Contending with feelings of isolation and loss of community in a realist manner is a vital experience for many people, especially those young adults who feel lost without hope in their ever-changing life circumstances. That’s certainly true for up-and-coming actor Alseni Bathily’s character of the adolescent Youri in the new drama, ‘Gagarine.’
The protagonist is a residents of the movie’s titular housing project of Cité Gagarine, which was built in real-life in the early 1960s to provide a utopia for the community of Ivry-sur-Seine, France. But over time, the apartment complex was stigmatized and eventually demolished in 2019, which in the movie led to the demise of Youri’s childhood dreams.
Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh made their feature film directorial debuts on ‘Gagarine,’ after they co-wrote the project’s script with Benjamin Charbit. The feature is based on the filmmakers’ 2015 short film of the same name, which they co-scribed and helmed together after plans for the housing project’s demolition were first announced in 2014.
The feature is now playing in select theaters across the U.S., courtesy of Cohen Media Group, after it was chosen to screen in the 2020 Cannes International Film Festival, last year’s Lincoln Center’s Rendez Vous with French Cinema and this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival. The project’s American theatrical release also comes after it was honored with this year’s Lumière Award for Best First Film in France.
‘Gagarine’ showcases how the eponymous Cité Gagarine housing project represented the hopes and dreams of a brighter future when it was built on the outskirts of Paris in the early 1960s. Fast forward nearly 60 years, and the landmark development – by then home to dozens of immigrant families – was been designated for demolition.
Teenager Youri has lived his whole life in the tight-knit community of Gagarine, even being named after Yuri Gagarin, the famed Russian cosmonaut who inaugurated it in 1963. From the heights of his apartment, the science wiz dreams of becoming an astronaut. But when plans to demolish his home are leaked, Youri joins the resistance, and embarks on a mission to save Gagarine, resolved to keep both the building and its community alive. Working tirelessly with best friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and Diana (Lyna Khoudri), a mechanically-minded Roma girl he has a crush on, Youri ingeniously transforms the housing project into his own starship before it disappears into space forever.
Liatard and Trouilh generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing and directing ‘Gagarine’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmakers mentioned that they were inspired to make a narrative feature about Gagarine after it was announced the titular community would be demolished because they wanted to tell a story about the area’s youth and their dreams, as well as the overall strength, of the inhabitants. The filmmakers also mentioned that they appreciated having a cast that featured up-and-coming and professional actors, who were all able to connect with and showcase their characters’ emotions and motivations.
ShockYa (SY): Along with Benjamin Charbit, you wrote the script for the new drama, ‘Gagarine,’ together. What inspired you to pen the screenplay for the film together? What was the process like of scribing the script together?
Jérémy Trouilh (JT): To introduce ourselves, Fanny and I are a duo of co-writers and co-directors, and we do everything together. We also actually studied political science – and not cinema – together.
We then began making films together with a short film in 2015 named ‘Gagarine,’ whose story is about a young man who looked at his building as if it were a spaceship, in the city of Gagarine. We then began to make other films because of this place.
In 2015, architects also began thinking about starting the demolition of this place. So they asked us to go there to make documentary portraits of the inhabitants…We discovered this huge red brick block…and that over six decades, so many families had built a community there, and now it was going to disappear.
From the very start, we thought, let’s not make a documentary; let’s try to make a fictional narrative story that would talk about the youth and their dreams, as well as the strength of the community.
Fanny Liatard (FL): Jérémy and I began to work together, without dividing the work. So we spent three years writing the script together.
One thing that’s common to us is that in our political science studies, we specialized in urban planning. So as filmmakers, we want to make things that blend (urban planning and narrative storytelling) well together. We wanted to take a political approach to the project because in France, and I’m sure it’s quite similar in the States, when we represent the social project territories around France, it’s always talking about violence and drug trafficking.
So when we arrived in Gagarine and other territories, this was a project that we knew. Of course, there are so many young people who have other stories to tell, but it was important to us to tell a story about Gagarine. We also wanted to talk about space, in order to bring a little magic to this very realistic context.
SY: Besides writing the screenplay, you both also made your feature film directorial debuts on the project. How did penning the script influence the way you approached helming the movie? How would you describe your overall directorial style throughout the production?
JT: Specifically for (the feature version of) ‘Gagarine,’ what was amazing was that we were able to work with the same team that we worked with on the short film. Overall, we made three short films (including the ‘Gagarine’ short), and during that process, we learned how to direct.
The DoPs (Directors of Photography), first directing assistant, editor and so many people who we worked with over all those years came back for the shoot of (the) ‘Gagarine’ (feature). It was not only a team of experienced professionals, but also many inhabitants of the city. There were hundreds of former inhabitants who accepted (positions) on the cast. There were also many young people behind the camera who were interested in cinema work.
So we saw ourselves as a team on a spaceship who took a trip together for two months during the summer of 2019. We were lucky enough to be able to shoot in the actual building in Gagarine just before it was actually demolished. We were actually roommates with the demolition team.
It was great because we were able to be inside the inhabitants’ actual apartments. They left many details of their past lives, like photographs on the wall and furniture, which we used for the shoot.
FL: There were challenges on the set, however, because we had to find a balance between the two genres of the film. One thing that helped us a lot on the set was to keep in mind that we were watching this story through Youri’s eyes.
He’s a dreamer, so we had this idea that we would start the film in a very realistic situation, of a young guy living in a project, but he dreams about going into outer space, and has space posters in his room. But little by little, his imagination begins to spread. So it was important to us to make it progressive.
It was important to keep this vision in mind, so little by little, the magical part of the space element of the film keeps growing. So his imagination keeps growing the space, little by little.
SY: ‘Gagarine’ stars Alseni Bathily, Jamil McCraven and Lyna Khoudri. What was the casting process like for the drama?
JT: The casting process was one of the funnest parts of the process. It’s the time when your script is ready, and you’re finally going to look for the people who will give shape to the characters you had in your mind during the years of writing (the screenplay).
For Youri, it was a six month process to find (Bathily). He surprised us because in our minds, as writers, we were projecting someone who looked more teenage-looking somehow. Alseni was already very manly looking, but at the same time, he also had a sense of childhood in his look and pureness in his smile. That duality that he brought to the character was something that we didn’t think about through the writing process, but that was very beautiful.
Next to him, you have Jamil, and it was his first time as an actor. He’s a natural-born actor, and we wish him a beautiful career, which he deserves.
We were lucky to also work with some more experienced actors, like Lyna Khoudri, who was in (the 2019 drama,) ‘Papicha.’ She also worked with Wes Anderson on his last movie (‘The French Dispatch’).
She’s quite exceptional, and has been working as an actress for 10 years now. She’s so generous and involved in each of her roles, and shared so much with us and the rest of the crew.
It was beautiful to work with all of the actors. We went with all of them to a house by the sea for one week before the shoot, so that we could all bond together. Each one of them became involved in the community where we were shooting because they felt responsible for the image that represents the collective of the story, and took that responsibility seriously.
SY: Speaking of working with all of the actors on developing their characters, what was the rehearsal process like during the production?
FL: We took some time to prepare the actors because, as Jérémy said, for Alseni Bathily, who played the main role, it was his first time acting. So we took the time to explain how a shoot works, including where his steps were, and how weird it can be to begin (the shoot) by filming the ending.
He also had an acting coach, who really trained him to push his feelings very far. He also lived with her during his preparation, in order to learn to express feelings he may not have ever had in his real life. We were in quite a hurry on the set, so that really helped us.
The casting process was also almost like a rehearsal because the casting had a lot of steps. We also took a weekend with all of the main actors and went to the North of France and really worked on the dialogue together. We had written everything and tried all of the dialogue with the actors, and then rewrote some of the scenes again, taking their own language into consideration. That way, we could be ready and fast on the set.
It was also important to know everyone, as the actors were all different; some were professionals, and some didn’t have any experience. So we had to learn how to talk to each of them with our own language.
SY: The film was shot on location in the titular city of Gagarine. What was the experience like of shooting the movie on location?
JT: The main location was the actual Gagarine building. When we arrived there in 2015, it was full of inhabitants in 400 apartments. Then, little by little, the place was emptied. So it was a race against the clock during the writing process because we definitely wanted to shoot in the building. But we didn’t know if we would be on time before its demolition.
So we were lucky to shoot in the total empty building just before it was demolished. We shot the film between July and September 2019. On the 31st of August, they began demolishing it.
This was the main place where we shot the film, and it was very emotional because we were shooting in a place that was full of memories. One thing we tried to do was capture those memories.
We also shot in a twin building that was built a little bit before Gagarine with better materials, which means that it won’t be demolished. So that building was full of inhabitants, which allowed us to shoot the scenes of the beginning of the movie when there were still a lot of inhabitants in Gagarine.
It was important for us that the cast and crew were able to get to know this place and the people who lived there. There were many beautiful connections between the crew and the people around the community. That’s something that we like to develop while shooting our films.
SY: ‘Gagarine’ was chosen to screen in the 2020 Cannes International Film Festival, last year’s Lincoln Center’s Rendez Vous with French Cinema and this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival. What was the experience like of bringing the drama to the festivals?
FL: It started with a wonderful selection in Cannes in 2020, and we were so happy. But then we learned that the festival wouldn’t be held in person that year because of COVID. So it was sad because we were thinking of bringing all the inhabitants who starred in ‘Gagarine’ to the red carpet in Cannes.
So we had to instead wait for a screening we set up close to the actual building, because there’s a small cinema there. It was really amazing because everyone in the theater was involved in the production. It was a very emotional and beautiful moment.
With the Cannes selection, we also had the chance to travel with the film to many countries, including the U.S. and Japan. It’s also been released in several countries, including Japan, Italy and Spain, and we’re so proud of that. We had the chance to go to Italy and Switzerland, and meet the audiences there.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t go to the U.S. for the release. But we were in New York for three months (a couple of months ago), so we were able to have some exchanges with audiences there. We feel very lucky to see that the film is traveling, and meeting some people who may be touched by this very local French story.
SY: ‘Gagarine’ is now playing in select theaters across the U.S., courtesy of Cohen Media Group. What does ti meant to you that the movie being seen by American audiences in theaters?
JT: It’s amazing. We feel so lucky that people all around the world are able to see ‘Gagarine’ on a big screen together with an audience. The theatrical experience for us is very unique. I think we’re now showing in more than 40 countries, which is unbelievable.
It’s also very emotional because when the movie’s shown in other countries, we feel like the community of Gagarine is represented. The story we’re telling has something quite universal, including the sense of community and youth that doesn’t feel represented by global society when adolescens have dreams and views to propose to the rest of society. We feel everyone should really listen to them. If we can share that with people around the world, that would be amazing.