Q&A with 'American Fugitive' filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond
'If there are reactions, quel bonheur. Films much more insulting to the White House get no reaction.'
BRIAN D. JOHNSON | Apr 20, 2006
La Liberté en colère(1994)-- a kind of group therapy session with former leaders of the FLQ -- raised eyebrows. But Lafond's latest work, American Fugitive: The Truth About Hassan, may be his most controversial. It's a compelling and empathetic portrait of a black American, David Belfield(a.k.a. Hassan), who assassinated an Iranian diplomat, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, in 1980. The film, which airs allegations of U.S. complicity in the killing, is Lafond's second Iran documentary. His Salam Iran (2001)featured a cameo by Belfield, who also popped up opposite Afghan Canadian Nelofer Pazira in Kandahar (2001). Lafond has also co-authored a book about the Iranian revolution due out this fall.
By a crackling fire in his vast book-lined office at Rideau Hall, dressed in a crisp black shirt, pinstriped trousers and black suede loafers, Lafond, 61, looks to the manoir born. He's a tall, strapping figure who exudes the effortless charisma of someone who's spent his life plying the jet stream of Big Ideas. The interview, which lasts over two hours, is conducted mostly in French.
Your new film offers an intimate portrait of Hassan, or David Belfield. How did you meet?
During my first trip to Iran, when I was preparing to shoot Salam Iran. Hassan was close to vice-president Mme [Masoumeh] Ebtekar, because they're from the same generation. This part of the reform movement came from the States. When Iran was under the Shah, they were studying in Washington at Howard University.
How did you arrange to film Hassan?
It was impossible to get my crew into Iran. Mme Ebtekar helped a lot. I entered as a special guest, because as a filmmaker it was impossible. I stayed two months. I spend a lot of time with my characters before I start filming. There was just Hassan and my camera. In silence and clandestinity, we were together in his basement home, with just one window above the wall, like a jail.
Did you like the guy?
Like him? I respect him. I respect every character in my films. He has good contact with people -- a very good communicator. And he's completely honest. I can't respect what he did. It's impossible. I would like to know why he did it. What did it mean, and what does it mean to become an assassin?
The Iranian revolution was the most important event in the Islamic world in the '80s, and now we are living with the consequences. Hassan is the first American terrorist within the States who has assassinated someone from a foreign country. This allowed me to tell the story of a black guy from this generation who had been hurt by the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Some people allege in the film that they were murdered by the U.S. government. Do you agree?
I have no power to say if they are right or wrong. I know that studies and articles published recently attempt to confirm that there were assassinations by the state. They talk about orders by the CIA and so on. In my film there are two people who say that, Hassan and Denise Oliver, an anthropologist who used to belong to the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. And to be sure, they aren't the only people saying that in the United States.
But you don't challenge their opinions.
With what power could I challenge them? Their experience is more solid than mine to talk about that. And I'm a filmmaker, someone who treats discourse in an artistic manner and puts it up for debate. It's not up to me to answer the question. I'm not an investigative journalist. I don't want to be a journalist. I'm someone who gives voice to what's being said and challenges it. I'm a spectator working with the same moral offered by Spinoza in the quote at the start of the film: "Neither laugh nor cry, but understand."
Is that what Pierre Trudeau meant with his slogan "reason over passion"?
It's not the same. I'm someone who tries to put the pieces together and construct something that sticks to the dramatic narrative yet develops a philosophical theme.
In the film, Joseph Trento [author of Prelude to Terror] says the U.S. allowed Iran to assassinate one of its old enemies in exchange for opening hostage negotiations. Do you believe that's what happened?
It's obvious that's the case for Trento. And that's the case for [former adviser to President Jimmy Carter] Gary Sick as well, but he doesn't fully share Trento's opinion. Sick is a man of reason who invents nothing. He doesn't go beyond the evidence he has. He said, "Unfortunately I have no smoking gun."
Do you think Trento is at all credible?
I think Trento is like any of these people who are investigative journalists. Part of their inquiry is imagination. It's not a police inquiry, it's not a philosophical inquiry. There are different ways of investigating things. I'm not looking for a guilty party. I'm looking for all the possible viewpoints in order to challenge them. And if you put all the elements together it's quite disturbing. I can't go beyond that. But I have a film that poses some questions. What is a terrorist? What creates a terrorist? What about the fragility of terrorism? How does it become a double-edged sword? The fragility of terrorism means that one can think it's a weapon for one thing and it can be a weapon for another. It can be affected by influences it's oblivious to. Hassan hasn't seen the film, but when he sees it he will find things that he disagrees with. There are various truths in the film. Even Hassan isn't his real name.
Let me play devil's advocate. . .
I have a great deal of affinity with the devil.
You say there's more than one truth, but most viewers will see this as documentary, not philosophy, and come away with a strong impression there was a U.S. government conspiracy to support the assassination of an Iranian diplomat. Is that the impression you want to give?
Yes, it's the impression I had. On the level of impressions, one is not neutral. It's because something bothers you that you make a film. It's because there are things I don't understand and I want to understand.
But Trento's allegation is not corroborated.
Those are his words, not mine. And they are disturbing. Then there's Gary Sick, who doesn't know Trento and takes him for an illusionist. What the film does is to say, there are some disturbing facts, and we should be interested in these troubling facts. American actions in Iran affect us. This Iranian-American relationship is not new. It goes back to the Shah, and the Shah's father. These are very old relations. But there had never been a drop of blood spilled between the two countries. There was only one death -- Mr. Tabatabai, executed by a young black American. And we've glossed over that too quickly. This was someone from a good family -- his brother was a policeman -- and they were completely torn apart by what happened.
Do you find Hassan sympathetic?
Sympathetic is not the issue. Authentic is what matters. I've always said that I can film a bastard if he's authentically a bastard. On the human level, Hassan is not a bastard. On the ethical level, he's an assassin, now classified as a terrorist by the FBI. I cannot have sympathy for an assassin. But I can have empathy. Hassan went further with me than with anyone else because it was an empathetic connection. I can find that he has human qualities. How do we understand these people who don't seem completely insane and who have become assassins? I'm not trying to justify them, I'm trying to understand them. Hassan is quite distant in time. This is an American who assassinates someone in the United States, not just for the Islamic revolution but against the America that has repressed his condition as a black man. And he has a completely coherent justification. That's what's disturbing. If he was a weirdo, a madman, it would reassure me.
He seems quite intelligent.
Very intelligent. And he has an unrelenting awareness of what's going on. He's in constant contact with the world. That's what's interesting. Here's a terrorist who isn't one anymore. He's extremely useful in understanding what's happening, because he has understood this thing up to a certain point, he's experienced it, and let's be honest, he's also been the victim. When Trento says, "When he shot Tabatabai, he shot himself," that's true. Hassan is a dead man. Very intelligent, bright and lucid, but a dead man.
I've seen five or six of your films now and you seem to be obsessed by revolutions that have been abandoned, betrayed, or corrupted. Why do you keep coming back to this?
In the 20th century, quite distant revolutions have had a strong presence on the intellectual level, and as myth -- the Russian revolution, the Cuban revolution, the Iranian revolution. And then there was the youth revolution. In May '68 I was a young professor, and that "revolution" was the only one that I lived through. I saw it close up.
Were you in it, or just watching it?
It's like war. You can't just watch. Your students are in the street, they're asking you what it means, and it's difficult to find meaning in blood or in action. Action means your car burning, your class being occupied. There were great moments of intense dialogue and these events led me to try to understand later, with cinema, what happened in other cases -- the failure of the Russian revolution, of the Cuban revolution, of the Iranian revolution. Every revolution that is carried out against oppression seems to me to be justified, morally. But it may not be in the way that it takes place, or in the way that it turns out. The betrayal of revolution begins quickly.
In May '68 were you observer or activist?
As a professor, you were an actor, not an activist. Just like the cops were actors. The only things I had at that time were intellectual tools that were supposed to help me make sense of it, while I became aware of the limits of those tools. I was a philosopher, a student of [structuralist legend] Michel Foucault and Michel Serre. One thing I learned from these masters of thought was to doubt.
So you managed not to get involved?
I asked questions. I didn't retreat. I put myself inside it, the same way that I filmed in Haiti from the inside, and filmed the FLQ from the inside -- not in the FLQ but representing it from within.
Now you're not just a filmmaker. You're at Rideau Hall. Do you expect this film to be controversial because of your new role?
If so, that would be a mistake by those creating the controversy. The only controversy I've known of that nature, around my wife's nomination, was a misunderstanding. They quoted my films out of context. My work is to contribute to the consciousness of the country, and it's the same work whether I'm making films or in Rideau Hall.
But if there was controversy about your possible separatist sympathies years ago. . .
To make a film about AIDS is not the same as having AIDS. To approach those condemned to death, or to visit a prison, or to meet former members of the FLQ, I'm collaborating in history, as an observer. On the other hand, empathy is basic to my work. In Quebec there's before October 1970, and after October 1970. This is the question posed by La Liberté en colère. How can you kill a man who symbolically represents nothing of what you're killing him for? Usually revolutions choose highly symbolic targets. In the case of M [Pierre] Laporte, it's an aberration.
That controversy has passed. But your new film suggests America practises state terrorism, and that Hassan's crime seems minor next to those committed by the Bush government.
Anybody who is able to read reads that every day in the newspapers. It's not new. I'm doing my job. My job is to question.
Will there be reactions from the White House?
If there are reactions, quel bonheur. People make films that are much more insulting to the White House without any reaction.
But these films don't come from the Governor General's husband.
That's a media issue that's of no interest. I wasn't the husband of the Governor General when I made the film, first of all. And I remain a free man. I hope there is a debate about the film. I'm not free to insult people, but I'm not insulting anyone.
The U.S. government may feel insulted.
If we compare it to the films of Mr. [Michael] Moore, there are not a lot of insults. Mr. Bush is not ridiculed. I haven't twisted the truth.
You've selected the truth.
I've built a model, like Einstein built E=mc2. It represents reality, but it's not reality.
Journalism tries to represent reality.
Good luck. Reality is nothing.
Don't you find there's an irony that someone who has devoted much of his career to making films about resistance to state power should now be so intimately identified with the state?
But not with the power. It's a good position. This situation could be the object of another film.
Tell me about your family background.
I was born on Aug. 18, 1944, when Paris was liberated -- beneath the bombs. My father was absent, a prisoner of war. He worked at Dunlop, a tire factory. He had to start all over from nothing at 39. They had nothing left. They had no house. My father was someone who, in the French sense, had socialist ideas, who believed in the world through work, and all that would lead somewhere. He worked like a dog, and the day of his retirement he died, as if there was nothing left to do. My mother survived with Alzheimer's, the living dead. When I was in Cannes I went to visit her. She opened the door. She said, "Bonjour Monsieur." She didn't recognize me."
Why did you move from France to Quebec?
The first visit was in 1974 as guest professor of philosophy. During the '70s in France, I was a film critic as well, like you, but nothing was urging me to stay there. It's like a love story, there's 15 per cent that's rational and 85 per cent that's irrational.
You fell in love with Quebec?
Yes, and with Canada too. I left France on unpaid leave, and finally became a Canadian citizen in 1980. In France I'd made experimental films. But in Quebec I began to make real cinema.
How did you meet Michaëlle Jean?
I met Michaëlle in '89. I didn't know her. I'd seen her on television. I was looking into the relation of Quebec identity to black history and met her two or three times. When I finished La Manière Nègre, I was about to prepare Tropique Nord and I said, "Listen, I'm going to Haiti, would you like to join me as a researcher?" We went as researchers and we never left each other. It's as simple as that. We ended up postponing the film because of our love affair. I made it in '92. It was a film that asked what would be the fate of a black child in Quebec -- a child we would have [adopted daughter Marie-Eden].
Tropique Nord was greatly talked about and debated in Quebec. I was attacked by separatists, the way they're attacking [playwright Michel] Tremblay. Because I talked about the history of slavery in Quebec. They said slavery was gentler in Quebec than elsewhere. How could it be gentler? It's like torture. Torture is torture. Slavery is slavery.
What are your own politics?
I'm a profound humanist, a profound, virulent and permanent humanist. I fight for the humanization of humanity. I've never been a member of a party. On the other hand, I'm extremely aware of what's happening politically, and I follow everything that happens. I devour the newspapers.
Finally, I have to ask how you got the rights to Devils & Dust, the Bruce Springsteen song that you put at the end of American Fugitive?
From Springsteen himself. He had to agree to it. Charles Papasoff, who composed the original score, knew Springsteen's crew. It was very strange. I was on the road in Washington and heard this song for the first time. I said, "That's the song. That's the end of the film." We didn't have a lot of money. We sent the film to Springsteen's people. Now that I have time, I'd like to contact Springsteen.
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