‘Even the Muslims are scared, so they must be just as French as everyone else’

As ground-breaking film Le Jeune Imam opens in France, the industry’s rising stars are hoping for a new era of Muslim representation in cinema

Le Jeune Imam courtesy Srab Films
Film still from Le Jeune Imam courtesy of Srab Films

Title your film Le Jeune Imam (The Young Imam) in France and you can expect a sceptical reception. Directed by Kim Chapiron, this new drama comes with an immediate cordite whiff of radicalisation and terrorism — especially for Muslim viewers tired of seeing the same old stereotypes dominate cinematic representations of the religion. They’ve been so wary, Chapiron explains, that it prompted a joke from the film’s Islamic consultant at one early screening: “Even the Muslims are scared, so they must be just as French as everyone else.”

But far from trading in more Islamophobia, Le Jeune Imam is a rarity: a nuanced film that presents the religion’s daily reality in contemporary France, through a compelling and fallible central character. His name is Ali, a charismatic young priest, played by Abdulah Sissoko, who returns from Quranic school in Mali and, wanting to allow his congregation to go on hajj, is drawn into a scam. 

Though not Muslim, Chapiron grew up partly in the eastern Parisian suburbs of Montfermeil, alongside many Muslim Africans, including the film’s writer Ladj Ly, who directed the award-winning 2019 banlieue drama Les Misérables.

After the increasingly toxic discourse in France surrounding Islam following the Bataclan attacks in 2015, fanned by far-right political figures including the likes of Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, Chapiron wanted a reset. “We wanted to address Islam on a human scale, speaking about the immense silent majority of Muslims, who live their faith on a daily basis in a personal, gentle way,” he said, speaking from Paris. The fact that Le Jeune Imam enjoyed the biggest limited-release opening since the pandemic proves that the audience — Muslim and non-Muslim — for such a take is out there. 

The title of Le Jeune Imam was a deliberate choice in a country where the word “imam” is media shorthand for fundamentalist bogeymen on impoverished housing estates. But it was not intended as a provocation, according to Chapiron: “As the first French fictional film taking place in a mosque, we said to ourselves, ‘We have to assume responsibility.’ Our aim was to make the word ‘imam’ commonplace. Why should it have such weight? We wanted to make it as normal as priest or rabbi.” 

That approach seems long overdue, given that France has the highest proportion of Muslims in Europe, accounting for somewhere between 4 and 8% of the population. With a growing cadre of Muslim directors and actors in influential positions — including Omar Sy, Tahar Rahim, Leila Bekhti and Jamel Debbouze — one would expect roles to be opening up that reflect a wider range of French Muslim experience. 

However, not only is that proving slow to happen, the stars in question are often reticent about identifying too strongly with the religion. The hugely popular Sy has refused to directly address Islam’s position in France. “All I can do is say that I am a Muslim. That way I can give you an example of a different kind of Muslim,” he told the French TV channel Canal+ in 2016. It’s understandable that he might not want to pitch in directly given the current polarised climate surrounding the religion where comments can quickly become career-threatening fodder, as Sy recently experienced when he pointed out the lack of attention given to African wars compared with the Ukraine conflict. But France’s secular culture, where official statistics don’t recognise race or religion, inhibits frank discussion of these issues of cultural identity.

The representation of Islam in French cinema is often in the context of the banlieue film, set in the urban housing projects where many of the country’s first-generation African immigrants are housed. In the first wave of these films – which began in 1985 with Le Thé au Harem d’Archimède, directed by the Algerian-born Mehdi Charef, and culminated in 1995’s iconic La Haine – religion is more of a normalised presence in the life of the characters. 

‘I don’t have a problem with what we call cultural appropriation. I don’t believe the banlieue belongs to us, and only we should tell stories about it’

In Charef’s film, set in Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris, a young white boy joins in the salat of his Algerian babysitter. This is presented simply as a social fact, without the politicisation that followed the 11 September attacks of 2001. The western media portrayal of Islam quickly became dominated by hostile stereotypes, overpowering benign perspectives like Charef’s. In a France that has borne the brunt of extremist attacks of the past decade in Europe, and whose public discourse is still inflamed as a result, including such a scene would now seem impossible without some reference – implicit or otherwise – to broader discussions of how culturally compatible the religion is.

Director Rachid Hami points out the distorting effects of the banlieue film cottage industry: “Whenever you get films that conform to the cliches, where the banlieue is violent, savage, exotic, those films are well publicised. As long as the system keeps seeing that as the truth, then we have a problem.” 

His 2022 drama Pour La France dodges those cliches and barely depicts the estates where his family, on whose story it is based, lived. Drawing on the Hami family’s real-life struggle to get the French army to give his younger brother Jallal full honours after he was killed in a hazing ritual, it portrays Muslims as responsible contributors to civic life. In an extended flashback depicting the brothers together in Taiwan, it also unusually shows Arabs as part of the global family of cultures, rather than a problematic minority. In doing so, Hami explains, he was avoiding another false opposition. 

“For years, we’ve seen French culture against Algeria, against immigration, against Islam on screen – but in reality all these things live harmoniously alongside each other,” he says.

Maybe British cinema has been bolder when it comes to Islam. It’s hard to imagine in France the production of “faith films” like the recent controversial Shia historical epic Lady of Heaven, more irreverent works such as this month’s British-Pakistani kung fu comedy Polite Society, or the scabrous satire of Four Lions. Inspired by Riz Ahmed, star of the latter, British academics Sadia Habib and Shaf Choudry created the Riz Test in 2018 to identify prejudiced depictions of Muslims and encourage innovation. 

The floodgates haven’t exactly opened in the UK, but Pour La France is one in just a sporadic drip of films that dare to imagine a more diverse French Islam. Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes, from 2006, lent heavily on Saving Private Ryan, but was groundbreaking in its focus on the discriminatory treatment of the French army’s North African conscripts at the end of the second world war. In Mati Diop’s hallucinatory 2019 film Atlantiques, Islamic mythology becomes a conduit for expressing traumatic taboos surrounding the current migrant flows between Africa and Europe: djinns possess the Senegalese women left behind when their partners die at sea trying to reach the west. 

The half-French, half-Senegalese director speaks of the film as describing her reconciliation with her heritage; “my victory over the western djinn”. 

“People aren’t used to these kinds of stories,” says Hami. “We have immigrant stars from a more popular kind of cinema who make comedies but in arthouse, it’s a minority. I’m battling to see a representation that is more equitable and strong, showing the poorest milieus to middle-class people from immigrant backgrounds.” 

Abdulah Sissoko points out: “To have new stories, you need new people. But cinema is a very closed world. We’re trying to include people who thought it was out of their reach, like I did several years ago.” 

That is part of the mission of Kourtrajmé, the socially driven film collective co-founded by Chapiron in 1994 with four cinema schools in Montfermeil, Marseille, Dakar and the Caribbean. The director says it does not aim specifically to produce Muslim stories, but they may inadvertently happen in the process of nurturing new Francophone voices – also the aim of the 1000 Visages initiative founded by French-Moroccan director Houda Benyamina (Divines).

It’s maybe indicative of the struggle to widen the parameters of representation in France that the biggest Arab Muslim stars of their generation, Saïd Taghmaoui for the 1990s-2000s and Tahar Rahim in the 2010s and 2020s, have ended up working primarily abroad. 

“I got all the offers to play guys from the projects, and turned them all them down,” Rahim told Le Monde in 2021. “Once you’re labelled that way, it narrows the field of possibilities.” 

Leaving Muslim representation on screen behind like this could be, paradoxically, the surest sign of progress in Muslim representation off it. Roschdy Zem is another highly successful actor who has tried to maintain a fluid relationship with his identity, most recently in a brilliant comic turn as an ex-con turned florist in comic-drama L’Innocent. Hami explained it’s a case of claiming the same privilege as other film-makers.

“I don’t have a problem with what we call cultural appropriation. I don’t believe the banlieue belongs to us, and only we should tell stories about it,” he says, citing white, middle-class director Matthieu Kassovitz’s empathy in portraying poor immigrant characters in La Haine. But equally, he expects the same opportunities. “As a film-maker, I want to tell the stories I choose to. What matters ahead of everything is cinema. There shouldn’t be any limits.” 

Chapiron has just made such a leap with Le Jeune Imam. Now more Muslim film-makers and actors must climb into similar positions. Chapiron believes Islam gives access to spiritual qualities that can only enlighten their storytelling, whether or not their work focuses on religion. 

“Sacredness is still very much alive in Islam,” he says, citing a scene from Le Jeune Imam, in which an outraged banlieue-dweller confronts Ali about the hajj trip. “You wouldn’t get that for the Lourdes pilgrimage. It’s not the same stakes for the characters. It’s important to have a good relationship with sacred things. The invisible inspires me enormously, and religion is a way of exploring this.”

Le Jeune Imam is out now in French cinemas.

, , ,

Get the Hyphen weekly

Subscribe to Hyphen’s weekly round-up for insightful reportage, commentary and the latest arts and lifestyle coverage, from across the UK and Europe