Who doesn’t love a good war film? You get the gunfire, the existential crises, the invisible enemy who’s actually Allah…yes, this isn’t your typical fighter flick. Clément Cogitore’s Neither Heaven Nor Earth is a film that takes French fighters in Afghanistan and turns them inside out, representing them as more men of inner distress and turmoil than soldiers, beginning with his protagonist, Antares.
I just saw your movie yesterday and it was actually pretty fascinating to watch, given that the overall way things are right now, especially in France. I actually have a couple of questions about things like that, not just the movie. So I wanted to ask first of all- your main character is an unreliable narrator, that is, his mind isn’t necessarily reliable, so what was your main decision in making your protagonist like that?
CC: I wanted to have a main character when you don’t really know where he’s coming from, what he’s really thinking, and what his psychological background is. You’re facing a guy who has problems, and he’s trying to solve his problems. And the way he’s trying to solve his problems will give you a lot of information about who he is. And I like this way of discovering a character without any backstory, any exposition.
Yes, and in fact one of the only characters who we get any exposition about is William, who of course disappears. What was your decision there, and why do you think Antares makes that email and decides to openly contact his girlfriend
CC: I think Antares decides to write one day to this woman because he needs to put words to what happened, and he can’t really do it for himself, so with this woman he found a way to express, to create and give a narration of what is happening, just putting words on something that you don’t understand, trying to connect to that with words. It’s the origin of fiction, in a way.
So the girlfriend is sort of like a vessel for him to articulate what’s going on.
CC: Also, of course it’s a lie.
He’s not William.
CC: Something he’s putting on for himself, a guy who’s not here anymore. So the origin of fiction is also lying.
Yes. I also wanted to ask you, because the movie reminds me of found footage horror movies, like Paranormal Activity or the Blair Witch Project, so I wanted to know how much of that thriller or horror movie feel did you actually want to come through in the movie?
CC: Actually, I was not really… of course I saw these films, a long time ago when I was a teenager- of course I wanted to have this connection with this showing, of creating film, but the main goal was to create film with something completely invisible, without form. Something that happens, and you have to face it.
Kind of like Shakespeare. Everything happens offstage.
CC: Exactly. You’re close to it, but you never face up directly to it. So that was my idea for how to shoot that, and of course there is not really a war film like Paranormal Activity.
Of course. Now, this year especially, France is facing all sorts of trials and tribulations that are connected in some part to a clash between sort of the Western Christian and Eastern Muslim ideals. How do you think your movie plays a part in the narrative? I know that they’re in Afghanistan, fighting against the Taliban. And of course that has little to do with current Middle Eastern conflicts, but especially since France is being attacked by a number of extremists, how do you think that plays into it?
CC: I think my film is quite far from that. I think my film is about a kind of war that doesn’t exist anymore. Because in my film, there is the question of an enemy who is really far, a landscape that we don’t know, and we fight in this landscape that is really far from our country, and the way of fighting is the twentieth century. But this kind of war France and the US are facing now is that the enemy is anybody anywhere. Anywhere, you know? And so the last attacks in France were committed by people who were ISIS but were completely French or living in France, so this is completely different. And this cannot even be that they are fighters, because they are fighters for nothing, in a way. The police were able to find out that they were, how do you say, they were crazy, they had psychological problems. So it’s like a war with madness of people from the inside, you know? Not really players from a far out area. It’s not a war in a really far country with foreign fighters in the mountains, you know. It’s here, on our ground, and from people who could be our neighbors or living in the same city. So it’s not that.
Honestly, so it’s just a sad coincidence.
CC: When the film was released in France, the connection when I was writing the script was that the first line was Afghanistan, 2014. We were in 2011, I think. The end of 2014 was the date for the French army to leave Afghanistan. So when I was writing, it was like anticipation. And when the film began in France, it was a few months after 2014, so the French army had just left Afghanistan.
So that actually did come to pass.
CC: Yes, so that was the connection with a complimentary event. There were no more soldiers in Afghanistan.
So did you make this deliberate choice to have it be in a foreign land? So that when Antares had this existential crisis, he would that much more isolated?
CC: Yes, in a way when you are just telling a story with people who are just isolated. It can be ten, twenty, people alone and whatever psychological, metaphysical problems they have become ours. In a way, these twenty people become a metaphor for humanity. But I have also made some other projects with isolated people. I am working on a documentary project about two families living in a completely vast and removed place. And it’s really the same situation but in a real way because they are real characters, not just on a script with official characters. It’s with twenty people, boys, girls, fathers, wives, you have a small humanity. And then you can face all the civilization or the huge questions that humanity’s facing. It’s the strength of a group, isolated.
The film is now playing!