French director David Oelhoffen adapts Albert Camus’ short story The Guest into a survival story set during the Algerian War, starring Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb.

Despite the setting, the director says “it is not a film about the Algerian War”. The film premiered in Competition in Venice and starts screening in Toronto on Tuesday. Pathe handles international sales.

What attracted you to this particular story?

I wasn’t looking for a subject on the Algerian War. I read Camus’s short story; it’s a beautiful text that moved me a lot and I tried to understand why. And, I understood that my emotion sprang from the difficulty to engage politically in complicated situations. Secondly, I realized that maybe what attracted me to this story were personal things: the fact that my father had briefly been a schoolteacher in Algeria. I will tell you a story: I grew up in the South of France and one day, I found in our letterbox a message addressed to my father that said “Filthy commie, we’ve found you. We are going to kill you”, signed “OS”, the special organization that was opposed to the emancipation of Algeria. I asked my father what that message was about and he told me that he was indeed a schoolteacher in Algeria, that he belonged to the Communist Party, was very close to the Algerian National Liberation Front, and that he was a “suitcase carrier”. And, I wanted to know more but he refused to oblige. Maybe, this film was a way to return to my father, to what he had done or not, and so on.

Why didn’t you provide more historical background?

Because it is not a film about the Algerian War. It is a film that spans three days. It is really the spark of a war that interests me. People submerged in violence are what interested me more than explaining the backstory of the Algerian War. I was only interested in this idea of the first day of the war and the way it influences individuals. It also has to do with the current state of affairs, with modernity and how it plays on someone who has a humanistic discourse. You cannot compare the war in Palestine, in the Middle East and in many places in the world to the one in Algeria in 1954. The reasons are different but then again what these people go through can be more or less similar to what Daru is going through.  I was interested in showing the difficulty of political engagement in a violent and contradictory world. That’s what touches me, what I feel as an individual even if my circumstances are less dramatic. It is difficult to see straight in our world, it’s difficult to be engaged.

Is the Algerian War still a thorny subject in France?

Yes, the Algerian War is not a neutral subject in France. But then again, there was no intention of making controversy, of settling scores with history. It is our history and this is a French film. I observed historical facts as much as I could but always in the hope to go from the local, from Algeria, to the universal. I am sure that at a precise time, we would attain universality by assuming a part of the history as it had been. This is a particular subject in France and I really hope that the way in which I tackle it will avoid useless controversies.

Why is there a fascination with the Western genre, a very American genre?

I don’t know why. The Western is an American genre but I don’t think that I have made an American Western. I didn’t want to make an American Western although there are uncontestable Western elements that are in Camus’s story itself. There is a prisoner to escort, there is a school built for more than one village and all of this gives it a Western aspect. But, I’d say that it is more a brother of the Western as it’s really written in the European history. The kinship that I see with the Western is that behind the Western, there is the myth of the conquest of the West. Here, it’s more the myth of French universalism, the conquest of the world by ideas, colonialism. Then, I am very conscious that as European History is very different from the American one and that the myths are not the same, it doesn’t give the same energy as an American Western that is hinted by the conquest of the West, individualism, violence, the creation of a society by violence. I don’t pretend to bring this energy to the film.

Do you believe in the themes conveyed in this story like for instance that absolute neutrality is unattainable, that you have to do good and that ultimately, in the end, everything comes to making decisions and choices in life?

I hope that the film will not be seen as something that tells us what to do. It is interested in a character that is forced to make choices, that is subtracted to the world precisely in order not to have to make them and then put back in this world. What moves me most in this character is that he tries to do good. It is a film that tells how difficult it is to do good even when we want to do it.

Were you forced to make difficult choices and decisions like Daru?

Yes. I haven’t made that many films but every film was an upheaval for me and every time, I think that I have to see clearly in order to move in a direction that suits me best, that makes me proud and that doesn’t make me feel filthy. So, yes, there are often difficult choices to be made. For instance, there was the choice to shoot in Algeria or in Morocco. I would’ve loved to make this film in Algeria but I preferred to make it in Morocco because the work schedule was too tight and it would’ve been too complicated to shoot in Algeria. It is perhaps not the best example but we have to make many choices, indeed. I would say that like Daru in the film, my way of engaging is making films.

How did Nick Cave come on board for the score?

It was sheer luck that Warren Ellis, Nick Cave’s collaborator, lives in Paris and that one of the producers who is also Australian, Matthew Gledhill, knows Warren Ellis. I was very keen on working with them because I really like their approach to composing scores, namely scores that do not accompany violence or the action of the film, that are not there to support the action but the atmosphere and the characters. They said “yes” to the project and I was very happy to work with them because they have composed a score that really supports and accompanies the development of the relationship of the two characters, more than highlighting violence.