An interview with Suite Française director Saul Dibb

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One thing that struck me with Suite Française was how much of a sweeping, epic feel it had to it all. Were there any particular films that you would refer to, or inspired you, while making the film?

I don’t think there was anything in particular, really; I guess the biggest inspiration, the obvious one, was the book [by Irène Némirovsky] – the fact that it was written at the time, and it didn’t have this benefit of hindsight which a lot of films about war seem to have. There was an immediacy to it. And I suppose more than anything, I was trying to capture that – but in terms of the set pieces, it was all about shooting the film, telling the story from the character’s point of view. So in terms of films, it’s really the films that put characters at the heart of the action, and allow there to be an immediacy to build around it without it being too choreographed in a way. People like Paul Greengrass, I think he does all of that stuff the best of all.

Was it really important to you that you kept close to the novel while making the film?

Well, what’s really important is to keep close to the spirit of the novel. The sense of the things she was writing about. The difficult, obviously, is she [Némirovsky] meant to write five parts to this novel; she only wrote two. And these two parts don’t relate to each other. So the fundamental question [was] which part to base most of the film around, and I chose the second part, as it has such a great sense of place and it had all of these characters within it, that seemed to have a stronger journey in a sense than the first one. So I think, you know, we stayed very, very true to that but also to the bigger themes, really. I think she was writing about class, and how this occupation affected class divisions between people, but she was also writing without the benefit of hindsight. So she wrote very much from a humanist point of view. She was at pains, I guess, to create a portrait of people under pressure, and that also extended to the German soldiers who she famously never referred to as Nazis or any of that kind of stuff in the book. They were a picture of the German regiment, who were forced to be on their best behaviour.

So it’s quite forward-thinking really.

Look, it’s amazing that somebody was able to write with such generosity about a regime that eventually killed her, and was doing so many terrible things to her adopted country, and all the other countries around it and – in particular – the Jewish people. But yes, even now it seems almost radical to almost try and create a nuanced picture of a German soldier without falling into either the cliche of the ‘bad’ Nazi or the ‘good’ Nazi.

Most of the film is from a female perspective. Was that something inherent in the book as well, or did you bring it out a bit more?

Well, I think it is inherent – it’s definitely inherent in the book. But it’s inherent to the situation. Most of the people who were there, it’s more from a civilian’s point of view, and over two millions soldiers, French soldiers, had been taken by the German army, or either at war or taken. So I think by default it’s largely about the women who are left behind; in terms of male figures, there are boys, or there are older men. There are very few men of fighting age who were around. So I think, yeah, the situation created it – but I also think Némirovsky wanted to explore what it was like to experience war from a woman’s point of view. And because she was writing, you know, it was a fiction, but it was hovering very closely over the facts of what she saw, she was writing in a coveted way about her own experience, too.

When you were first putting the film together, was there a moment, or a breakthrough that made you think that this film could be something really special?

Well, you know, it’s really the book for me. Feeling that this sort of picture of war that I hadn’t seen; I’m very used – and I think most people are – to seeing war as a male experience, and I think this was about understanding what it’s like to live in a kind of advanced Western civilisation that’s under occupation. It’s something that we’ve not experienced in this country [the UK], although obviously we came very close. So I suppose it had a very storied experience to tell that I hadn’t seen before.

Concerning your own career, as far as I can tell, you had a TV short documentary as your directorial debut.

It’s not, actually – I think that’s just what IMDb has. I mean, it’s been 10 years I’ve been making documentaries, before my first feature film. But I’d made a series of documentaries for Channel 4 and the BBC that tended to be about, in lots of ways, the kind of undervalued contemporary life. And then went into making feature films with Bullet Boy [2004]. But I had a decade of making documentaries before that.

Obviously, you’ve had a lot of experience in making documentary features, and so has your father [Mike Dibb] – so when you first broke into narrative fiction features, do you think that they offer something that documentaries don’t, and vice-versa?

Err, yeah – obviously, they do different things. I suppose the thing for me was that the areas of life that I was documenting which were things like the criminal world or the world of Islamic extremism, you come to the point where you can no longer do this in facts. These were observational films. And it becomes impossible to kind of represent those films truthfully in a documentary form. You just can’t get into them. So it was an obvious kind of transition to start exploring things in terms of fiction, where you can still maybe explore the same themes, but you have much more freedom to fictionsalise, and pick it up, and explore it that way.

Do you feel it’s more freeing this way? Would you go back to making documentaries?

Yeah, absolutely I would. I think they just… it’s just a different kind of exercise. I definitely would; there are some brilliant documentaries that have been made. I saw The Jinx recently, which is a HBO documentary series, and it’s phenomenal – you know, documentaries can do things that fiction can’t, and because the world of television and film is changing so rapidly, the possibilities of making interesting documentaries at that level are greater now than they were when I was making them. But yeah, to me, it’s just about making a film that you find interesting, and stays true to your picture of the world.

You say that documentaries are doing things that they haven’t really being doing before. What do you think has changed for them?

For instance, The Jinx is an extraordinary documentary that was made over time, it’s going out on a platform where they reach a kind of global audience. Documentaries, like most television now, they’re able to have their own artistic vision but they can translate that to a greater audience of like-minded people and through all of these different platforms that have opened up.

Do you think film might be headed the same way with all these different platforms?

Obviously, there’s a kind of barrier between film and television in the sense that breaking down the people who make films and make television, and that television is now made in a bold or often more bold way than film used to be, so certainly the landscape’s changing all the time. It’s probably healthier now than it’s been for a long, long time.

Suite Française is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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