this is not a film about idealised children and corrupt adults. Yes, Goupil does present the world from the perspective of the children – often literally, with the camera placed at the children’s eye-level and adults appearing as talking legs and stomachs. Still, the children are real enough. They fight and tease each other, though they also show an instinctive solidarity in the face of outside threats. The adults, also, are capable of solidarity. French parents hide immigrant kids in their families. Teachers organise a warning system when immigration police approach the school. At times it is almost as if there’s too much love and too much harmony in the relationships between the children and their parents. Even when they argue, love oozes in both directions. But by creating an, at times, idealised vision of family life the film also enhances the emotional impact of the threat they face, much like initial reassuring ‘normality’ magnifies the gradual horrific subversion of life in some of the best horror movies .
Hands in the Air is a film of love and optimism. In a prologue we see the aging Milena in 2067, still in France, apparently living in a comfortable Le Corbusier villa. She remembers the events of her youth in a voice that tells us that the future looks back upon our times with a mix of incredulity and distaste, much like we might think of a pre-democratic era of child labour and Victorian patriarchy, for instance. She cannot recall the name of the president at the time. Such is the significance Goupil’s future gives to the current occupant of the Élysée Palace.
I confess to finding it difficult to piece together in my mind the filmmaker Goupil with the man calling for an invasion of Iraq and associating himself with some of the most unpalatable right-wingers of France. I have no problem understanding the trajectories of people like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Joschka Fischer or Bernard Kouchner. Careerists always blow with the winds of opportunity. But Goupil seems rarely to have made any easy career choices. Integrity seems always to have guided his filmmaking away from the road to fame and money. Could it simply be that, with the left having lost so many battles, its fragmented organisations incapable of making a real impact on the international level, the urge to be on a winning team, to help make some kind of a difference somewhere right now completely overrides critical judgment? Is it a case of bombs embraced out of frustrated love? Whatever is the case, Hands in the Air still makes me glad we have Goupil, the filmmaker, among us.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.