Romain Gavras: venting the rage of youth

Director Roman Gavras' debut feature film is as provocative as his banned pop videos. Kaleem Aftab meets one of film's rising stars
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The Independent Online

It's part of the package that when you hire Romain Gavras, there's a good chance that the end product will fall foul of the censors. Last year, he notoriously directed the video for M.I.A's single "Born Free" – a bloody short that featured military forces rounding up and executing children simply because they had red hair. YouTube soon made the video impossible to find. Two years before that, several French TV stations had boycotted the video he made for "Stress" by the French electro band Justice that featured black and Middle Eastern hoodlums rampaging through the streets of Paris in a nod to the 2005 riots. And in February this year, the Advertising Standards Authority became his latest scourge, banning his promo for the Yves Saint Laurent fragrance Belle D'Opium after complaints that the actress in it, Melanie Thierry, was simulating taking heroin.

"I don't deliberately try to shock my audience. Sometimes I'm going to try to provoke a reaction, I don't deny that. But it's weird that you can see Saddam Hussein getting hanged on YouTube but my video's been banned," he says. "I don't think anything that I do is wrong or shocking. I'm way more shocked by a film like Rob Marshall's Nine, for example – bad taste like that rapes my eyes. So it's a problem of perspective. To me the M.I.A video is really fun. Those shocked by it should turn the news on and see how the real US military kills real people. I guess it's less shocking to the audience when they kill Arabs than when they kill redheaded cute kids."

In typically confrontational style, instead of using his debut feature film Our Day Will Come to move away from these controversies, Gavras has embraced them with a premise straight out of the "Born Free" video and a title borrowed from the IRA. The film features a young lad (Oliver Barthélémy) who is ostracised from his soccer team and mocked because he has red hair. Unfortunately his psychiatrist (Vincent Cassel) is a psychopath and after some rebel-rousing advice the pair decide to fight their way to Ireland, the holy land of redheads.

The plot is enigmatic and threadbare, but the remove from reality is used to deal with some big issues that, Gavras believes, the French authorities are happy to ignore: "The ginger people are just a simple shortcut to show stereotypes," says the director. "I wanted to talk about identity and how it is to be French and a human being – not knowing who you are and having anger."

Like his "Justice" video, the film is inspired by the riots that habitually explode in the French banlieues. "These kids have the reasons to go nuts and create mayhem but in the end they have no precise goal or precise idea about what they are fighting for. In the 1970s they could have just said, 'We want to be Communist'. But now that the battle is between imperialists and terrorists, it's hard for these kids to relate to any side."

The travails and difficulties faced by those on the left was a major theme in the work of his father, Costa Gavras. Like him, Gavras Jr wants to make movies that mix politics with entertaining commercialism but is relaxed about the expectations that come with the family name. "There is not a long shadow," he says. "I'm really proud of my father and my heritage, so it's not something I carry like a burden or carry with total pride."

The 30-year-old director wants to show how the political landscape has changed through his two central characters. "It's about two generations. The generation represented by Vincent is specific to the post-1968 French generation – they had big ideas but it was all for nothing in the end as they didn't make a revolution. The young kids in France now are the complete opposite, we have no ideas but we are ready to go to war."

The internet has been a boon for the filmmaker: whenever his work has been banned his many fans have ensured that it's made available online. At the trendy South by Southwest festival he was feted alongside Spike Jonze as one of the great promo-makers working today. In such esteemed company and with an impressive legion of youthful fans, it's no surprise that the big commercial companies have come calling. Earlier this year he made a $7m short for Adidas featuring David Beckham, Lionel Messi and Katy Perry. The budget was five times that of his feature film and required him to fly around the world to shoot. Beckham, he says, was the consummate professional. He came on set, asked what he needed to do, and then complied with the minimum of fuss. Messi, meanwhile, was slightly harder to crack and terribly shy. Gavras sees it as a victory that he got the world's best footballer to smile.

Gavras splits his time between Paris, LA and East London, where his young daughter lives with his ex-partner. It's a jetset lifestyle that's a long way from the dreams that Gavras and his friend, the director of Dog Pound, Kim Chapiron had when they formed their production company Kourtrajamé in 1996. Vincent Cassel became an unofficial mentor for the group after the youngsters approached him in the street. "We have known each other for a long time," says Gavras. "I've known Kim since we were babies and at first we did everything together. He did the stills photography on my feature film. When someone has a project everyone comes and fits in, in some way."

Our Day Will Come is out this Friday