No one could have predicted the massive popularity of The Intouchables in France, least of all the two of us. As the filmmakers of this tale of friendship, we set out to sketch an optimistic story in a realistic portrait of French society, one that bridges the social and psychological gulf between French nativists and marginalized immigrants, between the upscale neighborhoods of Paris and the city's poor suburbs. The response has been overwhelming. But as we look forward to the film's release in America on May 25, we've been surprised and disappointed by several American critics who have dismissed the lead character of Driss, born of African immigrant parents, played by French actor Omar Sy, as a reductive stereotype.
Why such a claim? And why now, when this hasn't been raised during the film's release in other countries? We understand America's sensitivity to matters of race. But we wonder if Americans who aren't as familiar with France's current social issues might be missing the context of our film.
The Intouchables is based on the true story of a highly unlikely friendship between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a white, quadriplegic millionaire, and Abdel Sellou, a young ex-con of North-African origin, hired to be his live-in caregiver. The two men came from completely different backgrounds but learned to trust each other and develop a life-changing bond through honesty, mutual respect and subversive humor.
For our part, we would never have attempted to bring Philippe's and Abdel's story to the screen without Omar Sy's involvement. Authenticity was paramount to us; and we knew, having worked with Omar several times before, that he and Abdel shared the same background. Abdel lived in the projects; Omar grew up in the projects outside of Paris. Because Omar is black (he's a second-generation African), we changed his character into a Senegal-born African named Driss. In America, this transformation from Arabic to African-American would have far-reaching implications; but in France, such distinctions have little consequence. Light or dark-skinned, North or Sub-Saharan African, immigrants from all parts of the world live in the same neighborhoods and share the same limited options in France's socio-economic system, regardless of their community of origin.
We relied heavily on Omar's life experience as we shaped the role. Omar was our guarantee of authenticity from the clothing down to the subtle local slang. As an actor, he injected his own winning sensibility into Driss while effortlessly capturing Abdel's irreverence, his very personal sense of humor and his ineffable vitality. Abdel was impressed with the result. "There was no filtering involved in the film," he reports. "Everything was out in the open. If anything, I would say that I was even more rough-edged than the young man in the movie."
Our goal was both to make a heartfelt buddy film that would entertain audiences while remaining faithful to Philippe's and Abdel's story, and to treat the subject of the French suburbs and that of the physically disabled in the movies, from which they are at worst absent, and at best made a caricature of. To our surprise the film has inspired an impassioned debate about a massive problem in France: socio-economic inequality between the privileged bourgeoisie and its marginalized neighbors, most of them having immigrant origins. A storm of articles, editorials, interviews and public discussions have dragged the subject into the bright glare of the media spotlight: immigrants and their direct descendants -- from Morocco or Senegal, Algeria or Mali are largely ghettoized in the projects outside of Paris with few opportunities to better their lives.
We are humbled by how the message of our film has resonated with audiences around the world. Rich, poor, disabled, healthy, male, female, young, old, black, white, Arabic -- people from all walks of life have seen the film, often more than once. Even more encouraging is that the film has given millions of people hope that real trust and understanding is possible across ethnic, class and physical ability divides. In today's tense social context, in which people tend to be turned against each-other, it is more important than ever to continue the dialogue about ethnic and socio-economic tensions in France, which is why we are incredibly proud that the film has become an unexpected catalyst for these vital conversations.
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