Abdel Bendaher: “I tend to observe a lot and am careful to not be noticed”
Samir Guesmi’s directorial feature debut is described as being a ‘rites of passage’ in which a father and son will slowly grow to know and understand each other when ‘botched robbery’ and the need to satisfy older friends offer no end of conflict. Newcomer Abdel Bendaher plays Ibrahim, a youth hell-bent on finding himself and others at the same time. Here, Abdel Bendaher answers some questions about the role itself, working with director Samir Guesmi and finding his own feet in when dipping his toes into the world of filmmaking.
Abdel, How did you end up being a part of this project?
It was a bit of an eventful Sunday for me and my friends: we went to watch a friend – totally outclassed by older players – play a football match. At half time we dropped our ball near the spot where Samir Guesmi was. I felt he was staring at me. With his motorcycle helmet in hand and big as he is, we thought he was a cop! He introduced himself, and explained he was a director and actor. We didn’t believe him. He had to show us his Wikipedia page with a photo before we took him seriously. Then he asked if he could film us. Weeks went by and Christel Baras, the casting director, contacted me. I did a test with her first, then more casting sessions. I gave myself completely each time, because I felt the pressure mounting and I wanted to believe in this. When I found out I’d got the part I was really happy!
What was your relationship with cinema before this experience?
I only went to the cinema to watch American blockbusters. But with my best friend we often fantasied about making a film about our friendship and the bullshit we used to come up with together. Now I’ve started to watch French cult films, I’m opening myself up to cinema and it fascinates me.
Do you remember your reaction when you read the script of IBRAHIM
I remember feeling it was really alive. I was immersed and I believed in everything I was reading. I quickly identified with Ibrahim, who is a high school student like me. He’s shy and reserved too. It was easy to project myself into this role. I liked the friendship between Ibrahim and Achilles as I much as his relationship with his father and the connection he develops with Louisa.
What did you tell yourself about Ibrahim? The truth?
Nothing! I told myself I was going to play Ibrahim as I am. I understood that’s why I had been chosen, that I should stay as close to who I am in life to play the role of Ibrahim. I just thought he was an unlucky boy, not a victim. He wants to do things right and avoid problems, but his mate Achilles involves him in his bullshit and exerts a big influence on him. I also think he and his father love each other very much, but don’t dare tell each other. Ibrahim is a very observant character… Like me! I tend to observe a lot and am careful to not be noticed. I’m a champion at looking away if someone I’m looking at turns his head towards me. So I had no trouble finding the right attitude for Ibrahim, and Samir helped me a lot too. He guided my gaze, sometimes even during scenes.
How did Samir direct you, in other respects?
He told me to not act, to be natural. The fact that he himself is an actor helped me. During the first weeks we shot the scenes in Ibrahim’s and his father’s apartment. They were complicated scenes, because their relationship is complicated. The first days, Samir didn’t want to talk to me. He had warned me that the beginning of the shoot would be tough, and he piled the pressure on me. That’s how I felt about it anyhow, and it did help me to find the right emotions for the film. At first I concentrated on my character; I was in my corner and repeated the lines to myself, I was hunched up, like Ibrahim. I quickly felt I was the character. Bit by bit I understood this was Samir’s strategy, but I didn’t hold it against him. All the more so since at the end of the first week he came to talk to me and explained why he had talked to me so little at first. Little by little I started to feel more at ease with everyone.
Did you manage to forget the camera?
Only after several days. I got used to it gradually. I also had to get used to the crew, I was a bit overwhelmed by all these people around me. What helped me was being invited to participate in the location scouting. I got to know some technicians and quickly felt accepted. But on set, I was intimidated. It was really intense, and I felt there was no room for mistakes. I didn’t know that films were made like that. I thought you shot in front of a green screen with dialogues written on cards! Those first days were crazy – hallucinated the first few days: no comparison!
How did you find your character physically? Did the wardrobe help… the chapka hat for example?
Yes, even if at the beginning I thought that the shoes I had to wear were lousy! These must have dated from the time of Louis XVI, these trainers! I swear to God! I wore a chapka hat, a coat, had a green bag… At first when we shot the scenes at the high school, with kids around us who hadn’t necessarily understood we were shooting a film, I was a little ashamed in these ugly clothes! But it allowed me to feel like Ibrahim. The chapka hat physically defines his character. He wears it all the time, he’s attached to it. When Ibrahim takes it off the people who look at him feel they are discovering a new face.
Did you see Samir’s short film, C’EST DIMANCHE! before the shoot?
This short film helped me. It doesn’t describe the same father-son relationship but it gave me clues.
How did you work with the other actors?
They were all older than me and had experience on films. They acted like big brothers and sisters to me. They helped me a lot and made me feel at ease, by rehearsing my lines with me between takes, for example.
Were you able to leave this role easily? How did you emerge from this first film experience?
When I went back to school after filming, I was shyer than before, as if Ibrahim had rubbed off on me. But that changed quickly, particularly when I was back with my friends. It’s funny, because at the beginning, I was in a hurry for this shoot to be over with. But at the end, I was sad and wanted to start again as soon as possible. I really want to carry on acting. I know how lucky I was to have met Samir. I’ve always loved the idea of trusting my destiny. Samir arrived at the right time: I had bad grades in third grade, I wasn’t sure which way to head. This film has changed everything for me. I’m like a new person, in a way, thanks to this film. It is also the first step towards the professional world. When I finished the shoot, I was a bit proud of myself, without having become big-headed. Just proud to have taken on a challenge and to have been able to play a part in a beautiful film.
With thanks to the lovely people at Wild Bunch.